Many in the Western media are still describing Al-Assad as “a secular leader.” Some, who want to be fairer, refer to the Syrian leader as “the secular dictator.” Indeed, even in the Arab media, the Al-Assad regime is also defined as a secular regime, while the Islamist media and scholars often use the argument that Al-Assad is secular to justify their fight against the regime.

Historically, the Al-Baath party, which has ruled Syria since 1963, has long been regarded as a secular party. During the Cold War, Syria together with Egypt, Algeria, and Yemen allied with the Soviet Union, a communist state, and put itself in the secular resistance camp. This reputation was only reinforced after Syria crushed Muslim Brotherhood dissent in the 1980s and sought to curb the spread of Islamist Jihadist groups in the 1990s, setting itself up as a frontline state in the defence against Islamism. In July 2010, the CS Monitor, for example, noted that“For this reason, securing secular strongholds, such as Syria, is imperative not only for the peoples of the region, but also to the national interests of the US, Europe, and all major powers,[i] while the Economist, reported in June 2018 that “Even today many Sunnis prefer Mr Assad’s secular rule to that of Islamist rebels.[ii] For those in the West, in the post-9/11 period, by casting Islamism as the principle threat or “enemy,” anyone who claims to be fighting against Islamist terror is therefore deemed to be “secular and good.”

While the mainstream Arab media rarely discussed the issue of secularism in the last century, with news outlets, such as Aljazeera, only touching on the issue since 2000, in the Arab street, the common idea among Arab people is that Arab regimes, such as those in Syria, Iraq (prior to 2003), Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Tunisia are in fact secular. The main driver of this idea is the propaganda of the Islamist groups themselves. By denouncing Arab rulers as secular, and linking secularism with atheism and anti-Islam, this has helped Islamist groups to discredit both Arab dictatorships and the rising democratic opposition.

What is a Secular state?

While it is not necessary to go into a deep academic or theoretical discussion, a common understanding of secularism is important. In general, a secular state is one that is neutral regarding religion, it neither supports or opposes religion, and  treats all citizens equally, regardless of their religious affiliation. This means that the legal system, the judiciary, the constitution, the rights and duties of the citizen, as well as the opportunities available in the state are all independent of religious identity.

In practice, secularism exists on a continuum and may vary between the French laïcité system, which can be characterized as having a deep opposition to the involvement of religion in public life, and the American system, which could be thought of as a moderate secular system.

Al-Baath view of secularism

The Al-Baath party came to power in Iraq and Syria in 1963. Although Ba’athist rule came to an end in Iraq in 2003 following the fall of Saddam Hussein, in Syria, Ba’athism still exists. In much of the party’s early literature, the role of secularism was never made clear. Despite the fact that Michel Aflaq, one of the co-founders of Al-Baath party in the 1940s wrote about secularism, and claimed to have supported it, there was no definition as to what secularism actually meant. In his own extensive work, Aflaq merely stated that he viewed secularism differently from the western type, and that secularism, in his view, did not stand against religion.[iii] The constitution of the Al-Baath party in Syria and Iraq failed to mention secularism in any way, and did not object to the role of religion in the state. Instead, the main focus of the Al-Baath party was on its founding principles of Arab nationalism/unity, socialism, and freedom, which equated to freedom from Western colonialism and imperialism, rather than individual or personal freedom, as it is generally understood in the West.

In practice, in both the military dictatorships established in Syria and Iraq, it is hard to define either of them as secular. The main reason why Syria came to be seen  as a secular state was in large part because of its protracted conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the 1980s. However, the Baath party’s fight to gain absolute power also brought it into conflict with other leftist and nationalist parties.  

What did Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad say about secularism?

Secularism was only mentioned a few times by Hafez Al-Assad who did not seem to have a full grasp of its meaning. In an interview with a Yugoslav newspaper on April 2 1971 the Syrian leader stated that “The Palestinian resistance proposed the idea of a secular state in Palestine combining the Arabs and Jews, we in Syria didn’t settle on such a solution …, and the history of the region witnesses the co-existence among all religions.[iv] The second time secularism was mentioned by Hafez Al-Assad was in the context of the Lebanese conflict. Secularism, for him, entailed a system in Lebanon where all the religious sects had equal rights.[v] On October 28, 1991, a CNN reporter asked the president about Saddam Hussein, comparing both regimes as Arab national and secular, but the question was largely  ignored, and Al-Assad failed to comment on the comparison or the issue of secularism[vi].

