Valuing Secularism in Syria – Important speech by Susan Dirgham
Susan expressed gratitude for the opportunity to speak about ‘secular’ Syria, as she discovered it, as an English teacher who lived there for several years. She said, "It’s a chance to bring attention to the people of Syria, the peace-loving people of Syria, who have been largely ignored by our media."
Pictures of Syrian women .
Syria is a secular country. But secularism is expressed differently in different countries, so what does this mean in Syria’s case?
Like Australia, in Syria, there is freedom of religion. It is fair to say all religions co-exist side by side harmoniously.
And the state does not favour any particular religion, even though one religion (Islam) is predominant.
This means that the holy days of both Islam and Christianity are national holidays. (On one of my visits to Damascus, Christmas and an Eid festival almost coincided, so the colourful decorations hanging in the souqs that year were for both Muslims and Christians.)
There are no religious schools in the Syria I knew. There is religious instruction in schools, and one national text book for Muslim students and another for Christian students. (We are not speaking about areas controlled by IS or other insurgents.)
Syria is the Syrian Arab Republic. It is not an Islamic state, so there are no religious police, for example.
If pressure is put on people to practise a particular religion, for example for people to attend a church or mosque regularly, or for women to wear a hijab, this pressure comes from the family or the communities they live in rather than the government (or clerics with political power at a national level. )
However, the constitution does stipulate that the president must be Muslim.
Women and dress
The position of women can tell you a lot about a society. At least half of my students at the British Council were women, many of them career women: lawyers, doctors, teachers, scientists, businesswomen or public servants.
One of my students worked for the Ministry of Health. She was a single mother and got around in an old VW Beetle. Her ambition was to be the Minister for Health, not an impossible dream as there are quite a few women in the Syrian parliament. As she didn’t wear a hijab, I had no idea what her religion was.
Unless there was pressure from family or community, as noted, women were free to dress as they chose.
In my classes there were very stylishly dressed women who gave no indication of their faith from their dress. One young doctor explained to me that her mother didn’t wear a hijab, but she chose to when she was 17 as it helped her feel closer to God and also it made her life easier when she walked past the lads on her way to the bus.
Women in Syria are free to wear the hijab to work, to university and to school, if they choose. I understand television presenters and journalists were not allowed to show any sign of their religion, so they couldn’t wear a hijab or a crucifix.
In regards to the niqab (the veil covering the face), there were restrictions on teachers wearing it. Some of the early demonstrations in 2011 were in protest against these restrictions.
A good friend in Syria was an unmarried high school teacher. In public, she wore the traditional white hijab and long coat that many Damascus women wear. Whenever I went out with her, I was always impressed by the way she approached waiters, shopkeepers or policemen, for example. It was always with confidence, directness, and with a smile. There was dignity in the way she spoke to them and in their response. This was the normal accepted way of communicating in Damascus, that I witnessed.
As a woman I knew not to be friendly to a stranger on the street, but I could have a pleasant conversation with the man in the corner shop when I went to buy tissues or beer. (I rarely bought beer, but alcohol was available at some corner shops.)
It could be said women in Syria have equal rights and basically the same opportunities as men, so it is a very progressive Middle Eastern society. However, there is religious conservatism in Syria, but I didn’t view this negatively; I didn’t judge it. I certainly didn’t think it was time conservatives woke up and took on so-called modern attitudes. Syria is a diverse society and this is one of the great delights of it. Its diversity enriches it.
One of my friends, a single woman, a highly competent career woman who wore western style clothes, rented a house in a conservative part of Damascus, in an old quarter, so there were narrow lanes, and neighbours would know neighbours. Friends visited her, including male colleagues. There may have been neighbours who condemned her, but generally she felt welcomed and embraced within that community. When I visited her, I didn’t feel there were prying, judgemental eyes watching us.
When I went to live in Syria, I took some prints to have framed for the walls of the flat I rented. One of them was a painting of a nude woman by Matisse. I went to get it framed, but the shopkeeper seemed genuinely shy when he saw the print. He immediately turned it over so he didn’t have to look at it. He measured it, then gave it back to my husband and me. He made the frame, but we had to put the picture in it. There was nothing aggressive about his response; again he wasn’t judgemental. There was warmth and friendliness in our interaction, as there almost invariably was in shops. This is an example of the conservatism, which was just another accepted way of looking at life, at religion.
