Syria: Bloggers Discuss Secularism

Humans are religious creatures. Or are they really?

The Middle East has known waves of political ideologies throughout its long history, but it is often associated with Islam, not only as a system of belief or a cultural matrix, but also as a political ideology that is inseparable from the region's politics and forms of government. Islam's pervasiveness in every aspect of life makes it more a way of life than a strictly devotional faith. Some consider secularism a cornerstone of democracy and human progress, while others think religion can never really be separated from politics. Syrian bloggers have been reflecting on secularism: What it really means? Can it really be achieved in a Muslim majority country? Or is it just another Western ideology, incompatible with the region's traditions and values?

Arab Secularism Debate

Anas Online [Ar] (An@s) started the discussion. Under the title “The Schizophrenia of Arab Secularists,” he writes:

هناك طرفين متناقضين في جميع هذا النوع من الحوارات:
1- طرف يرى بأنه لا ضير من وجود أحزاب قائمة على أسس دينية يحق لها التواجد على الساحة السياسية والتواجد في البرلمانات وحتى الوصول وتسلم مقاليد السلطة.
2- طرف ثاني يرى بأنه يحق للجميع تأسيس الأحزاب والتواجد السياسي بشرط ألا تكون أحزابهم قائمة على أسس دينية و(سماوية).

There are two antagonistic parties in this debate:
1 – one that sees no harm in the presence of parties based on religious grounds, entitled to participate in the political arena and even to access power
2 – and another that considers that everybody is entitled to establish a political party, provided that it is not based on religious grounds

An@s sees a contradiction in the Arab secularists’ support for resistance movements in the region, since most of the latter stem from religious parties. He wonders:

هل هو بالفعل نوع من انفصام الشخصية؟ دعونا نحاول دراسة هذه الظاهرة بشيء من المنطق ونرتب الاحتمالات الموجودة لدينا:

الاحتمال الأول: العلماني العربي هو في النهاية وليد لمجتمع ذو ثقافة إسلامية عمرها يقارب الخمسة عشر قرناً, العلماني العربي يحمل في النهاية وبشكل أو بآخر في وجدانه الجماعي جينات من حكموا يوماً نصف الكرة الأرضية بعد أن كانوا قبائل متشرذمة وكان فضل الاسلام أساسياً في قوتهم هذه, ربما يحاول أن ينكر هذا, أو ربما يحاول أن يقتنع بأن الزمن تغير وما صَلُحَ في الماضي للحكم تحت إسم (دولة إسلامية) لن يصلح الآن, وربما يسوّد الصفحات والمقالات حول هذه الفكرة لكنه يغير رأيه فوراً عند أي تجربة عملية يشاهدها على المحك, فهو لا يرى نوراً في نهاية النفق سوى تلك الحركات (الإسلامية).

الاحتمال الثاني: العلماني العربي سيُشجع الشيطان نفسه لو كان محارباً لإسرائيل, عند هذه النقطة تنتهي الخلافات والحواجز ويصبح الأمر أكبر من أن يفكر فيه بهذه الطريقة! تخيل أن يقف حينها إلى جانب العدو الإسرائيلي لمجرد أنه ضد فكرة الأحزاب الإسلامية من أساسها! الأمر غير وارد على الإطلاق.

Is it really a kind of schizophrenia? Let us try to study this phenomenon with some logic and come up with some possible explanations:

The first possibility: the secular Arab being after all born in a society with a five century old Islamic heritage, s/he carries in her/his conscience the genes of those who were unified and empowered by Islam and who once ruled half the world. Maybe the secular Arab tries to deny this, or perhaps s/he tries to convince her/himself that times have changed and that what was successful in the past under so-called Islamic rule, might no longer work today. S/he even goes on writing whole pages and articles about these ideas but changes her/his mind immediately when they have to be put to the test. S/he does not see at the end of the tunnel other than the flicker of light coming from those same “Islamic” movements.

The second possibility: a secular Arab would associate with the devil in person if that devil was waging war against Israel. There, all the differences and barriers vanish, and the issue becomes so big the secularist can no longer think about it in the same way! Can you imagine the secular Arab standing by the Israeli enemy just because of an opposition to the idea of Islamic parties? This is out of the question.

