Bridge of Time

The French mandate period left a lasting impression on Syria’s systems.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The highs and lows of the French mandate in Syria are immediately visible to any first-time visitor to Damascus.

The impressive, French-built National Museum – a first stop for any newcomer – highlights the period’s positive impact. Conversely, the domed roof of Souk Hamidiyeh was left punctured with its iconic bullet holes during the 1925 air raid combating a civilian revolt. The French response to the Syrian uprising killed 5,000 citizens and made Damascus, according to US professor and Middle East expert Michael Provence, the site of a dark legacy: the home of “the first civilian carpet bombing campaign ever”.

In addition to these and other visible vestiges of the period between 1920 and 1946 when France administered Syria through a mandate from the League of Nations, numerous intangible fingerprints touch Syrian education, law and culture.

More than 65 years since the French left Syria and the country became an independent Arab republic, the French legacy remains.

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

Educational impact

Every spring, secondary school students throughout Syria agonise over the Baccalauréat graduation examination that will determine their qualifications for attending university. During this time, newspapers print numerous stories about students committing suicide because of test anxiety.

Although after independence, the Syrian educational system was nationalised and the curriculum adapted from French into Arabic, certain trademark characteristics of education implemented by the French during the 1920s remain – most obviously the Baccalauréat.

“It remains a huge rite of passage – rightly or wrongly – that can define your entire future,” said Nadya Sbaiti, a professor of Modern Middle East at Smith College in the US. “That’s directly related to the French mandate for sure.”

Under the mandate, the Baccalauréat was implemented and eventually became the demanding ordeal that it remains today, after the French discovered that too many young Syrians were passing the test, Sbaiti explained. In order to reserve government and specialised professions – particularly medicine, law and finance – for French residents of Syria, the examination was made more difficult.

“The whole point was to prevent Syrians from going into these professions,” she said.

Today, the Baccalauréat has evolved, but it remains a high-profile filter that determines who can obtain an affordable education – with thousands more young people finishing secondary school annually than there are spots available at public universities.

Likewise, the French school in Damascus still provides lucky individuals with additional opportunities. While nationalised in 1967, it is an expensive, private-tuition institution to which only the most well-connected Syrian students have access.

“It’s definitely part of the elite culture,” said Randi Deguilhem, a France-based professor at the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Wealthy Syrians and children of diplomats attend the school, she said, which is “a clear sign of socioeconomic status. It’s not just the knowledge [learned there] itself, it opens the door to economic opportunities.”

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Legal tradition
Syria’s legal system – its foundations and some of its high-profile hallmarks – remain rooted in the country’s French background. Syrian law is derived from legislative statutes that follow the French civil law system.

French law first arrived in Syria long before the mandate period. In 1858, the Ottomans, who occupied Syria for 400 years through 1918, replaced its sharia-based legal system throughout its empire – as part of a push towards westernisation –with a criminal law system modelled on France’s, Farouk al-Basha, professor of law emeritus at the University of Damascus, explained.

Later, during the mandate, Syria also adopted France’s civil, commercial and administrative legal systems. While the changes made Syrian law clearer – going from complex sharia to straightforward statutes – according to Basha, a number of oft-criticised laws are derived from the French.

For instance, women under sharia had full citizenship. Only under the French were they stripped of full citizenship rights, Elizabeth Thompson, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and chair of the workshop on Muslim societies, explained. Women became subjects of their husbands and fathers and lost the ability to pass down Syrian nationality to their children. The latter is a restriction that persists until today in Syria, but was dismissed by the French in 1965.

Furthermore, the law granting lenient sentences for ‘honour killings’ – when men murder their female relatives over alleged sexual impropriety – can be attributed to the French system, despite the phenomenon often being attributed to conservative, eastern beliefs and assumed to be part of sharia. France delineated a now-defunct law in its 1810 criminal code which refers to ‘crimes of passion’, absolving men of responsibility for murdering a female relative if he catches her in the act of adultery. Basha explained that, in contrast, sharia stipulates that four sheiks must simultaneously catch a woman in the act of adultery – a virtually impossible scenario.

The Syrian government also learned a few extra-judicial habits from the French, argued US professor Provence. Syria’s long-standing emergency law, which suspends the constitutional rights of certain individuals, is in part modeled on the permanent presence of marshal law under the French mandate, he argued.

