Is Syria Cracking Down on Religious Groups? Why?

Kareem Fahim of the New York Times writes (article copied below) that the Syrian government is cracking down on religious groups. To a large extent this move is a return to business as usual. When George Bush was making his big push into the region in 2003-2004, Syria cracked down on the secular opposition that responded to Bush’s pressure on the Syrian regime by organizing the Damascus Declaration in the spring of 2005. In order to shore up support on the right as it attacked the left, Damascus gave greater latitude to religious leaders and groups.

Today, the secular opposition is weak, and Washington has largely stopped pressuring the Syrian regime. The instability and radicalism left behind by the Bush years has manifested itself in largely religious forms. The Syrian government has reassessed the threat that it faces and is leaning on religious groups even as most secular opponents are getting out of jail.

Change in Syria’s alcohol laws: Syria’s law states that you cannot serve alcohol if you are 100 meter away from a religious place of worship. Last night they changed the law to 75 meters.

One SC member writes:

“Syrian Law prohibits any Muslim from acquiring a liquor license for his/her restaurant. In fact, the last government liquor license issued to anyone was in the early 60’s. Any new place serving liquor today is operating without a license – no matter how close or far from a mosque. Ever since the Ba’ath came to power, being as secular as it is, they did not issue a single liquor license, even to Christians. If they did, it would be anti-secular! No Christian, Muslim, Armenian, or whatever had ever received a liquor license since 1963.

New-York Times sept 3 2010

Syria Moves to Curb Influence of Muslim Conservatives

DAMASCUS, Syria — This country, which had sought to show solidarity with Islamist groups and allow religious figures a greater role in public life, has recently reversed course, moving forcefully to curb the influence of Muslim conservatives in its mosques, public universities and charities.

The government has asked imams for recordings of their Friday sermons and started to strictly monitor religious schools. Members of an influential Muslim women’s group have now been told to scale back activities like preaching or teaching Islamic law. And this summer, more than 1,000 teachers who wear the niqab, or the face veil, were transferred to administrative duties.

The crackdown, which began in 2008 but has gathered steam this summer, is an effort by President Bashar al-Assad to reassert Syria’s traditional secularism in the face of rising threats from radical groups in the region, Syrian officials say.

The policy amounts to a sharp reversal for Syria, which for years tolerated the rise of the conservatives. And it sets the government on the seemingly contradictory path of moving against political Islamists at home, while supporting movements like Hamas and Hezbollah abroad.

Syrian officials are adamant that the shifts stem from alarming domestic trends, and do not affect support for those groups, allies in their struggle against Israel. At the same time, they have spoken proudly about their secularizing campaign. Some Syrian analysts view that as an overture to the United States and European nations, which have been courting Syria as part of a strategy to isolate Iran and curb the influence of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Human rights advocates say the policy exacerbates pressing concerns: the arbitrary imprisonment of Islamists, as well as the continued failure to allow them any political space.

Pressure on Islamic conservatives in Syria began in earnest after a powerful car bomb exploded in the Syrian capital in September 2008, killing 17 people. The government blamed the radical group Fatah al-Islam.

“The bombing was the trigger, but the pressure had been building,” said Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “After a period of accommodation with the Islamic groups, the regime entered this far more proactive and repressive mode. It realizes the challenge that the Islamization of Syrian society poses.”

The government’s campaign drew wider notice this summer, when a decision to bar students wearing the niqab from registering for university classes was compared to a similar ban in France. That move seemed to underscore a reduced tolerance for strict observance by Muslims in public life. Syrian officials have put it differently, saying the niqab is “alien” to Syrian society.

The campaign carries risks for a secular government that has fought repeated, violent battles with Islamists in the past, most notably in 1982, when Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, razed the city of Hama while confronting the Muslim Brotherhood, killing tens of thousands of people. For the moment there has been no visible domestic backlash, but one cleric, who said he was dismissed without being given a reason two years ago, suggested that could change.

“The Islamists now have a strong argument that the regime is antagonizing the Muslims,” he said.

The government courted religious conservatives as Western powers moved to isolate Syria amid accusations that it was behind the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005. The government appointed a sheik instead of a member of the ruling Baathist party to head the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and allowed, for the first time, religious activities in the stadium at Damascus University.

As the country emerged from that isolation, it focused on domestic challenges, including the fear that sectarian tensions in the region could spread — a recurring fear in Syria, a country with a Sunni majority ruled by Alawites, a religious minority.

The government also focused on conservatives. “What they had nourished and empowered, they felt the need to break,” said Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher.

The details of the campaign have remained murky, though Syrian officials have not been afraid to publicize its aims, including in foreign media outlets. In an interview with the American talk show host Charlie Rose in May, Mr. Assad was asked to name his biggest challenge.

