Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Is the state really Secular?

As I stated before, Syria is one of the few countries in the area that are officially secular. Many religious people complain about the secularism of the state. Some even blame secularism for all the failures in our economies and politics.
Let’s look closely for a second before we blame anyone for our failures. Is the state indeed secular?

First let’s start with defining Secularism? According todictionary.com
Secularism is “The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education”.

Now let’s see how Secularism applies in our dear country.

1. Our civil affairs and laws are hugely influenced by the Islamic law, “Shari a”, and the Syrian Judicial law takes the model of the Hanafite Sunni laws as a good example to follow. The influence mostly appears in personal affairs such as marriage, divorce, paternity, custody of children, and inheritance.

2. Our public and private school oblige students to receive religious education as a part of their curriculum from the 1st grade to the 12th.
-Sunni, Alawaite, Ismilite, Druz, Izidi, Sufi, and Shiite students (and all the non-religious and Atheist students whose families or ancestors belong to the sects just mentioned)are gathered under one category. They study a book that basically teaches some picked information from the Sunni faith.

-Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant students (plus the Atheists and Non-religious ones) are gathered under one category. They also study one book which follows a faith that I assume follows the Orthodox faith, because they represent the majority of Christian. But it is known that the first lessons always deal with and glorifies “martyrdom”. These lessons also happen to have some not-very-spiritual quotes from famous Syrian politicians too.

For further and more specific information about religious education in Syrian schools, you could read the essay: Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism by Professor Joshua M. Landis

3. All missionaries, except a few Sunni and Christian ones, are prohibited from entering the country or promoting their faith, at least legally.

4. By law, Inter-faith marriages are permissible. However, the offspring of the marriage will always belong to the Islamic faith, whether the mother or the father is Muslim. So if an Atheist, Buddhist, or a Christian married a Muslim man or a woman in Syria, all their children will be considered officially as Muslims.

5. All conversions to any religion, except to Islam, are prohibited. I don’t know if it is a written or unwritten law, but I have a tragic story to tell you. It’s about a Damascene guy who used to live in our neighborhood.

He is the son of a prominent Syrian Actor. He and his friend were interested in learning about other faiths. Secretly, they converted to Christianity, but for some reason the secret wasn’t kept hidden very well. They started having hard time from the people around them including their friends and families that disowned them. That part of the story is not remarkably stranger than other conversion stories worldwide. However, things got even worse. When it was time for them to join the military service, they were badly treated and one of them got shot twice by some militant who wanted to convert them back. They served jail time for months. Many attempts of conversions went in vain, until the two headstrong guys were released and told to go free in condition they don’t tell anybody about their conversion.
The small details of that story might not be 100% accurate, but the story was told by the guy’s mother. She’s the only person in his family that is still in contact with him.

On the other hand, I heard about many people who openly talk about their Atheism, religious-bashing, conversions, or religious freedom. An example for that would be Nabil Fayad who is becoming a political and religious celeberity in Syria.

Having said all of the above, I would like to mention that I am not Anti or Pro Secular or Religious states in Syria. I just wanted to point that our versions of Religious and Secular states look so much alike and function in the same way. Furthermore, neither option worked well to secure our freedom of belief (whatever we believe or NOT believe in). Of course, provided that people who care about freedom of belief exist in this country.


Blogger aleppian said...

this is very thorny issue, and people have turned it into taboo. first, you said you are not anti, and not pro. other guys may blame you of indecision, but i also will now tell something like that.

the main cause of religions' origin is curbing the bad habits of mankind, like stealing, killing, etc. but sometime in the history wise and persuasive people appeared to make things better. they began to declare that the good and bad is repayable in the end (people at that time were believing in something almighty which governs the existence). these people could include the mankinds' instincts of doing bad or good, and tried to control that by the name of almighty.

in this point, religions began to appear. if we count that religions can hold the stream of bads, we say ok, but if they mix bads and goods together, we can say they are not doing good, so they are hindrance to mankind thought development.

more recently thinking, the mankind have made a good deal in logical thinking so we must reach to a point that we must not need a religious teaching to do goods and to not do bads. if religious enthusiasm remains in the individual without generalising it on the others, we can get to a good deal. but unfortunately, the people are still not ready to understand that.

for example, if i believe in something, it is my own internal world, i don't have to convince my neighbour, my friends, my relatives... to do the same, as far as it is a matter of self-conviction.

plus existing these religions in one place, makes laws and convictions interfere each other. better to come to a common place, and it is secularism, where all can meet, and all can work without hurting each other and without losing their faith.

secularism is not denial of religion, it is just seperation of religion from state affairs.

4:17 AM  
Blogger Ihsan said...

Interesting post man!

I so agree on all what you have said, and may add that neither Society or Law admit acting as secular as they should or claim to be.

Syria claims to adopt secularism, as much as it claims to adopt socialism!! Nothing more than some ink wasted on some papers called "Constituation"!

9:26 AM  
Blogger Omar said...

I think it's important to point out that while Islam is taught in schools in Syria, the mark for the subject (religion) does not count towards your average.

I look at that as being a secular gesture.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Tolerant Damascene said...

Aleppian, Ihsan, and Omar, thanks for your contribution guys :)

Omar, not adding the religion grade in the GPA doesn't mean it's a secular sign. What about the people who are not willing to learn religion at school?

What about the Catholics, Protestants, Alawites, Ismilites, Druz, Atheists, and even Sunnis, who don't want to be forced to learn one version of a religion, which is likely to be put in a political way?

Aren't temples,Churches, and Mosques the best place to teach religion?

The essay I linked to discusses all that very thoroughly. It's a very well-written and informative essay by prof. Landis. I'd definately recommend you to read if you have some time to spare :)

10:56 PM  
Blogger Ihsan said...


In addition to above, some minorities do not take religion courses at school, so not counting the mark of the subject "Religion" towards the average is being more fair than secular.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Sharks said...

hey nice blog u got there!...really rich with useful information...my personal favorite /The Syrian version of "I believe in …. because…."/
it's totally true...i was surprised by the number of ppl who would simply starts an argument about religion just to proof that the other is wrong even if they were friends! 8|...can't they just drop it...every one stick to u'r faith n' leave others alone...
Peace out!

7:04 AM  

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