“The big vestige of the French mandate are the intelligence services and marshal law,” he said. “The Syrian government learned disregard for [some aspects of] the rule of law from the French.”

Thompson, the associate professor of history, agreed that various governments in the region learned disregard for citizens’ rights from their former administrators, saying: “Nation-building during occupation is profoundly anti-democratic.”

Cultural heritage
More than education and law, French culture is perhaps the most visible – and positive – mandate legacy in Syria today. Throughout March, the embassy of France and other French-speaking countries hosted the Days of Francophonie: a series of films, lectures, exhibitions and concerts. The French Cultural Centre in Damascus and the French Institute for the Near East are two of the most active cultural centres in the region, said Eric Chevallier, French ambassador to Syria.

“More than events, we have long-term relationships on various key issues,” he added, including academic exchanges with more than 3,000 students and a project for the Louvre in Paris to help upgrade the Syrian National Museum.

In academia, a number of Syria’s most prominent thinkers learned from philosophies that originated in France, Ghassan al-Sayed, vice dean of the Higher Language Institute at the University of Damascus, said.

For instance, the French literary schools of existentialism, deconstructionism, and idealism all influenced numerous high-profile Syrian writers, including the poet Adonis, the deconstructionist Kamal Abu Deeb and the Christian existentialist George Salim.

“All the Syrian thinkers studied in French universities in Syria during the mandate,” Sayed said. During the post-independence 1950s and 1960s, they traveled frequently between Damascus and Paris, and eventually established Syrian-flavoured versions of French philosophies, Sayed said.

For instance, existentialism argues that man is free to make his own choices and must therefore be committed to those choices, he said. The Syrian existentialists – noting the importance of community in their country – extended this idea, arguing that the philosophy includes an inherent choice to be committed to one’s fellow citizens.

He explained: “They took the French concepts and adapted them, in order to acknowledge the Syrian reality.”

This article was written by Claire Duffett in Syria Today magazine. I helped reporting about French influence on Syria’s legal system.

Bottoms Up

Changing legislation is altering how alcohol is bought and consumed in Syria.

photos by Adel Samara

photos by Adel Samara

Assalamu Alaykum is not exactly how one expects to be greeted when walking into a liquor store. Yet, that is how Ayman Kaadan, owner of the Royal Stone alcohol shop in the Muslim-majority Barzeh neighbourhood greets his visitors.

Kaadan said he does not see any contradiction in being a Muslim who sells alcohol. However, liquor stores in Muslim areas were prohibited by Syrian law until July last year, when the law licensing alcohol shops was modified. Places where alcohol can be consumed, however – such as pubs and restaurants – are still illegal in Muslim-majority areas.

Modern alcohol legislation dates back more than 60 years. According to a law issued in 1952, pubs, restaurants and other locations where alcohol is consumed must be located in non-Muslim areas, 20 metres from police stations and government buildings and 100 metres from places of worship, schools, hospitals and cemeteries. A similar law used to govern liquor stores. Kaadan’s shop, which he opened in 2009, operated without a licence for two years.

According to employees at the governorate of Damascus, the growing demand for alcohol shops drove the Ministry of Local Administration to modify the law. The ministry issued a new law in July 2010, allowing liquor stores to open with the only restriction being that they be located 75 metres from places of worship and that shop owners do not allow customers to drink inside or in front of the store. When the new law was issued, Kaadan immediately applied. He was granted the licence late last year.

Unlicensed pubs
Since the law licensing liquor stores was modified, the number of new shops has increased. Other previously unlicensed shops also applied for licences, Ghassan Maamouri, director of the licensing unit at the governorate of Damascus told Syria Today.

The number of licensed pubs and restaurants serving alcohol, on the other hand, is decreasing, Abu George, the 50-something owner of a 70-year-old pub called Abu Gerorge’s, said. Abu George inherited the pub in Bab Sharqi from his father and grandfather.

“Many alcohol shops and pubs in my alley closed because their owners died and the family did not want to continue the business,” Abu George, who started working in the pub when he was seven, said. “The number of places of worship, schools and hospitals is steadily increasing. This is leaving little space for new, licensed pubs to replace the old ones.”

