Recognizing the vital humanitarian and socioeconomic role religious institutions assumed before and after 2011, the Syrian state allows the religious domain to grow while simultaneously seeking to control it. Law 31, passed in October 2018, expands the prerogatives of the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments), while reinforcing the state’s regulatory command over it.
Although a state apparatus, the ministry is part of the broader religious domain, which, over twenty years, increased its social and economic ties with communities while the state’s responsibilities and capacities gradually devolved—first due to neoliberal policies and later due to state atrophy. The new law—among other objectives—reinforces the ministry’s utility as an instrument of economic development and wealth redistribution. The law will enable the government at large to both increase its oversight of the ministry and tap into its economic and social networks.
This legislation is complemented by the state’s efforts to replace local networks in former opposition-held areas with “loyal” ones. While religious institutions have been providing an alternative distributive system, they have been, and will remain, submissive to patrimonial and asymmetric power structures in place. Thus, what is likely to emerge is a more powerful religious domain that not only shapes religious expression but also increasingly intervenes in state-society relations and everyday life.
Religious Networks Grow Under Neoliberal Policies
From 2000 to 2011, President Bashar al-Assad made a sharp turn toward neoliberal modes of economic management by transferring economic and social responsibilities to private entities. One outcome was a burgeoning role for religious associations in stimulating economic development at the local level and delivering sorely needed social services.
Prior to the year 2000, Syria had a public sector–driven economy, focused on primary investments in infrastructure and industry. The state largely dictated economic and social policy.1 According to the International Labor Organization, for instance, until early 2000, more than half of the workforce was employed in agriculture and industry, two sectors heavily supported and subsidized by the state. Furthermore, the number of registered associations (charity, social, cultural) was on a downward trend, declining from 596 in 1962 to 512 in 2000; the state continuously limited the role of associations, as it considered itself the primary authority responsible for socioeconomic welfare.2
By 2000, it was clear that the state’s services could no longer meet the needs of the population. Between 1990 and 2010, the population nearly doubled from approximately 12 to 21 million, which exacerbated economic hardships such as the drought in agricultural areas of al-Jazira and Houran, internal migration from rural to urban areas, and youth unemployment.3 Balancing the country’s economic and social needs was largely dependent on revenue from the energy sector, and this became untenable as Syria began transitioning from an oil-exporting to an oil-importing country.4 Between 1990 and 2000, the Syrian regime established intimate linkages with wealthy individuals and families in urban centers.5 These linkages and clientelist arrangements with private entities expanded between 2000 and 2011, forming the bedrock of the private sector in Syria.6
Assad’s answer to the socioeconomic situation was to adopt neoliberal policies by fostering economic privatization and increasing openness to importing.7 Over the ensuing years, only a small group of kin, loyalists, and crony businessmen came to benefit from Assad’s policies. Further, the state surrendered social responsibility, leaving the majority of the population lacking economic and social security. It is in this context that the number of registered associations grew from 513 in 2000 to 1,485 in 2009.