“How we can keep our society as secular as it is today,” he said. “The challenge is the extremism in this region.”

Mr. Assad has in the past singled out northern Lebanon as a source of that extremism.

“We didn’t forget Nahr al-Bared,” said Mohammed al-Habash, a Syrian lawmaker, referring to battles in that region three years ago between Lebanese forces and Fatah al-Islam. “We have to take this seriously.”

Beginning in 2008, the government embarked on its new course when it fired administrators at several Islamic charities, according to the former cleric, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal by the government.

The clampdown has intensified in recent months. Last spring, the Qubaisiate, an underground women’s prayer group that was growing in prominence, was barred from meeting at mosques, according to members. Earlier this summer, top officials in Damascus Governorate were fired for their religious leanings, according to Syrian analysts.

Other moves underscore the delicacy of Mr. Assad’s campaign — or perhaps send mixed signals. A planned conference on secularism earlier this year, initially approved by the government, was abruptly canceled for no reason, according to Mr. Abbas.

“Secularism is their version of being secular,” Mr. Abbas said.

Another episode can be seen as a concession to Islamists, or a sign of just how comfortable the conservatives have become. A proposed rewrite of Syria’s personal status law, which governs civil matters, leaked last year, retained provisions that made it legal for men to marry girls as young as 13 years old. Under pressure, including from women’s groups, lawmakers abandoned the draft law.

“There are limits to what they can do,” Mr. Harling, the analyst, said of the Syrian government. “They will try things out and pedal back if things go too far. It says a lot about how difficult it is — even for a regime that is deeply secular itself and whose survival is tied to the secular nature of Syrian society.”

Nawara Mahfoud contributed reporting.

Comments from some Syrian readers about the NYTimes article:

A formidable balancing act for the government. I was personally very struck by how much more religious Syria has become. Aleppo has developed the area around the imposing and spectacular castle in order to attract tourists. Cars were banned from the area. Restaurants and cafes now dominate the scene. Having said that, you cannot have a single beer in the entire area. Not a single cafe or restaurant is allowed to do so. Why i asked? Because the area’s residents are too religious and hence would not allow any establishment to offer alcohol. Which tourist would choose to sit here and drink Pepsi I asked particularly when the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs are not exactly in Syria for the history and museums that it offers. Blank stares is what i got back. I offer this as an example. This is by far Aleppo’s most important tourist attraction. How the government allows residents to intimidate restaurant owners is very telling. It is almost like don’t ask don’t tell kind of arrangement. These restaurants and cafes will close down soon. You cannot survive the rent on selling Pepsi and tea. What a shame to see what this area can be and what it is today. It can put Lebanon to shame. It can take all the business that is going to that country. Instead, we want to bring our religion to the streets, cafes and restaurants. I hope that I am not offending my Muslim brothers on this list. I feel very strongly about this and I expressed my feelings to everyone in Aleppo that would listen including raees al baladiye

A reply from another reader:

Wait until the amazing Carlton Citadel hotel opens near the citadel. The ancient restored building was once a religious school. You’ll soon be able to sit in one of the hotel rooms overlooking the Citadel drinking beer (in a room where once student were being taught religious preaching). When Damascus’ Layla’s restaurant started serving alcohol on the terrace overlooking the grand mosque many eyebrows were raised. now the area next to the mosque has several restaurants serving alcohol.

It is only a matter of time.

Another response

It’s about time there was a crack down, but it’s not going to work, and I’m hoping it won’t backfire and produce the exact opposite results.  It’s is a day late and a dollar short, I’m afraid.

What has been proven time and again is that a hapless incompetent government cannot suppress religious movements that are a manifestation of uncertainty, ignorance, and hopelessness in an illiberal society like Syria. Someone from the Syrian leadership should have studied Egypt before embarking on such a stupid move.

You want to move people away from religious extremism that is coupled with ignorance and hopelessness?  Study the reasons first and address the underlying causes.  Don’t fight the symptoms, offer enlightenment and hope instead.

When Syrian women renounced the hijab, uncovered their heads and went “sufur” in the street back in the 20s and 30s, it was a sign of what Syrian thought a future free of the Ottomans and a dream of liberty. It didn’t take us long to screw that dream up, big time.

Another Commentator:

There are a number of measures the government ought to take that would quickly have a favorable impact; such as, narrowing the huge disparities of wealth (tax top earners) created through corruption (investigate a few big cases) and violation of the law with impunity (throw in jail a few convicted major violators regardless how big they might be), raise the salaries of government’s lower earners and pensioners (fund through cutting military spending and/or white elephant projects), take really serious steps to alleviate water and electricity shortages (fund through cutting military spending and/or white elephant projects) relax the state of emergency law, allow a bit of freedom of expression to opponents, reduce the degree of the cult of personality surrounding the Asad family.