Commenting on Anas Online‘s post, Mutanazih (متنزه بين المدونات) criticizes what he considers an unfair interpretation of secularism. He writes:

العلمانية التي ترفضها حضرتك هي من جعلت بلدك ( سوريا ) آمنة من بطش المتدينين […] والعلمانية التي ترفضها حضرتك هي من جعلت الوزير المسيحي بجانب الوزير السني بجانب الدرزي بجانب العلوي والعلمانية هي من جعلت الصداقات والزواجات تتشعب بين الشعب السوري وإن كانت قليلة. يا صديقي نحن لانريد عراقاً ثانياً تراق فيه الدماء بغير حساب ولانريد لبناناً آخر نشتم بعضنا البعض فيه لمجرد انتمائنا الفكري لذلك أدعوك بروح أخوية عن الكف عن هذه المهاترات أنت ومعلقي مدونتك وتقبل الآخر. فأنا بعشقي للعلمانية يعجبني المتدين المعتدل فقط فكما لي قضية فكرية أتبناها وأدافع عنها ولاأفرضها عنوة على الآخرن أو اقتل بسببها فأحترم المتدين الآخر الذي له نفس التوجه ….
Secularism that you're rejecting Sir, has made your country (Syria) safe from the oppression of religious people. And secularism Sir has allowed the Christian minister to sit next to the Sunni minister, himself sitting next to the Druze and the Alawee. Secularism has made friendships and mixed marriages between Syrian people possible. My friend, we do not want another Iraq where blood is shed with no regard for human lives, and we do not want another Lebanon where we would insult each other just because our intellectual backgrounds differ. That's why I'm calling upon you to cease such rhetoric, you and your commentators are having, and accept the other. I like secularism, but I also do like the moderate religious person, for as much as I have an opinion that I endorse and defend, and for which I would never harm or kill, I do respect the religious person who acts in the same way.

Anas Qtiesh [Ar] is a Syrian blogger. He writes:

صححوني إن كنت مخطئاً ولكنني أعتقد بأننا لا نريد العيش كما في السعودية حيث يتم فرض لباس معين على الأشخاص (يتعدى متطلبات الحشمة بشكل غير معقول) ويمنع فيه الاختلاط والتفاعل البريء بين الجنسين، وتمنع فيه النساء من قيادة السيارات والانخراط في العديد من مسالك العمل ويضرب فيه الناس في الشارع لقسرهم على الصلاة؛ وأيضاً لا نريد العيش في دولة كفرنسا تضطهد الأقلية الدينية المسلمة بحظر الحجاب أو النقاب مثلاً تحت غطاء حقوق المرأة وحقوق الإنسان.
Correct me if I am wrong but I think we do not want to live in countries like Saudi Arabia, where people are forced to wear particular clothes (imposed beyond any reasonable requirements of decency) and prevented from mixing and from innocent interaction between the sexes. A country that prohibits women from driving and accessing a number of jobs. And also a country where people are hit in the streets to force them to perform prayers. We do not want to live in a country like France neither: a country that persecutes its religious minorities, banning the Muslim veil or niqab for example, under the pretense of women's rights and human rights.

Anas Qtiesh also asks for a more informed reading of the history of secular movements:

لو نظر أنس بدقة إلى وجهة النظر تلك بتمعن لوجد أن العلماني يدعم المقاومة مهما كانت، حتى لو اختلف معها بالأيديولوجيا (وهذا أمر لا يمكننا أن نقوله عن بعض “المتدينين” الذين لا يريدون أن يروا سلاحاً بيد المقاومة لمجرد أنها من مذهب ديني مختلف) فالمهم هو الدفاع عن الأرض وعدم السكوت بوجه الاحتلال […] الفكرة هنا أن المقاومة الإسلامية هي الأقوى والأكثر تأثيراً في الوقت الحالي، ولكنها ليست “النور الوحيد في نهاية النفق”، كل من حمل سلاحاً بوجه المستعمر هو نورٌ في نهاية النفق. ليس هناك تناقض ولا فصام، هناك أولويات ووعي للاعتبارات السياسية القائمة على أرض الواقع، ما يسميه أنس فصاماً أسميه أنا تحكيماً للمنطق […]
أنا أؤمن بأن حريتي تنتهي عندما تبدأ حرية الأخرين وأرفض العيش في مجتمع لا يحترم حرية الآخرين، كل الآخرين. المرء له الحرية في حياته طالما أنه لا يؤذي الآخرين ولا يتعدى عليهم بممارساته. والأحزاب الإسلامية أو الدينية ليست شراً مستطيراً كما يروج بعض العلمانيين، بل هي جزء ضروري من العملية السياسية في أي مكان لكي تمثل مصالح المواطنين الذين يؤمنون بها ويقومون بدعمها. ونتفق جميعاً أن الأنظمة الشمولية القمعية غير مقبولة بتاتاً سواء كانت علمانية أم دينية.
If Anas (Online) reconsiders closely his point of view he would discover that secularists have always supported resistance, all forms of resistance, even those they disagree with ideologically (this is not something we can say about certain “religious” people who do not want to see weapons in the hands of a resistance of a different religious sect). The most important here is to defend the land and not tolerate its occupation. The idea is that the Islamic Resistance is the strongest and most influential at the moment, but it is not “the only light at the end of the tunnel.” Anyone who carries a weapon to fight a colonizer is a light at the end of the tunnel. I see no contradiction and no schizophrenia here. There are only priorities and [political] awareness. Considering the political situation on the ground, where Anas sees schizophrenia, I see an affirmation of reason and logic […]
I believe that my freedom ends where the freedom of others begins and I refuse to live in a society that does not respect the freedom of others, all the others. One is free in his life as long as s/he does not harm others. Islamic or religious parties are not the absolute evil some secularists are alleging, but these are a necessary part of a political process where they represent the interests of the people who believe in and support them. We all agree to reject all repressive and totalitarian regimes, whether secular or religious.