During this period, the role of religious institutions expanded through economic exchanges and social networks. The transition came about through professionalization of the religious field—the development of a cadre of specialized offices; hiring of professionals (social workers, project coordinators, and field workers); and acquiring of new funding sources. Charity associations shifted from distributing short-term aid to delivering basic monthly income, skills development and literacy courses, employment opportunities, microcredits, and even international relief and humanitarian aid.8 Religious networks expanded their reach through direct, face-to-face exchanges within communities and local economic development efforts. Religious actors and entities redistributed wealth—a responsibility the state ceded—by raising funds through local donations or receiving grants through international charity networks and donor agencies, and then redistributing them to those deemed in need.9
Throughout this transition, the state either turned a blind eye to the growth of religious actors or directly encouraged them. Out of 8,731 mosques in 2007, 7,162 were not registered with the Ministry of Awqaf.10 This data came from the ministry itself, indicating that it was fully aware of, and favored, the growing religious networks. In fact, multiple direct government contracts (‘uqud tasharuqiyya) explicitly transferred state services to religious social institutions. Although state policies began shifting in 2009—toward greater government control and diminished autonomy within the religious domain—religious networks had already established a wide presence in the public sphere.11
Clientelism and Favoritism Foster Internal Competition
At the same time it was devolving services, the state was also reinforcing clientelist arrangements within the religious domain by promoting local competition for resources and demonstrating favoritism. For example, there were more Christian organizations, relative to the size of the Christian population in Syria, compared with Islamic organizations, relative to the size of the Muslim population.12 But Christian organizations were allowed to operate more freely and had access to funding sources that were unavailable to Muslim organizations. This was evident during the influx of Iraqi refugees in Syria after the insurgency and sectarian strife in Iraq from 2003 onward. Christian entities such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (GOPA) were allowed to operate more freely than any other entity. The GOPA was able to cooperate with several United Nations humanitarian agencies that were not listed among the foreign donors allowed to operate in Syria. This might be regarded as the state’s attempt to balance the access of Islamic associations to Gulf capital with the access of Christian organizations to foreign funding sources. However, Christian entities also had access to funding sources unique to their international donor networks, including the World Council of Churches, Catholic Relief Services, and the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Clientelism and state favoritism were also evident in the dynamics of urban versus rural competition and competition among networks of kin. For example, in Aleppo, over time, key positions from the religious networks of the Shami family were transferred to those of the Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassun.13 In the 1980s, the Shami family, which directed the Kiltawiyya mosque and its institute, held key religious positions and appointments and had a large rural constituency.14 In 1984, Suhaib al-Shami, then head of the Ministry of Awqaf’s Aleppo directorate, and his brother, Anas, then a member of parliament, oversaw the closing down of the al-Furqan Sharia institute founded by the Hassun family. However, over time, the state gradually passed key positions to the networks of Hassun, who became a member of parliament in 1990, a mufti in 1999, and, through a direct presidential decree, the grand mufti of Syria in 2005.15 Urban and rural religious networks thus began to compete for limited rewards only accessible through state favoritism. As the conflict in Syria turned violent, Hassun, owing his ascendency to the regime, remained one of the staunchest allies of Assad. Alternatively, the Shami brothers left Syria in 2012, and their Kiltawiyya mosque in Aleppo city was destroyed in 2015 by militant Islamist groups. The physical remains of Muhammad al-Nabhan, the founder of the institute, were also extracted and destroyed.
Religious Networks Expand Their Role Under State Atrophy
Many sheikhs and clerics left Syria after 2011, leaving the field open for many new religious actors. The religious diaspora, together with these new actors, created entities such as the Syrian Islamic Council to stay strongly connected to their Syrian communities. The council’s members, for example, are religious figures from both inside and outside of Syria. Other diaspora organizations, such as the League of Syrian Ulema, comprise Islamic scholars that left Syria in the wake of the turmoil in the 1980s. Despite being disconnected from the Syrian context for decades, the league harnessed powerful linkages with Syrian localities after 2011. For instance, Muhammad Sabuni, the league’s chairman in 2012, was granted full control over humanitarian relief efforts in territories occupied by the rebel group, Liwa al-Tawhid.16 Competing transnational networks of sponsors also fueled local divides through their ability to liaise with private and public sources of funding, specifically from the Gulf.