Because of the high public demand for pubs combined with the challenging licensing conditions, the number of unlicensed pubs is increasing, Somar Hazim, the owner of Beit Rose, a licensed alcohol-serving hotel in the old city, said. Hazim counted six unlicensed pubs near his hotel.

Maamouri from the licensing unit said that unlicensed places that sell or serve alcohol face penalties of SYP 500 (USD 11) and are given a two-week notice to apply for a licence. This penalty is repeated twice. If the owner still does not comply, his shop is closed. The governorate, however, could not provide statistics about the number of unlicensed alcohol selling and serving shops that have been recently closed down.

Hazim from Beit Rose hotel said that this system is not enough. He argued that strict monitoring is required. Kaadan from Royal Stone alcohol shop agreed.

“I didn’t have any trouble with the governorate for the first year-and-a-half when my shop was unlicensed. Unless neighbours file a complaint against the shop, the governorate does not know that the shop is unlicensed,” he said.

Hazim said that this is affecting his and other licensed, alcohol-serving establishments.

“Some restaurants serve alcohol undercover,” he said. “They don’t have to pay taxes so they can sell alcohol for cheaper prices than we do. It is spoiling our business.”

Customers at Abu George’s like 20-something Maher Samaan also complain that, with the lack of monitoring from the government, many unlicensed pubs mix local, low-quality alcohol with imported liquor, while illegal stores often sell smuggled, low-quality alcohol.

Anwar Hamoud, owner of liquor store in Dummar, argued that the unreasonably high taxes on alcohol – as high as 85 percent of the product price – encourages illegal sales, which harms business.

“[Unlicensed shops] can afford to sell for much cheaper than legal purchasers of alcohol can. This leads to great losses in the government treasury,” Hamoud said. “If taxes were reduced, it would no longer be worth it for smugglers to risk being caught.”

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Segregating non-Muslims
Salina Abaza, a graphic designer in her twenties who enjoys going to pubs, said she believes that the law regarding pubs and other alcohol serving places should be modified. She said that restricting alcohol serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas segregates the country’s non-Muslim community.

“Serving alcohol in only non-Muslim areas limits the places where Christians, for example, can hang out,” she said. “This segregates them from other Syrians.”

Tony Khouri, a 40-something trader and one of Abu George’s regulars, agreed.

“I like going out and having lunch with my wife and drinking a glass of wine, but I’m bored of the old city. I live and work here so it would be nice to hang out somewhere else,” he said. “The problem is there is only a handful of restaurants that serve alcohol outside old Damascus and their numbers are decreasing.”

Pub owners in Bab Sharqi also said they believe that restricting alcohol-serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas is ridiculous, since most of their customers are Muslim.

“About 70 percent of my customers are Muslim,” Abu George said. “Even veiled women come and have a drink in my pub.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Trying to Fit in (Muslims in Denmark)

In 1971, Syrian writer Fahmy al-Majid moved to Denmark. Today, he is a published author, with several books and articles about Islam and Muslim integration in Denmark.

He now lives in a comfortable home in Copenhagen with his Danish wife. Inside, the décor is a mix of Bedouin tent carpets and IKEA-style Western furniture. On the walls hang a mixture of religious symbols, ranging from an adorned crescent to a smiling Buddha. Majid said he emphasises a variety of religions because he wanted his children to learn tolerance at an early age and be familiar with both their parents’ cultures.

“I’m Muslim and my wife is Christian,” Majid said. “All my children speak Arabic and are familiar with their origins. Religion and nationality have never been an issue in this house.”

Turn of events
Majid said he regrets that the same is not true throughout Denmark since the September 11 attacks on the US. After the event, Majid said he collected news reports on attacks on Muslims in Denmark and counted more than 70 incidents. When compared to the population of Denmark, this is a higher percentage than the attacks against Muslims in the US, he said.

Muslims in Denmark comprise about 4 percent of the country. The number of Syrians among them – or in the country’s Christian and other communities – totals 4,000 according to Christina Markus Lassen, Danish ambassador to Syria. Most arrived in the 1970s, in hope of better living conditions, and in the early 1980s and 1990s, seeking political asylum, Bilal Asaad, financial manager of the Scandinavian Waqf (an Islamic trust), said.
According to Naser Khader, a Syrian-Palestinian member of the Danish parliament, assaults on his community were exascerbated because it is small and insular.

