Updated: May 7, 2021
The Syrian civil war has reshaped Sunni Islamic identity in the country. As a result, the regime will struggle to use religion to enhance its own power and legitimacy.
Syria’s conflict has fragmented the country’s Sunni Islamic religious landscape, so that competing Islamic identities exist today. For now, the regime has relied on trusted local religious actors to reassert its authority in areas it has retaken, while also introducing institutional measures to ensure the state remains at the center of the religious field.
Only time will tell if it can implement a more permanent system of control, unifying Sunni Islam to enhance its own power and legitimacy.
Over the past four decades, the Syrian regime has viewed Islam primarily as a security matter. This continued throughout the uprising and will likely continue after.
Islam used to be shaped primarily in Syria’s main cities, but since the 1990s it has become increasingly localized, with families in smaller urban areas increasingly shaping religious institutions and practice.
Expressions of Sunni Islam became more radicalized in rebel-held areas.
However, local and family structures often successfully resisted this, so that rebel groups had to adapt and pursue their aims through them.
The regime has not yet instituted clear-cut, long-term policies to reintegrate into the state religious institutions located in former rebel-held areas. However, in recaptured areas it has tended to work through trusted local religious figures or institutions rather than impose top-down control.
While relying on localism, the regime has also strengthened the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which has primary authority over the religious field.
Religion has become highly politicized in Syria, which has compelled religious figures to think about expanding beyond the specific networks to which they belong and try developing a more nationwide vision for Islam’s role in Syria.
Today, there is tension between large cities and smaller urban areas in terms of who will have the strongest voice in shaping Islam in Syria down the road. To avoid further conflict on this front, Islamic figures will have to look beyond their own regions and toward building broader sets of interests.
The wave of radicalization during the Syrian conflict could create a new generation of youth that is immersed in radical ideologies. Local clerics who have a more traditional religious education and are inclined to resist radicalism will need to be supported to counter such a trend.
The uprising in Syria, which began in March 2011, fundamentally altered the country’s Sunni Islamic religious landscape. It led to a territorial and ideological separation between the Islam practiced in areas under regime control and outside of them.
In places under its authority, the Syrian state under President Bashar al-Assad maintained and consolidated a security-based version of Islam, promoting individuals and religious interpretations it deemed acceptable. In opposition areas, in turn, more radical teachings became common.
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Traditionally, religious figures in Syrian cities, smaller urban areas, and villages had interacted with and depended upon regime officials and local elites in a variety of matters relating to the religious field.
However, during the 1990s more independent local preachers began emerging in the lesser urban agglomerations of Syria and were tolerated by the state and religious training institutes outside its purview.
These changes were gradual, however, rather than representing a sudden break with previous patterns of state control over religion.
For the Syrian regime, Islam has always been a national security issue. Syrian government officials have long been involved in the bureaucracy of Sunni religious institutions, particularly since the 1990s when ideologies of political Islam began gaining prominence.
Security figures with ties to the presidential palace were appointed to oversee the religious field alongside the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Practically everyone from among the senior leadership of major religious institutes down to local imams were handpicked by these security officials.
The government even intervened to shape educational curricula. As a result, Islam in Syria prior to the uprising, from its religious hierarchies to its doctrines, was largely controlled by the state.
Historically, the Syrian state has managed Islamic affairs through traditional centers of Sufi doctrine located in Aleppo and Damascus. Major religious schools had been based in these cities for centuries, and remained points of reference for surrounding areas until the late 1990s.
At that time, however, new ideas associated with Salafism began entering Syrian society. They were brought by Syrians who had worked in the Gulf countries, where Salafism tends to predominate, or by religious satellite channels owned by these countries.
Conditions changed significantly after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising. As Syria became fragmented, the environment in which religious leaders operated changed and their linkages to urban centers were severed. Villages and towns fell under the control of opposition groups.
In those areas, Islamic practices came to depend on local dynamics—namely which armed groups were in control, how religious authorities interacted with these groups, and the groups’ ideological orientation.
Gradually, secondary religious figures rose to power at the expense of the established leaders of prominent mosques and centers of religious jurisprudence who had been trained in Damascus and Aleppo. This created spaces for more radical doctrinal interpretations of Islam to take root.
The conflict, not surprisingly, reshaped Sunni Islamic identity in Syria. The situation prevailing today is characterized by multiple, competing identities rather than a single one.
The Syrian regime is recapturing areas from rebel groups and, for now, reviving the old model of control through a renewed reliance on trusted local religious actors.
At the same time, the state is also introducing institutional measures to ensure that it remains at the center of the religious field, able to control religious mobilization in the future. Only time will tell whether the regime is able to put in place a more permanent system.