Internally, competing for local control, armed factions saw independent actors as competitors that needed to be either co-opted or eliminated. Prominent factions limited independent initiatives and spearheaded their own religious, judiciary, and humanitarian networks. For example, independent clerics, similar to the independent lawyers and judges of the Free Independent Judiciary Council, attempted to fill the void in local governance, but, eventually, were either absorbed or marginalized by armed factions.17
The religious networks affiliated with armed factions thus became pseudo bodies of local government and took charge of relief distribution, social services, education, the management of bakeries, the administration of refugee camps, and other societal functions. Accompanying these social services were clear efforts of religious indoctrination—for example, the standardization of veiling, the distribution of the Quran, and the running of orphanages (with life arranged around religious teachings and memorization of the Quran). Of the seventy-seven social and humanitarian associations recently surveyed in opposition-held areas in the province of Aleppo, forty-nine (64 percent) were religious entities.18
In government-held areas, too, religious actors deemed trustworthy by the state were granted unprecedented prerogatives within their communities. Religious entities took on municipal tasks—specifically for minority populations—to offset disintegrating state structures and services.19 For instance, religious entities sponsored the distribution of electricity through privately owned and operated electricity generators.20 In addition, artesian water wells were dug on church premises to distribute, or provide locals access to, water and offset water shortages.21 Furthermore, international donors and faith-based organizations partnered with local religious networks to provide donations and assist with food parcels; medical services; hygienic services; and livelihood, education, and reconstruction efforts.22 Thus, in government- and opposition-held areas alike, the religious field took on an even more important role in the public domain, while state and municipal structures significantly atrophied.
Although the government has regained control of parts of the country, its actions in some localities already show that the religious domain’s socioeconomic role will be maintained. After Assad retook Aleppo City in 2016, individuals that had any role in local government in opposition-held areas were deemed terrorists and pushed out. This removed any remaining societal structures and local networks that had managed to survive under opposition control. But by 2017, the government began allowing religious institutions operating in government-held areas to operate in areas previously held by opposition groups. These government-supported entities are now establishing their own charities and medical, educational, economic, and welfare services, which will lead to new societal structures and local networks.
Law 31 Reinforces the Economic Function of the Religious Domain
Numerous observers believe that Law 31 represents the government’s attempt to further control Syria’s religious networks. The new legislation expands the presence and powers of the Ministry of Awqaf and its personnel; defines the “correct” version of Islam; determines processes for appointing religious positions such as that of the Grand Mufti; defines the responsibilities, limits, and salaries of religious officials; and specifies penalties for violations committed by such officials. But a closer examination of the document reveals that the government also aims to sustain and leverage the ministry’s socioeconomic role.
Section 5 of Law 31 covers the ministry’s economic and financial activities. It includes multiple provisions regarding the use and development of lands and properties belonging to the ministry, which is one of the biggest landowners in Syria. But, at the same time, it grants the ministry more budgetary independence and greater autonomy to collect and organize its own funds. It allows the ministry to establish business and financial corporations with the purpose of generating funding. The ministry can repurpose and develop its properties for residential or economic functions. In this way, Law 31 treats the ministry as a significant economic actor with redistributive functions, rather than a religious establishment per se.
Exchanges and transactions such as those mentioned in the new legislation have had precedents. For instance, in February 2017, with a presidential decree from Assad, the ministry presented 341 acres of real estate to the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment, which, in turn, passed ownership to local residents. The real estate is located in Dahiyat al-Rmeyle in the coastal city of Jableh in Tartous, which, for the past forty years, was sprawling with informal settlements.23 The heads of each ministry signed the change-of-ownership document in the presence of local notables and residents. The transferring of property was framed at the event and in state media as a donation to families who have sacrificed and fought for the nation. The broader religious domain, in line with the Ministry of Awqaf’s role, continues to act as the authority responsible for the redistribution of wealth and property.
Religious entities have played a crucial role in alleviating the suffering of Syrians throughout the conflict. However, by doing so, they have also played a significant political role. By competing for funds and resources within a patrimonial environment, religious institutions have become instruments to counteract the socioeconomic effects of war in government- and opposition-held areas alike.
Given that the state’s economic capabilities remain weak, reliance on the religious domain for socioeconomic purposes will likely continue, and, in turn, religious networks will maintain their role in the public sphere. Under this scenario, the religious domain’s burgeoning power and influence will further shape state-society relations and everyday life. It will also further blur the line between social action (services and charity) and religious activism. Through social institutions, religious actors are already playing a regulatory role, dictating religious observance and expressions while stimulating socioeconomic exchanges throughout the country.