I arrived in Damascus towards the end of 2003 when it was rare to see married couples holding hands. However, in 2010 on a visit, there were groups of young couples, joyfully holding hands. It was wonderful to see. Social freedoms which brought joy in people’s lives were increasing.
Religion is taboo
(I am speaking now about the Syria I knew before the crisis) Questioning someone about their religion was generally frowned upon. It was a subject you dealt with sensitively and with respect, if you dealt with it at all.
I believe that this gave the people one of the most precious freedoms anyone can have, namely the freedom to approach others in your society – no matter what their religious or ethnic background – with an open heart.
It reflects a basic Australian democratic belief: respect for every person. It is an easy belief to put on paper, but it is not something that automatically manifests in a society.
One day, I was in a taxi in heavy traffic near the old city of Damascus. The taxi driver gave room for a man on a bicycle, and the bicycle rider, a middle-aged man, smiled and blew him a kiss. Random acts of kindness between strangers were an accepted part of life in Syria. I felt that to be kind was being Syrian, and being true to your faith, whatever it was. Love was in the air in the Syria I knew.
Islam and the Grand Mufti 
From living in Syria, I learnt that Islam doesn’t just have two main sects, namely Sunni and Shi’a. It also has many shades and expressions. There are different religious legal schools, for example, which present different interpretations of sharia law. Also, Islam in Syria has its roots in Sufi Islam that goes back many centuries, while Islam in Saudi Arabia, for example, mostly references the Wahhabi school of Islam, which is much younger and much more exclusive. It developed close links with the Saudi royal family, now at the centre of power in Saudi Arabia, so it is deeply involved in politics.
In Syria, you can find a range of responses to Islam, from the women who chose not to wear a hijab to the Syrians who came back from working in Gulf countries with a harsher version of Islam than that of their family and friends. But Ramadan and the Eid festivals brought Syrian Muslims together. It was unusual for a Syrian Muslim not to fast or celebrate Eid.
I would like to draw attention to the Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheik Hassoun. In reports these days, he is probably simply described as an Assad supporter. No indication is given of his complexity. But to understand him can help us understand secular Syria.
Sheik Hassoun is a rather charismatic religious leader, who expressed what have been called ‘controversial statements’ on a visit to Germany in 2007.
He apparently said he follows all sects of Islam. He said, “I am Sunni in practise, Shiite in allegiance. My roots are Salafi, and my purity is Sufi”. He said there is no contradiction in being both Sunni and Shite.
He also stated that most so-called ‘holy wars’ were waged for political, or non-religious, purposes.
For Sheik Hassoun, praying in a church or a synagogue is like praying in a mosque because, he pointed out, “they are all houses of God”. He also expressed respect for the Former Supreme Guide of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whose sermons he heard in Damascus as a child at the Umayyad Mosque.
In 2011, the Grand Mufti’s son, a university student, was assassinated by rebels, and the Grand Mufti gave a moving speech at his son’s funeral in the Umayyad Mosque. Not long after, the Grand Mufti also attended a service in a church for his son and for Sari Saoud, a young Christian boy who had been shot and killed in Homs by so-called rebels.
I’d like to say a few things about the Umayyad Mosque - the main mosque in Damascus. Firstly, it is open to everyone, tourists and worshippers, believers and non-believers, though it is still used as a house of worship. Children feel very much at home in it. The mosque is on the site of what was once a temple to a pagan god, and then it became a temple to the Roman God, Jupiter. Later a Byzantine cathedral was established on the site, and for some years, the site held both the cathedral and a mosque. It is a reminder that Damascus is an ancient city; in fact, it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. One of the mosque’s three minarets is called the Jesus Minaret – it’s believed Jesus will descend from it at the end of the world. In 2002, Pope John Paul visited the Umayyad Mosque - the first time a pope had ever walked into a mosque. The elderly imam of the Mosque, Sheik Buti, a highly regarded Islamic scholar who used to speak on Syrian TV every Friday, was killed in a suicide bomb attack early last year - 48 of his students died with him.
This is the Syria I lived in and visited. If love is a muscle, it got plenty of exercise in Syria.
