Book Review

Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution

Thomas Pierret

 

Winter 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 4

The Pandora's box of the Arab Spring has spawned political unrest, ethnic hatred and sectarian violence in the Arab world. Syria, specifically, has become a core point of focus due to its unique sociopolitical and religious history. In spite of its presence in the headlines, however, Syria remains an understudied country, and Thomas Pierret has done the world a service with Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution. The book portrays a holistic analysis of condensed historical events from 1920 to 2012. Pierret traces the historical development of the gap between the 80 percent majority of Sunni Muslims and the ruling secular minority, "al-Assad's Alawite sect," 10 percent of the population. He argues that religion is the key to understanding Syrian social and political unrest or, more precisely, that sectarian identity has been at the heart of Syria's domestic tensions for decades.

The book provides an encyclopedic discussion of Syrian Sunni scholars (ulama) and their movement from the French Mandate period (1920-46) to the current uprising. It explains how Sunni clergy, in spite of systemic challenges and structural reforms (e.g., secularization), have not just survived, but flourished and deepened their roots in Syrian society (pp. 8-47). Pierret claims that "the resources of Islamic tradition allowed the ulama to overcome the challenges of social change and Baathist authoritarianism" (p. 9). Remarkably, Pierret's work examines not only mainstream and leading scholars; it discusses even minor local scholars and clerics, showing how various movements have fused and overlapped. The author highlights the role of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was established in 1946 and has participated with minor representation from 1949 to 1962 in parliamentary democracy. Moreover, Syria's perilous democratic institutions functioned intermittently until the Baath party seized power in a 1963 coup and transformed the country into a single-party state with a determinedly secular regime (pp. 174-79).

Pierret helps us to understand how social and political developments evolved and Sunni institutions took advantage of the eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood after the 1982 siege of Hama (pp. 189-90). Subsequently, the Sunni ulama became the only Islamic voice, expressing through educational programs, charitable foundations, and merchant networks popular disaffection with secular ideologies and increasing their influence over Syrian society (pp. 166-240). However, the author fails to clarify the Hama siege and its important consequences. Pierret's groundbreaking study undertakes the complicated task of presenting the different Sunni ulama organizations and situating them within a broader analytical framework, but he fails to provide references or explain how the Sunni ulama negotiated the divisions between Sunnis and Shia Alawites, on the one hand, and the substantial Christian minority, on the other.

The book explicates the other major feature of the Sunni ulama and attributes them as sectoral elites who are concerned with "managing the goods of salvations" (p. 243). It argues that the Sunni ulama defend "Sufism" against "Salafism" in Syrian Muslim society. The failure of Islamism and Salafism in Syria cannot be entirely attributed to state suppression; however, the magnetism of Sufism is quite attractive and relevant to present-day Syrian Muslim believers. The study also explains the stance of some prominent pro-regime religious figures under a demeanor of "quietism" (p. 68); the ulama have been prepared to live with authoritarianism. The Muslims Brothers and Syria's religious scholars, though, were unable to establish a common front against the regime, due to their incompatible political objectives and structural differences. The study fails to explain explicitly why the ulama's networks did not coalesce into a more powerful political force.

Despite the historical discourse, this study also sheds light on ulama-state relations leading up to and including the current civil war. In brief, it tells us that during the regimes of Hafiz al-Assad (1970-2000) and his son Bashar (2000-present), prominent clergy were sidelined and forced to take part in joint politics with the Alawite government. In spite of the current regime's crackdown on religious activities and the carnage of civil war, most of the leading ulama are committed to supporting the government in order to shield their official positions and social prestige. Nonetheless, the Sunni ulama have shown substantial reservations and anxiety over Syrian authorities' permissiveness with respect to Shia proselytizing and increasing activities by feminist organizations (p. 214). On the other hand, the Assad regime tried to enforce secularism ruthlessly, shutting down places of prayer in public areas, forbidding face veils at educational institutions, and imprisoning religious scholars and activists. Consequently, many ulama fled the country; others remained silent due to their financial association with the government's economic reforms (p. 229).

Despite these minor limitations, the book analyzes in an empirically rich manner the nexus between the Baath regime and Sunni Islamic resistance in Syria, with important implications for other Muslim societies. Pierret has written a thought-provoking and extremely well-written work. It is a valuable source for future comparative studies examining the Sunni Islamic revival, both as a cause and a consequence of different sociopolitical discourses in the Muslim world. The book will be of interest to both academics and a more general readership.