The history of contemporary Syria has witnessed many different movements and Islamic groups since 1930 and up to now.
It can be arguably said that Al-Hidayah Association is the first Islamic association in Syria which was founded in Damascus in 1930 adopting the idea of Sheikh Ali Tantawi and following the previous experience carried out in Egypt and founded by Mohammed al-Hadir Husain. Then the Islamic Society of Islam, which was founded in Damascus in 1932, started to emerge thanks to Ahmed Mazher al-Azama. It is currently headed by Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib al-Hassani.
Despite the existence of different currents and movements, the biggest clash was with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in 1981, while movements and Islamic groups continued to exist until 2011 outside the arena of conflict with the Authority.
With the arrival of Bashar al-Assad in 2000, the regime’s cautious approach to the traditional religious figures, has been observed. The regime allowed the Koranic institutions to be active as well as opening sharia institutions for males and females extensively, while retaining the policy of control and extension of the influence of the intelligence services on the activities of various religious schools in Syria.
According to a study carried out by Jusoor Center for Studies, al-Qubaysiyat had its share of that breakthrough after the regime opened the public domain and gave it freedom of movement to practice religious, social and advocacy activities. Thus, it maintained a good relationship with the most prominent sheikhs and religious scholars supervising these activities.
After 2011, some advocacy groups turned to the regime, such as Muaz al-Khatib, the brothers Usama and Sariya al-Rifai as well as others.
In the context of the current situation in the country, the Ministry of Awqaf in the government of the regime tried to pass the law of decree 16, which revolved around on the determination of direct responsibility for religious discourse and follow-up within Syria. However, a storm of public opinion faced the project before the People's Assembly could vote upon it yesterday.
During an interview with Rozana, Dr. Habash the Islamist scholar stated that Awqaf institution is dominating the religious discourse and the religious figures working there are governed by the instructions of the Minister of Awqaf. The Decree-Law was described as establishing full control over religious discourse. He added that there is more than one article in the law that goes beyond Awqaf employees and “imposes some obligations on the people who do not belong to the Ministry of Awqaf. These practices include repression and arrest, and will be at the root of very serious social complications."
The Minister of Awqaf in the government of the regime, Mohammed Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed told the Syrian television that the purpose behind the draft decree is to pass legislation to control religious work and institutionalize it for the first time in Syria.
Decree 16 and amendments under the pressure of public opinion
The law’s draft decree becomes in force after the signing of Bashar al-Assad. Nabil Saleh, a member of the People's Council and one of the opponents of the draft resolution, commented on his Facebook page saying:
"Today, a two-thirds majority has voted on passing 26 basic and secondary amendments to the provisions of Decree No. 16 regulating the work of the Ministry of Awqaf. Five basic articles were deleted and two articles were added, in a way that reduced the Ministry of Awqaf’s powers of the other ministries. The name ‘al-Farik al-Dini al-Shababy’ (Religious Youth Group) has also been omitted."
Saleh continued that the amendments have limited the spread of divisions and preachers in the Awqaf institutions, cut off their relationship with the institutions of the Ministry of Local Administration, gave up on the regime’s dead people and omitted the financial advantages of the Awqaf’s employees by subjecting them to the Basic Law for Government Employees.
The Higher Council of Islamic Jurisprudence was amended to be called the Council of Islamic Jurisprudence. Its tasks were also amended to include the counteraction of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood members who were directly, clearly, and explicitly named in Article 2 of the law.
The addition of Article 5, which provides for the affiliation of all employees and administrators in the Ministry of Awqaf and its departments to the Basic Law for Government Employees.
Omission of the paragraph that allows the Minister to issue exceptions using non-Syrian Islamic scholars.
The law also reduced the Minister's powers that existed in Articles 23, 19 and other articles, although he still has wide powers in other articles.
The Amendments removed Article 68 and paragraph B from Article 97, and restricted the wearing of Islamic religious dress to authorized people who are allowed to do so.
Amendments passed by the People's Council
Islamic Scholar Muhammad Habash considered in an interview with Rozana that the regime is compensating the religious group that stood by its side in confronting the public. "Of course, these people have an adaptive practicing nature that follows the political reality dictating that it is crucial to refer back to the Sultan in all matters; that is recycling the traditional discourse in its Salafist side. The nature of religious discourse must be confronted by a very limited number of competent religious specialists and be available to people within the framework of what they must understand."
Legal traps in Decree 16
One of the terrifying dangers in the new law, according to Islamic Scholar Muhammad Habash, is that it aims to provide a strong financial treasury of financial returns to be placed at the disposal of the Islamic clerics and their sponsoring institution. This hampers, wastes, and kills the condition of Awqaf donors who put money for investment in good purposes.
The articles corresponding to the new law of the Ministry of Awqaf’s contradict with the current Syrian constitution, in many occasions. Article 2, paragraph (P) stipulates the formation of al-Fareeq al-Deni as a means to empower and rehabilitate younger generations of imams and preachers. This article runs counter to the Syrian Constitution, which prohibits any gathering of a religious nature. Later on, the description of the group was cancelled by the constitutional committee on education in the People's Council during the debate on the law, on Tuesday.