Such actions could neutralize many who are candidates for religious orthodoxy or are ripe for radicalization. Such gain would, in my view, be achieved without causing serious threat to the stability of the regime. Then, sooner than later, genuine secularization can be introduced. Two areas are critical. The first is enacting a modern family law that would apply to every religion and sect. The second is reforming religious education in schools. Joshua’s research paper (Islamic Education in Syria) on the subject shows the dangers, in my opinion, of the existing curriculum. Modifying today’s material and adding to it material on ethics and comparative religious thought would translate to graduating students with a more balanced and mature view of life and the world.

I believe that the strength of the opposition to such reforms by Syria’s loud minority is exaggerated. It is the silent majority that counts here. The silent majority would hail these reforms. I’d love to see the results of a professional poll on the matter. The government should conduct such research. I suspect that the great majority of Syria’s women would support a new family law. Also, Syria’s educated and enlightened men would support such a law as well. I would guess that this category of men in Syria represent a majority of the country’s men. It must be made clear that religion in Syria shall be respected and that anyone can practice their chosen religion freely. What’s being advocated here is merely separating religion from the law and future law making. The manner through which such reforms is introduced is important to not inflame feelings and cut short the expected attempts of the loud active minority to spoil the effort. Turkey’s and Tunisia’s experience could have a calming effect.

FT [Reg]: Hizbollah leader denies rift with Syria

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the radical Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah, denied that a rift was opening up between the Iranian-backed organisation and its Syrian allies during a speech given to mark a day of international solidarity with the …

Here is an email conversation with a few friends:

First response:

“I fail to see why Syria and HA would divorce. Lebanon’s Shiites are 40%+ of the population (and growing). HA is Lebanon’s best armed force. HA is Syria’s safety valve against Wahhabi infiltration into Lebanon via the Hariri Trojan Horse. I venture to say.”

Second response:

It is wishful thinking among the M14 and Saudis. I was dining yesterday with 10 or so Lebanese (Sunnis and Christians). They all had the same view (and were happy about it) that Syria sold HA for Saudi money. I told then that this is all wishful thinking and that HA is way too precious for Syria. They’ll be disappointed soon. Also

1-HA’s popularity among Syrians is legendary. No sane political leader in Syria would waste political capital by going against the popular hero who continue to give Israel a bloody nose on every occasion. Regardless if this political leader is a dictator or democratically elected, popular or not.

2-A key part of Asad’s soaring popularity in Syria and the region is his alliance with HA specifically. No reason to jeopardize this for mere useless brownie points with Obama or anyone else.

Third respondent:

I had a similar conversation with a Maronite group yesterday. They are all excited by the prospect that Syria will throw HA under the bus. I tried to tell me it ain’t happening.

Jerusalem Post: Arab World: Syria’s comeback game

President Bashar Assad of Syria this week reiterated his country’s firm strategic alliance with Hizbullah. The occasion for the dictator’s remarks was the latest visit by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to the Syrian capital. Assad’s …

Israeli-Palestinian Peace: Lowering the Bar on ‘Progress’
By Tony Karon in Time, Friday, Sep. 03, 2010

[The money quote] Abbas, may be hoping simply to demonstrate, with Americans in the room, that Netanyahu won’t willingly implement a viable two-state solution, and that if Washington believes, as Secretary of State Clinton emphasized, that a two-state peace is important to U.S. national security, it had better be prepared to pressure the Israelis. Obama’s retreat on the settlement freeze standoff suggests that may be wishful thinking.(See why Israel doesn’t care about peace.)

Asma al-Assad: Ceremony honoring Father Elias Zahlawi and Choir of Joy at the People Palace in Damascus

The Listening Post – The media and the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ story

Syrian Studies Association Newsletter, with a special focus on Syria studies in Scotland and Scandinavia, is now available online. The table of contents appears below; a link to the newspaper can be found at the end of this message.