What unites Syrians
Many things drew people together to make them Syrian. Syrians grow up to be very proud of their country – its landscape, its music, its poets and orators, its monuments and ruins, its independence, its principled stands on the international stage, its heroes and its history. And the various faiths were an integral part of the whole.
Syrians are very patriotic, but not at all aggressively so.
I do not mean to romanticize Syria, though I found it a romantic place to live. Like any country, it has its ugly side. There is certainly corruption. It has prisons, there is torture, there are humiliations, there is sexual harassment, there is child abuse, family violence, some honor killings etc. There are human struggles greater than most Australians face. But it is not Australia, which is well away from the troubles of the world. Syria exists at the heart of the Middle East. Even when I lived there it was a country in a war zone, in a very volatile region. And its neighbours’ responses to the enormous challenges they faced were at least as limited, if not more so. (For example, Turkey, a key ally of the United States in the Middle East, has more journalists in prison than any other country.)
But the Syria I knew was a society brought together by the respect and helpfulness people generally offered to others. The heart-to-heart connections they established, even if it was just during a simple transaction in a shop.
It is a secular country, but in essence a very devout country. The call to prayer was always a part of your day, and on Sundays the church bells would ring.
The essence of religion - love - is in the air you breathe in Syria.
Only once in one uncomfortable conversation with a taxi driver did I hear a Syrian linking political and religious views in an aggressive way, and he wasn’t happy with Australia because of our role in the Iraq war.
Ed Husain, one of my colleagues at the British Council, had been an Islamist in Britain before going to study and teach in Syria. He wrote that in Syria,
”...There was no sense of religious zealotry or grandstanding in the name of God.....Syrians… did not wear their Islam on their sleeves. They did not need to. In a Muslim country they did not have to show they were Muslims... the Christian community did not need to illustrate their faith in public either. (p225 The Islamist)”
Just as Australia would be, Syria is a country worthy of defending.
I describe myself as a peace activist. My peace activism dates back to my involvement in the anti-Vietnam war movement when I became aware that lies were being told to promote the War, when even apparently well-intentioned people could believe these lies and spread them.
And at that time, in the US especially, it required informed, courageous individuals in the media, in churches and academia to challenge those lies in order for there to be peace. And in the countries of Indo-China, an extraordinary level of courage and resilience was needed to survive war.
So I developed some understanding of peace activism, propaganda and war. But also, I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, so I was aware of ugly sectarian tension in Australia. Protestant kids and Catholic kids used to throw stones at each other. One of my uncles walked out of a job interview when he was questioned about his religion.
I understand how easy it is to sow the seeds of hate and distrust in even easy-going Australians.
And the story of Lindy Chamberlain is a reminder of how easy it is for falsehoods to be spread and generally accepted as fact. Based on rumours and media reports and a botched investigation, people were sure Lindy had killed her baby.
To sow sectarian hatred, to damn a person or a group of people or even another nation only takes a few stories, repeated over a period of time by people in positions of influence and then accepted as a truth. Social media, images and videos online have made it easier than ever before to spread false and misleading information.
Time constraints, circumstances and media bias don’t allow the rigorous investigation needed to establish the truth.
Repetition creates ‘truths’
Consequently, most Australians believe that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people in a Damascus suburb on 21 August 2013. They have seen the shocking images showing victims of the alleged chemical attack, and they have heard the US Secretary of State and other politicians declare Assad guilty. They have read articles by respected commentators agreeing with the politicians. For example, radio and TV presenter Waleed Aly wrote in the AGE on June 12 2014 that in Syria,
“a ruler every bit as brutal as Saddam Hussein, is presently in the process of enacting mass violence against his own people. This is a ruler who has merrily danced across what Barack Obama declared to be his “red line” by using chemical weapons against them, proving that this red line didn’t signify much.”
In the West, this claim has been repeated so often that it is accepted as fact. And it would be possible for someone who is unfamiliar with Syria to present it in an article. In writing on the conflict in Syria, there is a formula. Damn Assad and the Alawites and your article has a good chance of getting published even if you know virtually nothing.