The state as overseer of the Islamic field
The state has routinely been involved in religious matters in Syria and has generally exercised its authority through three mechanisms. It has controlled the ownership and financing of religious institutions; it has exerted bureaucratic control over the appointment of religious figures, such as imams, in both larger and smaller urban areas; and it has had a final say over the curricula of religious schools.
In 1992, for instance, about 5,000 mosques were under the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. In official propaganda it was said that no leader had supported the construction of mosques as had then president Hafez al-Assad following the “corrective movement” that brought him to power in 1970. This claim contributed significantly to Assad’s legitimacy.
In the 1960s, the state set up the first state-run, pre-university level Islamic institutes in Syria’s history, as well as an institute of further education for clerics. Religious affairs were centrally run by the state bureaucracy prior to the uprising—primarily through the Ministry of Religious Endowments and various local administrative bodies.
Religious figures, whether in cities or villages, traditionally interacted with and depended upon elites and regime officials in Damascus and Aleppo. These cities were also home to Syria’s largest official religious schools, to which schools in the rest of the country were connected through personal ties among imams, employees of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, and security officers—with each security branch having an office for dealing with religious affairs.
There were also ties based on ideology, namely with regard to the types of Islamic jurisprudence that schools practiced.
The Ministry of Religious Endowments owned Syria’s largest mosques, which were mostly located in major cities. These places of worship were typically financed by wealthy Syrians as well as through donations collected from local communities, and only rarely by the ministry itself.
Normally, construction of a mosque was preceded by the formation of a building committee, a process tightly controlled by the ministry. The committees had to apply to the Ministry of Religious Endowments for registration and specify the purpose of their fundraising activities, while also providing information on committee members.
In September 1979, new regulations were passed by the ministry with the intention of gaining more control over members of committees. To become a member a candidate had to be Syrian and at least twenty years old, with no legal action pending against him or her.
The Ministry of Religious Endowments checked the information and then allowed the committee to begin working. When a mosque was completed, the ministry would administer it.
The state was also in charge of appointing imams. In the mid-1960s, the prime minister was designated as the official who named mosque employees, an authority retained to this day. In smaller urban areas the state would appoint imams from Aleppo or Damascus, on the condition of approval by the security services.
Generally, they were selected on political grounds or as a form of reward. For example, in al-Tall, a town near Damascus, the Great Mosque is the property of the Ministry of Religious Endowments and its imam is Badr al-Khatib.
He inherited control over the mosque from his father, a prominent imam who had remained loyal to Hafez al-Assad’s regime during its crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 marked a turning point in terms of state control over Syria’s religious institutions. At first, the threat that Washington might seek to pursue regime change in Syria led the authorities to be more tolerant of Salafi-jihadi combatants crossing into Iraq to fight U.S. Forces.
However, this approach had a boomerang effect. Some of the militants gradually returned to Syria, especially following the spike in sectarian killings in Iraq in 2007. At that stage the regime began cracking down on newly radicalized preachers and instituted stricter supervision over religious education.
The history of the Hosari institute demonstrates how the tightening control of Syria’s security apparatus over religious institutions played out during this period.
In 1962, Sheikh Ahmad al-Hosari established the Imam al-Nawawi Institute of Jurisprudence in Idlib Governorate. Initially part of a charity organization that aimed to help the poor, the institute had the authority to issue certificates allowing students to become imams or khatibs, meaning those entitled to deliver sermons in mosques.
Yet the Hosari institute faced increasing oversight from the security agencies during the first decade of this century.
The man leading this effort was Assef Shawkat, Bashar al-Assad’s late brother in law. From 2005 to 2009 he served as director of Military Intelligence and was effectively in charge of religious affairs.
During his tenure, the priority was to counter the rise of Salafi ideologies by controlling religious curricula and overseeing religious institutes.
Under Shawkat’s guidance, the Ministry of Religious Endowments interfered extensively in the Hosari institute’s curriculum, insisting that it devote many more hours of instruction to “universal subjects,” such as math and physics.
Members of multiple security services, including Military Intelligence, State Security, and Political Security, would visit the institute to receive reports on its actions, and its leading figures had to meet with the religious endowments minister every Tuesday. Lessons were prohibited after evening prayer without the prior approval of the security services.
The regime’s behavior in this case was symptomatic of Syrian state behavior toward the religious sphere.
However, there have also been periods when the state has loosened its control over religion, depending on political circumstances. This was particularly true in smaller urban areas starting in the 1990s, as a more conservative approach to Islam gained ground in Syria, and beyond that the Middle East.
This development created space for a rising form of religious localism, one that would have a significant bearing after 2011.