The Arab Spring And Decay Of Secular State In Syria – OpEd


By Morpheus, a Damascus based architect

Since its beginning, the Arab Spring phenomenon dominated the waves of local & international media and focused discussions about the current state of affairs in the Arab world on two major principles; freedom & regime change. However, this debate over these principles in Syria overshadowed the systematic destruction of secular state using vague political terms, conflicting regime change with state destruction and applying a divisive discourse that can only lead to separation instead of integration.

Syria today is suffering mainly from the absence of a “silent majority” from its political debates. Currently, the representation of the Syrian population is reduced to ineffective pro-government speakers and external chaotic opposition mostly represented by ambiguous characters with little substance to offer. This, of course, comes as no surprise in a country where true politics disappeared under one party ruling for four decades. However, this growing opposition abroad presents another concern as it aims to de-root all aspects of modern governing established in the country since its independence. An important aspect of the Syrian State was its secular face, rarely exposed and discussed but very evident and present to prudent observers. Since its early days, the Syrian state did not hide its indifference to religion and all its national figures agreed amongst themselves upon this unspoken truth. Their mixture was unique and effective. Muslims & Christians as well as Arabs & non Arabs all contributed to the construction of a modern state. The danger, nowadays, threatens the solid beliefs of the founding fathers, if I may use this expression, by debating the unspoken truth, highlighting ethnic & religious discrepancies and pushing the interest of one group to the detriment of national interest. Thus, the vague political terms used and consumed by media debates like freedom and change can only be used to describe and specify a general state of thinking without actual detailing of what it entails if put to the test in everyday governance. It is important to highlight as well that a serious attempt for change started years ago on all different levels of government to open up the discourse and diagnose the requested modifications to a closed system. This is by no means a gift from the regime but a committed effort from the “Silent Majority”.

This process of change from within was not only triggered by political needs but by economic, cultural and social necessities. Syria today is very different from the state it was in 1963 when the ruling party took power. The Syrian population growth rate is one of the highest in the world. Exposure to free market policies changed economic behavior fundamentally. Avant-gardists co-exist with traditionalists in every domain. More than ever, the need for change is inevitable. Even people in the highest echelons of power knew it was coming. This, nevertheless, was meant to improve the outcome of the state not to dismantle it. Thus, the “Silent Majority” was taken aback by the unexplainable uprising in most Syrian cities. It was evident that occurring changes were much less than expected. The outcome of it was a strange one; on one hand the government took the steering wheel and started a fast track process of introducing numerous laws & regulations to convince everyone it was doing its due diligence while the opposition fought back by stripping the government of its right to expedite the process of change. In reality, the former excluded the active majority from political reform in a way, while the latter refused the whole concept of reform all together leaving no room for discussion and taking the matter to the streets and the masses. Nothing is far more dangerous than leaving crucial decisions with impact for years to come to angry protestors and ineffective bodies of governance. This condition is threatening the collective belief in the Syrian state capability of existence and survival. A regime change is needed in a manner that is not threatening to integration and unity of national institutions. This type of change has to be inclusive not exclusive and based on discourse not violence and erratic attempts. The issues at stake are far more divisive than immediate gains. Furthermore, it is imperative to keep in mind that the structure of current institutions is not a result of the regime in power. Some of these institutions are older than the Syrian Republic itself. Consequently, a consensus has to be reached at large before diving into any productive restructuring.

Increasingly so, the language used by regime opponents is sending shock waves through the nation’s nerve system. Since the independence, the political views differed from one another by association to the socialist approach to governance or to the capitalist approach. They all agreed on national unity and diversity but debated how to solve social & economic affairs. Today, the political scene drafts a totally different landscape focusing on ethnic, religious and social divisions. This comes as a reflection of modern politics in the Middle East as a whole where politics no longer relate to progressive thinking but to backward thinking and the political arena is divided between pragmatists and Islamists. A consequence of the end of the Cold War era, the Middle East failed to produce any inspiring political thinking for decades and fall hostage to fundamentalists. Syria is no exception. In the 80’s the government responded with tremendous force to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, the past three decades witnessed a softer approach. Religious diversity was celebrated widely in the country and all Syrians felt a sense of reassurance in the ability to express religious beliefs. But how good is too good? Today, when secular state is decided to be more inclusive it is faced with violent disapproval and denial of its right to lead based on sectarian thinking. This is not only increasing tension between government & protestors but also is extending a greater feeling of mistrust amongst different sects in society. All of a sudden, the debate shifted from replacing old socialism with more progressive socially conscious capitalism to replacing army boots with Islamic turbans.

In result, it is astonishing how the “Silent Majority” failed so far to seize its right to preserve the important achievements of the Syrian state since its birth in 1947 and to enter the political debate strongly and effectively using peaceful means and civic action. The end as described by protestors is aimed towards freedom. But it is far more important to exercise a civil and united discourse in order to agree on what type of system we are seeking to protect and cherish common freedoms. Also, it is crucial not to lose sight of what was achieved so far regardless of whether it was done incorrectly. To have something to work with and improve is far better than to turn the page and start from scratch especially in a time where the clock is ticking away…

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis maintains Syria Comment and teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis regularly travels to Washington DC to consult with the State Department and other government agencies. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio.

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