While it is too early to speculate the trajectory of the religious domain in Syria, management of the country’s reconstruction and resources will be a reliable indicator of the regime’s future outlook toward the domain’s role. Religious institutions will either continue to serve as local implementing partners or be sidelined. Regardless, the regime will continue to use resources to reinforce clientelist arrangements, especially in urban areas. During conflict or otherwise, it has always prioritized the development of key urban areas, such as Damascus and some coastal cities. Thus, religious actors in rural areas and secondary cities will likely be deprived of any opportunity to develop or grow.
Harout Akdedian is a Carnegie SFM postdoctoral research fellow at the Central European University and a visiting scholar at the Portland State University’s Middle East Studies Center. He is currently working on a book about the role of the religious domain in state-society relations in Syria.
A more in-depth piece on this topic is forthcoming in the edited volume Striking From the Margins: Devolution of Authority in the Arab Middle East by al-Saqi Books.
1 Shamel Azmeh, “The Uprising of the Marginalized: A Socio-Economic Perspective of the Syrian Uprising,” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series no. 6, November 2014.
2 Laura Ruiz de Elvira and Tina Zintl, “The End of the Ba’thist Social Contract in Bashar al-Asad’s Syria: Reading Sociopolitical Transformations Through Charities and Broader Benevolent Activism,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 46, no. 2 (2014): 333. State responsibilities included subsidies, tax cuts, the protection of domestic products against foreign imports, and the provision of social services. See Azmeh, “The Uprising of the Marginalized.”
3 State services included, but were not limited to, public education, health care, subsidized food products (such as sugar and bread), and other subsidies targeting the agricultural sector. See Azmeh, “The Uprising of the Marginalized,” 10–11.
4 Azmeh, “The Uprising of the Marginalized,” 10–11.
5 Bassam Haddad, Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).
6 Muhammad Jamal Barout, The Past Decade of Syrian History: The Dialectics of Stagnation and Reform (Beirut: Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies, 2012), 14, 53–88.
7 Most visible in areas around Aleppo and the Turkish–Syrian border.
8 De Elvira and Zintl, “The End of the Ba’thist Social Contract,” 329–349.
9 Local business networks played a major role in this, as donations to religious entities were a profitable marketing strategy to gain access to religious networks and develop a pious image within localities. See Thomas Pierret, Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama From Coup to Revolution (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
10 Line Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in Syria: The Rise and Fall of Ba‘thist Secularism (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2011), 137–138.
11 According to Jamal Barout, the number of registered associations in Syria dropped to 1,074 by 2010. See Barout, The Past Decade of Syrian History,150. Pierret also points to this transition in state policy based on public statements made by government officials. See Thomas Pierret and Kjetil Selvik, “Limits of ‘Authoritarian Upgrading’ in Syria: Private Welfare, Islamic Charities, and the Rise of the Zayd Movement,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41, no. 4 (2009): 609. Line Khatib reports on the testimonies of security officials, admitting the challenges of curbing the influence, and the expansion of religious networks due to their informal operational methods. See Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in Syria, 162.
12 Laura Ruiz de Elvira and Tina Zintl, Civil Society and the State in Syria: The Outsourcing of Social Responsibility (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).
13 While Hafez al-Asad’s policies toward the urban merchants and wealthy families in Damascus was that of appeasement, the state remained suspicious of Aleppo’s merchants due to the role of unions and syndicates and middle-class involvement in antigovernment mobilization in the early 1980s. Asad’s policy toward religious actors in Aleppo was to support rival religious networks, favoring those with a rural constituency.
14 Pierret, Religion and State, 84.
16 See official statement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=055Izzq66JI.
17 Author interviews with previous local council members in Aleppo and Beirut in March 2018 and in Utrecht in August 2018.
18 Author survey conducted in May 2017. The entities operated at different intervals between 2011 and 2017 and will be detailed in the author’s forthcoming publication.
19 Examples include, but are not limited to, the GOPA, the Latin Church, and the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.
20 Author interview with the head of a Syrian Christian community, Beirut, in October 2017.
21 Author interviews (by phone) with Aleppo residents in May 2017.
22 Author interviews with representatives from international faith-based organizations and intermediary entities connecting international donors to local religious entities in Geneva in June 2017.
23 Author interview with research assistant in November 2018.