* Letter from the President

* Syrian Studies Association News

Syria-Related MESA 2010 Panels

* Feature Articles

“The St Andrews University Centre for Syrian Studies” by Raymond Hinnebusch

“Syria Studies in Sweden” by Annika Rabo

“The Finnish Institute in Damascus” by Hannu Juusola

“Profile of a Swedish Arabist” by Steve Tamari

“New Private Library in Sha’alan” by Beverly A Levine

“Teaching with Middle Eastern Constitutions: Exploring Ideals, Assessing Realities” by Andrea L Stanton

To read this issue, click here:  or the
Syrian Studies Association homepage:

Comments (53)

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51. LeoLeoni said:


You said: “If We accept your definition of Islamists, the majority of Syrians are indeed Islamists albeit in a passive or romantic way”

I’m not sure about that. I do distinguish between one being conservative and one being Islamists. But in the end, we would need to do a statistics with clear questions being asked on different issues and would like to gather the responses and do an analysis. Issues and questions could be pointed out in different areas, an example

Secular political/Non-Islamic political parties
Freedoms, elections, democracy, seperation of powers, khalifa, non-muslims/women as judges or prime ministers/presidents…

Sharia, Replacing the criminal code with Hudood law, Prisons, Punishments including but not limited to whipping, stoning, cutting of hands/feet/head.

Sectarianism, woman’s status, segregation, dress code, alcohol/rest/cafes/hotels, tourism, arts including cinema/books/theatre/music/ concerts, festivals, media

interest, banks, finance, international trade

Int. Relations:
Dar salam/harb, the west, non-muslim states

This is a small example of issues that a comprehensive study needs to include to see current trends and where the people are positioned on such important matters. It is very difficult to produce an accurate social study in any Arabic country from within. What most of us can best do is predict such trends. But I have a hard time believing that the majority of Syrians would support any party that resembles MB, Hamas, Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hizb-al-Tahrir, various Salafi Jihadi, WITHIN Syria. Now keep in the mind that the above list are all considered Islamists, but they vary to the degree of intensity and radicalism on different issues. Another thing you need to keep in mind, that many Syrians would support groups like Hamas and Hezbollah working in their respective territories, but would not welcome such group to operate within Syria, and this deals more with int. relations.

One last note, during the 40s, 1954, and 1961, Syria relatively witnessed free elections. The majority who were elected to parliament came from non-ideological parties, both the People party (winning majority in 1961) and National Party (winning majority in the 40s). The ideological and religious parties (Communists, Arab Nationalsits/Baath/Socialists, SSNP, MB) received minority votes. You can refer to Sami Moubayad and other historians on this matter.


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September 9th, 2010, 4:07 am


52. Majhool said:


I fully agree with your approach. I have confidence that if you conduct such a survey the majority would be non “islamists”. However If you ask the same majority whether or not they would support Sharia Law they will most likely say Yes. Of course the first approach one is more credible.

There is a disconnect between faith and reality. This disconnect is a fertile ground for secular institutions to build upon.

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September 9th, 2010, 4:29 pm


53. Elie Elhadj said:


Sorry I did not see your comment 32.

You quoted me saying:

“Wine is promised in paradise. Just wondering why it is banned on the earth! Might someone explain?”

Your reply: “the answer is in the Quran:

They ask you (O Muhammad ) concerning alcoholic drink and gambling. Say: “In them is a great sin, and (some) benefit for men, but the sin of them is greater than their benefit.” And they ask you what they ought to spend. Say: “That which is beyond your needs.” Thus Allâh makes clear to you His Laws in order that you may give thought. (al-Baqarah 2:219)”.

I am aware that alcohol is prohibited on the earth and that its prohibition is Quranic.

However, my question is not concerned with the reasons behind the prohibition of wine in life. Rather, it relates to a comparison between its use as one of the attractions to entice the faithful to seek paradise vs it being a bad thing on the earth. If wine is bad for earthy living, why is it good in paradise! If rivers of wine are promised in paradise why is it that wine, alcohol in general, is prohibited on the earth.

Alcoholism is a dreadful affliction. Where a freely elected and democratic parliament exists, the legislature should decide on allowing, regulating, or banning its use.

You said: “Elie your style is confrontational implying that you look down on Islam as a religion”.

First, I regret that you judge my style as confrontational. I do not mean to be confrontational. It might just be the sensitivity surrounding religion issues, which stirs one’s protective instincts towards deeply held taboo subjects. Such a reaction is emotional and discolors one’s vision. Further, style ought not be confused with substance. The child should not be thrown out with the bath water. Why don’t SC’s Islamists examine critically the evidence, the facts, the impeccable sources I present instead of lashing out in emotional outbursts?

Second, I see no justification for your conclusion that I “look down on Islam”. Far from it. I grew up among Muslims like one family and some of my closest and best friends have always been Muslims. I know, it is discomforting to debate Islam critically. It took me years to muster the courage to do so. After all, I am a product of Syrian culture and sensibilities! In time, however, discussing Islam will not raise any one’s blood pressure and today’s emotional accusations will largely disappear.


Enjoyed reading your well argued comments. Thanks for taking the time.


Your 51 is most relevant. Thanks.


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September 10th, 2010, 3:28 am


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