Also commenting on Anas Online blog, Ahmed Bakdash [Ar] writes:

المشكلة من وجهة نظري ليست ان اكون مع او ضد الاحزاب الدينية ,
المشكلة يا عزيزي اننا جميعا نعاني انفصام شخصية اكيد , فكل احزابنا الدينية واللادينية احزاب شمولية اقصائية , بدءا بالبعث والقومي السوري […] وليس انتهاءا بالاسلامويين العرب ..

The problem from my point of view is not whether we are for or against religious parties. The problem is, we all suffer from schizophrenia. All our parties, whether religious or not, are totalitarian, from the Baath to the Syrian Nationalists to the Arab Islamists.

Another commenter, Hunter, seems to be more interested in what political parties can deliver, regardless of their political background:

سأطرح رأيي على اني مواطن لايريد الا شيئين الأول الحرية والثاني الازدهار الاقتصادي اذا كان الحزب الاسلامي سيقدم لي ماقدمة حزب العدالة والتنمية للشعب التركي فيا اهلاً وسهلاً
واما اذا كان الحزب الاسلامي سيقدم لي ماقدمته حماس او حزب الاخوان المسلمين فلا اهلاً ولا سهلاً اريد من يأخذ بيدي الى التقدم والازدهار وليس من يأخذ بيدي إلى الانحدار الثقافي والفوضى
I would say I'm a citizen who wants only two things: first freedom, and second economic prosperity. If an Islamic party can give me what the Turkish Justice and Development ruling Party has delivered to the Turkish people, then a warm welcome to it. But if this Islamic party will give me the kind of service Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood have provided, then no, thank you very much! I need someone who can assist me and lead me to progress and prosperity, not cultural decline and chaos.

Yassine Swiha, writing on Syrian Gavroche [Ar] is another Syrian blogger. He thinks secularism is facing major problems in the Arab world:

تعاني العلمانية إلى حد كبير من صورة نمطية سلبية عند الكثيرين مثل تصوير العلمانية ككل بأنها معادية للدين أو أن العلمانيين هم ناس منحطّون و ينادون للانحلال الأخلاقي أو ما شابه, و لا شك أن هذه الصورة النمطية هي إلى حد كبير من إنجاز فئات كثيرة تعادي أي فكرة علمانية انطلاقاً من الإيمان بفكرة دوغماتية دينية ترى في أي نظرية علمانية عدوّة لها, و لكن أيضاً هناك مسئولية كبيرة على عاتق النخب الفكرية العلمانية المختلفة أيضاً من حيث الفشل في نقل الصورة الواضحة عن فكرهم, و قد يكون هذا الفشل بسبب التضييق و المنع و الصعوبات المختلفة الأخرى, لكن كثيرين منهم ارتاح في لجوئه إلى برج عاجي و ابتعاده عن “العوام”.

Many people have a stereotypical and negative idea about secularism, such as considering it anti-religious or assuming that secular people are immoral and are calling for moral deprivation. These stereotypes have largely been nurtured by groups hostile to any secular idea, based on a dogmatic religious ideology that sees an enemy in any alternative theory. But the greater responsibility rests with the secular intellectual elite that failed to transmit a clear picture of secular thinking. This failure may be due to harassment, bans and the various other difficulties, but it is mainly due to the fact that many of those intellectuals have taken comfort in their retreat to an ivory tower, away from the “grassroots.”