Secularism has been referred to more by Bashar Al-Assad, but only in the period after 2011, in the wake of the Syrian uprising. In an effort to win support for the regime, Bashar cast the regime as the only alternative to radical Islamism, and claimed to support a notion of secularism that all religious sects should be treated equally before the law.[vii]

Secularism, the Syrian constitution, and law

Article 3 of the 1973 Syrian constitution, approved under Hafez Al-Assad, states that: “The religion of the President of the Republic is Islam; Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation,” and that “The State shall respect all religions, and ensure the freedom to perform all the rituals that do not prejudice public order. The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected.” This was reaffirmed by Bashar in the 2012 constitution. Paradoxically, Article 3 means that while the constitution claims to respect all religions, no other religion has the equal right to nominate a president or to be a “source of legislation.”

In terms of legislation, throughout much of the Arab world, under the “personal status law,” all matters related to person’s status, such as families, marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody of children, etc., are governed by the laws of the different religious communities.[viii] This affords little protection for minorities and different religious sects. Thus, for example, under Syrian law, only four religious groups are recognized, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and the Druze. This provides no legal protection for Buddhists, Hindus, atheists or any other religious group outside the Abrahamic faith. Further, under the personal status law, only one source of legislation is seen to apply to all Muslims, the Sunni Hanafi ‘Maddhab,’ or school. This means that all other Muslim sects, the Shia, Alawites, Ismailis, and other Sunni schools are forced to follow Hanafi jurisdiction, irrespective of their own personal beliefs, negating the principle of equality under the law.

Like many other Arab countries, where laws have not been updated, or where there is no specific law to cover a new issue, Syria still draws on legislation written at the time of the Ottoman occupation. This has happened in a number of cases.[ix] In one such case, for example, when parents from different religions disagreed on the custody of their children, the Syrian family court referred to legislation dating back to the 19th century Ottoman empire (article 381 of the so-called Mohamad Kadri book) to award custody to the parent who was considered to be from “the nobler religion,” defined as Islam. Under Syrian law then, Islam is regarded as the “noblest” of all religions.[x]

In an attempt to update the law in 2007, Bashar Al-Assad formed a committee to review Syria’s personal status law,[xi] which completed its work two years later in 2009. The committee failed to remove many of the laws which contradict human rights and the equality of religions. Thus, for example:

  1. Articles 639 and 640 allow a Christian man to marry more than one woman, although the constitution declares that Christians should follow Church law.
  2. Article 38 uses the word “Dhimmi,”[xii] an Islamic term with negative connotations that relegates Christians and Jews under the Islamic state as second class citizens.
  3. Article 630 declares that in a case where a man or a woman deny that they are married, if the man is a Muslim, then the marriage would not be recognized, but if the woman is a Christian, then the marriage would be recognized and approved (according to Sharia law).[xiii]
  4. Regarding the previous example, there would be no case where the man is a Christian and the woman is a Muslim, because the Syrian law prohibits Muslim women from marrying men from a different faith, although, it is possible, under Sharia law, for a  Muslim man to marry any woman, regardless of their religion.
  5. Syrian law allows the police to punish any person caught drinking or eating publicly during the holy month of Ramadan.[xiv]
  6. A woman’s right to inheritance remains limited, as sons still inherit twice as much as daughters when the parent/parents die (according to Sharia law).
  7. Polygamy still remains legal in Syria (according to Sharia law ).[xv]
  8. Civil marriages are still not recognized in Syria.

The Syrian regime and secularism

The Syrian regime focuses on the status of two communities to support its claim that the regime is secular, namely the status of women and the protection of minorities.

The status of women in Syria should not be compared with the extremes of Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Afghanistan where the treatment of women is extremely alarming. A fairer comparison would be with Syria’s natural neighbors, countries like Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq (before 2003). Compared to these states, the status of women in Syria is relatively developed, in large part because of the structure of Syrian society. For example, in Syria, women won the right to vote in 1949, before Switzerland, and before Al-Baath party came to power. Syrian society has traditionally been more open than many other countries in the region because of its geographical location, at the center of  trade, where ideas and traditions interacted over thousands of years.

The Syrian people consist of about 40 different religious sects and about 10 different ethnicities. Previously, these groups co-existed peacefully without experiencing the kind of religious wars or ethnic conflict seen historically in Europe, America, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and elsewhere. Of course, Syria witnessed wars among different empires, and in its more recent history, there were clashes among religious sects. But these were largely limited, and different religious groups were, for the most part, tolerated. Indeed, Faris al-Khury, one of the founders of the Syrian state, who held the post of Prime Minister in 1944, and 1954,  and President of the Syrian republic in 1949, was himself a Christian.

