Assad regime and the right to kill 'pagans'

In a blog post yesterday I quoted from a study of school textbooks in an Arab country and invited readers to guess which country it was talking about. The textbook in question was aimed at 14-15 year-olds and it informed them:

"Islam accepts only two choices for pagans: that they convert to Islam or be killed." 

The textbook made the surprising claim that pagans (whom it defined as "those who worship something other than God") and atheists "contradict the principle of freedom of belief". This, it explained, is because "Islam gives freedom of belief only within the limits of the divine path," which "means a religion descended from heaven". 

On Twitter, people suggested – very plausibly – that the textbook came from Saudi Arabia or another of the Gulf states, or possibly Egypt. There was even a suggestion that it might be one of ISIS's new textbooks.

In fact, it was a textbook produced by the Assad regime in Syria and the information came from a 2003 study by Joshua Landis entitled "Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism".

Telling schoolchildren that Islam supports the killing of pagans sits rather oddly alongside President Assad's claim in a Russian TV interview that his regime is "the last stronghold of secularism" in the Middle East.

When the Baathists came to power in Syria they did indeed have strong secularist leanings but they also feared religious opposition and so they did what most Arab regimes have done: they adopted and promoted a particular version of Islam which suited their political needs.

Syrian Baathist Islam was a generic kind of religion and its chief characteristic was that it denied the existence of differences within the Muslim faith and didn't allow people to talk about them openly.

In the Syrian education system, Landis writes, no mention is made of Shi'a sects, sufism, or even the different schools within the Sunni tradition itself. "Diversity within Islam does not exist within the world of Syrian textbooks."

Dishonestly presenting Islam as a unified monolith was a political necessity for the regime because of the dominant position held by members of the minority Alawite sect (usually regarded as an offshoot of Shi'ism) in a country with a large Sunni majority. The aim, basically, was to persuade Syrians that their Alawite rulers were no different from any other Muslims. (I discussed this in a recent article for the Muftah website and for a more detailed account see Torstein Worren's Oslo University thesis, "Fear and Resistance: The Construction of Alawi Identity in Syria".)

Ironically, far from promoting secularism in Syria, these efforts to control and reshape religion and to combat existing forms of sectarianism led to the regime developing its own brand of official sectarianism, as the Syrian writer Mohammad Dibo has noted.

One Syrian on the receiving end of this was Hashem al-Shamy, formerly a Sunni Muslim and now an atheist, who I interviewed for my book, Arabs Without God. Hashem, who was speaking under a pseudonym, was sent to one of the many primary schools in Damascus organised by the Qubaysiyat, a religious movement run by women which has been supportive of the Assad regime – and he later felt cheated by the teaching he received there:

"As Muslims from Syria's Sunni society we were patronised, we weren't told the truth ... the fact that there were disagreements between the Companions [of the Prophet] and Ali [his son-in-law] that drove the Shia from the Sunnis ... how we were presented with one version of Islam and weren't told about Druzes and Shias and Isma'ilis and others."

At the age of sixteen, during the summer holidays, he was also briefly drawn into the oddly-named "Hafez al-Assad Circles of Religion":

"They taught you how to read the Qur'an properly and how to memorise it. They taught you about the hadith and being a good Muslim in a general sense. There were also social activities and sports and picnics. Some of my friends started going and they asked me if I wanted to come along. My parents were OK with that … initially.

"The programme was approved by the Syrian government, with preachers appointed by the Ministry of Endowments, but most of those involved in the teaching were young men in their early twenties.

"They started trying to get me to go more regularly and soon I was going there twice a day, then three times. Then I started going at the weekend, and eventually going for the dawn prayers, around five in the morning. At that point my dad got really anxious. If I wanted to pray, he said, I could pray at home. He was asking me about the people I was meeting with, and all that. 

"I started realising that the job of these circles was only to recruit us. They didn’t have any real interest in caring for our affairs or teaching us. They just needed to meet a target of having enough young men coming to the mosque, and then when that was reached they moved on to the next group."

This still leaves the puzzling question of why the Assad regime would tell children that Islam allows people who don't believe in monotheism to be killed, and I can only give a speculative answer.

One feature of the Syrian school curriculum, Landis points out, is the "absence of notions of takfir, or declaring others to be unbelievers, as expressed by radicals, such as Sayyid Qutb or Bin Laden". 

This is consistent with the idea of a unitary Islam, devoid of internal strife, but "pagans" (polytheists, animists, etc) and atheists fall outside the monotheistic framework and thus, perhaps, can be considered legitimate targets.

The attitude towards "pagans" may also have been influenced by Baathist ideas about the relationship between religion and Arab nationalism.

Syrian textbooks present Islam as the main source of Arab greatness while also highlighting certain moral qualities that derive simply from being Arab. So, children are told that "the revelation of Islamic principles transformed the Arabs into a unified community (umma) possessing a high human civilisation which it spread to all people". 

The overall message, Landis says, is that "to be an Arab is good, but to be a Muslim is better, and being both is the best". 

This solved the ideological problem of how religion fits into Arab nationalism but in the process it created what Landis describes as "a clear hierarchy of virtue" with Muslims at the top as God’s preferred people, with Christians and Jews somewhere below them, and with polytheists and atheists at the very bottom. Thus they are to be considered as the worst kind of Arabs.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 4 December 2014