Yassine Swiha goes on to explain that some Western countries’ attitude toward their Muslim communities, shouldn't be blamed on their secularism. He writes:

إن أصل الصراع على الحجاب هو نزعة قومية يمينية لا تخلو من شوفينية, و هي نزعة رجعية لا علاقة لها بمبادئ الثورة الفرنسية و لا بـ”روح الجمهورية الفرنسية” الرومانسية التحررية, و نجد في ساركوزي و فكره السياسي رمزاً لهذه النزعة التي تتبنّى تعصّباً للهويّة القومية في وجه “الغزو المهاجر”

The origin of the conflict over the veil is right-wing nationalism and is loaded with chauvinist and reactionary tendencies. It is not related to the principles of the French Revolution nor to the liberating, romantic “spirit of the French Republic.” Sarkozy, with his political thinking, constitutes the symbol of this (right-wing) trend -a vision that underpins the radicalization of the national identity in the face of the so-called “immigrant invasion.”

Mohammad Online [Ar] disagrees with Yassine's analysis. He writes a comment saying:

أن تبعد تهمة محاربة الحجاب و المظاهر الدينية عن العلمانيين أمر غير وارد لأن هؤلاء إعترفوا في أكثر من مناسبة عن محاربتهم لتك الأمور .
هل حورب الحجاب في فرنسا فقط ؟ ماذا عن باقي الدول الاوروبية ؟ ماذا عن منع المآذن في سويسرا و الإساءة إلى القرآن في هولندا ، ألم يقم بتلك الاعمال القائمين على العلمانية في تلك البلاد ؟
Trying to put the blame over the banning of the hijab (Muslim veil) and the persecution of all religious signs, away from secularism is nonsense because secularists themselves have acknowledged, time and again, their intention to wage a war against everything religious. Does the war on Hijab exist only in France? What about the rest of Europe? What about the banning of minarets in Switzerland and the abuse of the Koran in the Netherlands? Wasn't all that based on secularism?

An anonymous commenter joins the conversation saying:

أنا يا جماعة ماني ضد دين معين بس مافيني طلع عالغرب وقول شوفو شو عم يعملو وآخد كم حالة وقول عن هالغرب ما بيسوا ومنافق ونحن عنا مشاكل بتتوزع عالكرة الارضية كلها
أنا بتمنى يجي اليوم يلي يتم فيه بالاشارة لانفسنا باسمائنا وتقييمنا بأفعالنا .. مش بدياناتنا وطوائفنا
I'm not against religion. All I'm saying is we should stop fixating on the West, taking few examples out of context and accusing the West of hypocrisy while we have enough problems of our own. I hope the day will come when we will call ourselves by our names and judge ourselves for our acts and not for our religions or sects.

Mohamed Mesrati [Ar] adds his voice to the debate [Ar]. He writes:

قبلَ البدء في التحدّث حولَ العلمانية في الوطن العربي، علينا التحدّث عن الديمقراطية في الوطن العربي.
المشكلة الأساسية هي الحكم الاستبدادي الذي نتعرّضُ له، وعدم توفّر أي مساحة نعبّر من خلالها عن أفكارنا. فالحاكم العربي باستبداديتهِ وغطرستهِ يعرفُ أنّ الدين هو الوسيلة الفعّالة للسيطرة على شعبه […]
أعتبر نفسي كانسان علماني مؤمن بالانفتاح، كافرًا بالقومية العربية لأنّها (كفكر) نظرية عنصرية. فنظام كلّنا عرب، قمعَ الكثير من الأعراق التي تقطن الشرق الأوسط، كالأمازيغ في شمال أفريقيا والأكراد في بلاد الشام والعراق…

Before we start talking about secularism in the Arab world, we ought to talk about democracy (or lack thereof) in the region. The fundamental problem is authoritarian rule and the lack of any space in which we can express our thoughts. The arrogant and authoritarian Arab ruler knows that religion is an effective way to control the people […]
I consider myself to be a secular human being. I believe in openness. I don't believe in Arab nationalism which (as an ideology) I consider racist. It's a system that led to the persecution of many ethnic minorities living in the Middle East, like Amazighs in North Africa and Kurds in the Levant and Iraq.

Sham, writing on Tabashir (طباشير) [Ar], tries to draw the line between secularism and atheism. She writes:

ما يجمع العلمانية و الإلحاد اليوم هو ليس َ أكثر من عدد من الأشخاص فالعديد من الملحدين ينادون بالعلمانية كطريقة للعيش و التعايش و يدافعون عنها و يؤيدونها ( تماما ً كما يفعل بعض المتدينون المؤمنون بها كطريقة حياة ) و لذا يربط البعض و يخطئ بربطه بين الإلحاد و العلمانية بصورة خاطئة و سطحيّة .
What unites secularism and atheism today are people, many of whom atheists, calling for secularism as a way of living, dedicating themselves to defend and support it (just as some religious people do support secularism as a way of life). It is thus wrong and superficial to link atheism to secularism, like some wrongly do.