When Hafez Al-Assad came to power, the regime failed to protect both  the minority and  majority community, and only sought to preserve its own position in power. In order  to do so, and perpetuate its rule, the regime concentrated its efforts on the security. While this guaranteed that Syria had one of the lowest crime rates in the region, the regime allowed corruption to flourish.[xvi] Every region in the country had corrupt officials, and the spoils of the Syrian state were divided equally among the Syrian elite.

Under Bashar, because the media has tended to focus on confronting ISIS and radical Islam, few question the fact that it was the regime, which has controlled all aspects of the Syrian state with an iron grip for the over 40 years, that actually allowed these extremists  forces to emerge.

Al-Assad regime and the Islamism Jihadists

Thus, for example, in March 2003, with the US invasion of Iraq, Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaru, the Grand Mufti of Syria, and a close friend of Bashar and his father, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for Jihad against the American “occupation.”[xvii] The Syrian security forces, or mukhabarat, subsequently received, facilitated, trained, and sent Jihadists to Iraq,[xviii]who later formed the nucleus of the Islamic State of Iraq, and ISIS in 2013.

In 2011, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria, also a close friend of Bashar Al-Assad, threatened to send suicide martyrs to Europe,[xix] and issued a fatwa in 2013 calling for Jihad in Syria, and urging all Arabs and Muslims to defend the Al-Assad regime.[xx]

Since 2012, the Iranian supported Shia Jihadist militias have been fighting to defend Al-Assad,[xxi] and even the Russian army used the Russian church to “bless” its fight in Syria.[xxii]

What is the Al-Assad regime?

In short, the Al-Assad regime is a harsh dictatorship like many in the Arab world. It has used religion and ethnic diversity in Syria, Arab nationalism, socialism, and the conflict with Israel for its own benefit, and implemented a policy of “divide and rule.” While the constitution declares that Syria is a republic and democratic, both Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad have failed to provide any kind of equality for Syrian citizens for 49 years.

[i]  “Syrian secularism: a model for the Middle East”, Ahmed Salkini, The CS Monitor, 13/07/2010

The Economist, after the misery of Syria, reported in Jun 28, 2018 “Even today many Sunnis prefer Mr Assad’s secular rule to that of Islamist rebels”

[ii] “How a victorious Bashar al-Assad is changing Syria”, The Economist, 28/05/2018

[iii] „ For the sake of Al-Baath”, part 1, Michel Aflaq, Dar Al-Tali’a for Publishing and Printing, 1978

[iv]  Official website of Al-Assad speeches and interviews.

[v] Official website of Al-Assad speeches and interviews, Hafez Al-Assad’s speech, 20/07/1976, Damascus.

[vi] Official website of Al-Assad speeches and interviews, an interview with CNN, 28/09/1991, Damascus

[vii]  Official website of Al-Assad speeches and interviews, An interview of Bashar Al-Assad with the Syrian TV channel,17/04/2013

[viii]  Alaa Aldin Alkhatib, “Woman is a historical victim of Islamic traditions and Fiqh‎”,, 10/11/2018

[ix]  Two example cases: A resolution of the Syrian court of cassation in 06 April 1981. And Sharia court of Damascus, resolution 2205/904 in 18 October 2000

[x]  „The Islamists and the status of the state and the society”, Arabic center of studies and research, Qatar, 2016, ISBN  9786144450932

[xi]  Syrian Lawyers Forum, 26/11/2009

[xii]  “a governmental committee prepared a draft law on personal status in Syria”, Damascus Center for theoretical studies and civil rights, 26/05/2009

[xiii]  “The Dhimmi in Syria”, Michel Shammass, Annaqed, 27/05/2009

[xiv]  “The Legal Punishment of the Deceased in the Month of Ramadan”, Hossam Karim El Din, Damascus Now – 02/06/2018

[xv] “Syria: Women’s Rights in Light of New Amendments to Syrian Personal Status Law”, The law library of Congress, Global Legal Monitor,  08/04/2019

[xvi]  Corruption Perceptions Index – Syria

[xvii]  “Mufti of Syria calls for the implementation of martyrdom operations against invaders”, Aljazeera, 27/03/2003

[xviii]  “ Syrians told to prepare for fight with U.S. / Iraq war is just the beginning, leaders say”, SFGATE, 31/03/2003

[xix]  A Video of Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun threatens to move martyrs in Europe

[xx]  A Video of Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun calling for Jihad in Syria defending Al-Assad regime

[xxi]  “Iran Is Outpacing Assad for Control of Syria’s Shia Militias”, Phillip Smyth, Washington institute for near east studies, 12/04/2018

[xxii]  “Russia Fights for Christianity in Syria, the US Fights Against It”, FR. JOHANNES JACOBSE, The American Orthodox Institute, 20/10/2015