On the other hand, Syrian lawyer Firas Haj Yahya refuted, during an interview with Radio Rozana
, the legal transgressions and dangers set forth by the old version of Decree 16. Thus, Haj Yahya explained: "Decree 16 is entirely unconstitutional, as paragraph (P) is adopting a vague structure, under the name “al-Fareeq al-Deni”. Nonetheless, this newly formed group is entrusted with two tasks, namely, to empower and rehabilitate young imams, preachers and female Quran teachers, in addition to establishing a platform for dialogue with religion scholars from older generations.”
According to the new amendments, the name al-Fareeq al-Deni of voluntary youth was changed to become Young Imams.
The Minister of Awqaf in the Syrian regime’s government indicated that “al-Fareeq al-Deni is a team of youthful imams and preachers hired by the Syrian Ministry of Awqaf. Those young recruits are articulate, open to dialogue and capable of coping with life developments. It is a pioneering experience, which some countries requested from Syria to go through”.
Haj Yahya added that paragraph (P) does not specify how this team is formed, or how many members it comprises and the criteria for their selection, either." What is even more surprising is that a team of young, inexperienced and possibly incompetent imams will be assigned to mentor other imams, mosque preachers and female Quran teachers. This type of missions is strictly academic, and can only be performed by professionals in schools, specialized institutes, and universities. Nonetheless, the dialogue about religion in Syria will be monitored by a group of unknown youth selected by the minister. "
While talking to Rozana
, the Syrian lawyer considered that Decree 16 and the dispute over it have exposed the real rift tearing down the Syrian society. Such crack is caused by the lack of mutual trust and the real anxieties growing among the different components of society. Haj Yahya also pointed to the threat of allowing a certain majority belonging to one of the aforementioned social groups to seize power and be the centre of political decision-making process. Such scenario will entail granting this group of people the power to impose their "lifestyle" on the rest of society.
He added that the law transforms the religious institution to a deep state and strengthens the Ministry of Awqaf’s total hegemony on the joints of religious life in Syria. Hence, Haj Yahya asserted: "The Ministry of Awqaf has allied with the Syrian regime for more than 40 years, which converted the College of Sharia, the Ministry of Awqaf and other religious institutes in Syria to propaganda centres, which spread Hafez al-Assad’s pattern of thoughts and the Baath party doctrine in general. Moreover, such institutions attempted to glorify the rulers of Syria and threatened to excommunicate whoever disobeys these political figures."
Lawyer Firas Haj Yahya explained to Rozana
Radio that the Minister of Awqaf wanted through the draft decree 16 to have the powers described by the lawyer as superstitious to enable him to dominate the religious affairs and the endowments in the state, so that the character of the minister and his political and sectarian background and his connections, known and unknown, enjoy the largest role in the management and politicization of this sensitive sector in the state.
Article 51, paragraph (a) of the law stipulates that a council called the Supreme Awqaf Council shall be formed in the ministry, and that the Council shall have several powers, including what Article 89 stipulated about the Supreme Council of Awqaf's ability to establish commercial companies that it itself owns…".
In the same context, Haj Yahya notes that the Ministry of Awqaf in Syria is considered as one of the richest ministries through its holdings of land, real estate, and commercial shops from the far south to the far north of Syria. "Unfortunately, this article will be a threshold to corruption in the ministry, and perhaps it will be more dangerous than the establishment of companies as it may end up in the ministry selling endowments’ properties under the pretext of doing business."
Lawyer Firas Haj Yahya concluded his legal statement to Rozana
Radio by saying that "this law has made the minister control everything and allowed him to be the only one in charge of appointing the majority of the members of the Fatwa and Awqaf Councils. The lawyer added that this decree is considered as an extension meant to take full control of the Syrian society and change its faith and doctrine in accordance with the minister's perception."
Attorney Issam al-Takrouri, who holds a doctoral degree in public law from the Sorbonne University, said through his page on social networking sites that the decree, which has become a law, needs more work to remove any overlap between it and the existing laws and to be limited only to organizing the work of the Ministry of Awqaf. There are still four ways to do that:
Pursuant to article 100 of the Constitution, the President of the Republic may, before passing the laws approved by the People's Council, object to them by reasoned decision within one month from the date they are received by the Presidency of the Republic. If the laws are approved again by the Council with a two-thirds majority, they are issued by the President of the Republic.
The possibility of challenging the constitutionality of the law before the Supreme Constitutional Court by the President of the Republic or by one fifth of the members of the People's Council on the constitutionality of a law before it is issued. (M, 147, Constitution).
If one of the litigants sued in case of challenging the provisions of the unconstitutionality of the law in case it was applied by the court contested by its decision, and the court considered the appeal to be serious and necessary to decide the appeal, it suspends the case and refers the appeal to the Supreme Constitutional Court. (M, 147, Constitution).
The permanent right of members of the People's Council to request the amendment of any law in force.