Razan Ghazzawi is another Syrian blogger. She adds this comment to Sham's post:

إشكالية العلمانية هي انو عم تفترض انو المشكلة تكمن بأي حكم ديني, وهاد افتراض خاطئ لانو المشكلة هو أولا الدولة كسلطة بذاتها, وتانيا المشكلة بسلطة رجال الدين ياللي ترجمت الى ثقافة سلطوية تمتد إلى الحكم وإلى أفراد الشعب ياللي بمارسو هالسلطة على أفراد مهمشين تانيين. المشكلة سلطة وبس, الدين مالو علاقة. ازا حكم ملحد او ديني او علماني كلو نفس الشي.

The problem with secularism is that it assumes that the issue is with religious rule, and this is a wrong presumption. The problem lies primarily with state authority first, then with clerical authority, something that translates into an authoritarian culture that extends to the government, and is in turn exerted on the marginalized. The problem is the authoritarianism not religion. Whether it's an atheist, religious or secular rule, it doesn't make any difference.

The debate continues.


  • Interessting… Keep us updated.

  • Excellent translation, Hisham. And a very impressive work. Thank you.

    here is my belated take on the subject:

  • Great post Hisham! You’ve covered the debate in the best way possible. It was a pleasure to read.

    Looking forward to reading more of your work.

  • Great post ya 7abeeb. Loved reading this. Nicely researched and well-put together!

  • That was very interesting to read..Thanks Hisham!

  • Interesting article to append to the discussion: Lebanese march for secularism by Alexandre Medawar, 09 March 2010, Common Ground (NGO)

  • Yousef

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. however, I would argue that Syria is not a secular state, it is a mere dictator regime who stole and over-raided the authority via military coup, and also has marginalized the need of the majority to be ruled by Islamic law, as well as deprived minorities from their basic rights such as Kurds. Moreover, more than 80% of the budget is in hands of 5% of the population. I am a Syrian citizen and I love to see my people have their rights whether they are minorities or majorities. by the way Islam does not prevent women from driving cars and doesn’t force people to go to mosques, I am sorry to say, you have to read more about Islam before you write such things, these bad practices have no roots in Islamic jurisprudence, but rather it is a cultural backward practices. Thank you for your patience.

  • This was not meant to be a personal reflection on secularism Yousef. I merely reported parts of a very interesting discussion which you can join by the way as the debate is still rolling. I don’t think any of the quoted bloggers argued against the fact that Syria is under the kind of regime you’re describing, nor has anybody interpreted what’s happening in Saudi Arabia for other than what it is: a disgraceful violation of human rights under a certain reading of Islam. Every time someone has a “you-have-to-read-more-about-Islam-before-you-write-such-things” kind of reaction, I ask: which version, which school of thought, which cleric, which sect, which reading of Islam are you talking about? My feeling is: there are so many Islams out there and not a single one. Each version claiming the truth for itself. Sometimes those versions contradict each other or even worse, clash against each other. So if we want to be reasonably objective and honest, we need to go beyond the narrow interpretation of life through the lens of some groups or cleric or state or whatever, and think about the best social project for our ailing societies, don’t you think my friend?

  • Yousef

    well, thank you for your prompt reply, I am sorry if you are offended by saying ” you have to read” I should have put it differently, what I meant is that Islam respects intellect and doesn’t restrict people on one way of thinking, therefore, you may find verses with absolute cretin meaning and every Arabic reader understands what does it Mean without making effort, this is called (Qatie قطعي). the other type is the uncertain or (ظني) meaning, and here is the arena where elite scholars should use their legal reasoning (Ijtihad) to extract legal rules, and it is open to everybody if he is well-versed in some particular areas. I think this proves the flexibility of Islam and its rules. so it is not a matter of exploitation or monopoly by clerics, whenever you notice there is a sort of disagreement between scholars, it is a sign that this text in concern is prone to many different understandings and it is open to different interpretations, and that is why we have this rich heritage of Muslim schools of thought and. My friend, what you described as a different versions of Islam, I would describe it as various possibilities in interpreting the text. But i agree with you nobody has the right to claim that he is right and others are wrong, indeed it didn’t happened between the real learned students rather than scholars. Those who claim themselves being rights and others are wrong, they might have lack of information. what do you think?

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