But well-regarded impartial experts have challenged the mainstream telling of the story of the chemical attack. For example, Ted Postol, a physicist at MIT has written a lengthy report which concludes that the Assad government most likely wasn’t responsible for the chemical attack. The veteran American journalist Seymour Hersh has written articles coming to much the same conclusion, based on interviews with people in the US intelligence community.
The chemical attack and other alleged massacres that are yet to be seriously investigated remain as reference points for politicians and commentators and the general public in the west. They effectively silence dissenting voices because to challenge them risks being labelled an “Assad apologist”. And so the campaign to destroy secular Syria can continue.
Ironically, Waleed Aly’s comment about Assad being as brutal as Saddam Hussein was written just a week after the presidential election in Syria when there was reportedly a large voter turnout and the president received overwhelming support.
Would a majority of Syrian people participate in an election and vote for a president who was allegedly killing them?
Sectarianism and genocide
From the beginning of the crisis, the sectarian lines of the ‘revolution’ were drawn. One of the chants heard in anti-government demonstrations was “Christians to Beirut; Alawites to their graves”.
When even such a chilling call for genocide was noted in the western press, it was generally almost legitimized by sectarian descriptions of the conflict; the most often repeated one being ‘an Alawite regime is oppressing the Sunni majority’.
In fact, the Syrian government is dominated by Sunnis – the vice-presidents and the PM are Sunnis. Most key ministers are Sunni, for example, the ministers for defence, for foreign affairs, for the interior, for justice. Ali Mamlouk, a key intelligence advisor to the president, is Sunni. (He is the brother of a former landlady of mine.)
Sectarian hatred presented as political commentary has been sanctioned. We should realize by now that we can all eventually be victims of this.
I do not pretend to be an expert on Syria. The real experts are the people of Syria, those living the nightmare of war. Syria has about the same population as Australia, so we would understand that you need to hear many different voices before you have a fair understanding of the views of 23 million people. And you would definitely want to hear the voices of people who do not speak in sectarian terms. We must assume they are the majority in Syria. We must assume the majority of Syrians want peace and reconciliation and normality for themselves, their children and their children’s children, as we would.
The Revolution vs the ‘Regime’
However, a small but very vocal percentage of Syrians (in Syria and in the Syrian diaspora) want the war in Syria to continue. The lines are clear for them. It is the ‘revolution’ or the ‘regime’, and Assad has to go. (If ‘the regime’ is the secular state, millions of Syrians support it, depend on its institutions, and support the army that defends it.)
Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, someone who has been described as the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, said on Al-Jazeera toward the end of 2011, “If it is necessary to kill one third of the Syrian population to get rid of the heretical regime, it is OK”. Sheik Qaradawi was effectively condoning the killing of 7 million people.
It has been reported recently that 40,400 Syrian soldiers have been killed defending what Qaradawi describes as a heretical regime. It is mainly a conscript army so it would reflect the make-up of the Syrian society and most would be Sunni Muslims - the Minister for Defence is a Sunni Muslim. (No doubt Sunni Syrian soldiers defending their secular country have been beheaded by Sunni jihadists from secular countries.)
If Assad were to go, I don’t believe the Syrian army will drop its weapons and welcome insurgents, both local and foreign. They would be capitulating to the game plan of countries that want to destroy their state through the creation of sectarian hatred and divisions.
There is fear of a world war in the coming years. Because of our alliance with the US, Australia is involved in any preparations for such a war.
I grew up in a world in which the most powerful were Protestant white Anglo-Saxons, and their power was expressed through their language, English. We will have no world to live in if this situation continues.
To survive the 21st century, we must be loyal to the very best in us, the very best in our faith, whatever it might be, in our values and in our belief system. We must question narrow national and sectarian agendas and the lies and hypocrisy needed to support them. Our acceptance of lies can lead in the short term to the deaths of hundreds of thousands in other countries and in the long term jeopardise security and peace in Australia and throughout the world.
I believe, to a large extent, Syria holds the world in its hands. Our survival depends on its survival and its survival depends on people writing and speaking about Syria honestly, without slogans or labels.
Those who have a war agenda must be challenged. And the so-called revolution which aims to destroy secular Syria must be challenged.
The love, connectedness, and the diversity I felt and witnessed in Syria should be cherished not destroyed. Syrians say, “God will save Syria”. But God needs help.
6th November 2014
National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalah (Reconciliation) in Syria”.