“There are only 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, which has a population of 5m. Some Danes have never seen a Muslim,” Khader, who was the first Danish of Arab descent to join the parliament, explained. “They only see Muslims in the news. They see Muslim terrorists taking hostages and this causes Islamophobia.”

Latifa, a 26-year-old woman who wears the hijab and studied economics at university said she faced seclusion in both social and employment settings.

“Danes are open with you as long as you are not a practicing Muslim,” she said. “But if you are religious, as I am, then you feel excluded.”

A meeting held following September 11 by Hizb al-Tahrir (The Liberation Party) – an Islamic political organization that seeks to unite all Muslims in a caliphate whose Denmark branch was legally established in the Middle of the 1990s– to announce its support for Osama bin Laden only further strengthened the image of Muslims as terrorist. The group is considered radical and fringe and most Muslims take pains to distance themselves from it.

Propaganda against Islam
Majid said the Danish media helps to perpetuate misinformation and prejudice against the country’s Muslims. He said the press blames Muslim immigrants for economic problems and disproportionately covers extremist Islamic groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir, which openly supports Osama bin Laden.

Danish journalist and writer Kare Bluitgen disputed this claim, saying that the media distinguish between Muslim extremists and ordinary people.

“Most people say that’s ok. We know terrorists from Western Europe too. We used to have them, we have them. I don’t think the media is as bad as it’s common to say,” Bluitgen said. “You always find mistakes. I think in general they do a good job. You have to tell your audience that we are not talking about Muslims, we are talking about a very little minority inside the minority of Muslims in Denmark.”

According to Soren Espersen, a member of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei and supporter of Denmark’s current conservative government, it is political Islam that he and his allies consider threatening, not all Muslims. But his party holds some of its own extreme views. It has called for a ban on all Arab satellite channels, which he claimed call for viewers to “hate the Western world”. It also voted to ban the niqab face veil in Denmark. Most extreme was his party’s proposal that Muslim immigrants be shown video footage of women’s bare breasts before allowing them into the country to make sure they are “moderate”.

Such prejudicial proposals have a deep effect on second-generation Muslim children, Asaad, the Waqf financial manager, said. “[Children] feel they are refused by the only society they know.”

To help the children better adapt, the organisation has created integration courses for 7- to 12-year-old children.

“Many Muslim immigrant children in Denmark feel torn and don’t know whether they are Danish, Syrian or Muslim,” He explained. “We are trying to help them work out that they are all three.”

Cartoon controversy
Any discussion about relations between Muslims and the wider Danish community must address the notorious cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.

I interviewed Kare Bluitgen, whose failed search for an illustrator to draw the prophet for his children’s book The Koran and the Life of the Prophet Mohammad prompted the newspaper to publish the cartoons.

He said that Muslims in Denmark used peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the images’ publication. The event also prompted debate and better understanding of Islam, he added.

“The majority of Muslims were very calm,” Bluitgen said. “They just said don’t buy that stupid paper.”

Likewise, he added, other than some rogue politicians and journalists, average Danes are not prejudiced towards the country’s Muslim community. “”In Copenhagen every third of the pupils is Muslim. My daughter has almost only Muslim friends today. Daily life is different from politics,” he said.

Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council also believes people’s approach to Muslims is changing. “Statistics  show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down,” Kamm said. “It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes do not care.”

Further, the cartoon crisis helped increase employment from 47 percent to 70 percent among Danes of Muslim origin, Syrian-Danish MP Khader said.

“I know an employer who before the cartoons never hired Muslims. For him a Muslim equals trouble. But after the crisis he realised that Muslims here are democratic people who respect freedom,” Khader said. “After the cartoon crisis Danish people realized that there are different types of Muslims. Before the cartoon crisis they only knew one type, the extremist one.”

In Syria, however, the Danish and Norwegian embassies were burned down by angry protestors, and the governments of both countries condemned Syria for what they called “failing its international obligations” to stop the arsen. According to Espersen from the right-wing party, however, the Syrian government was “a great help” at the time of the crisis.

“The government in Syria was not engaged in the boycotting of Danish products as they were in Saudi Arabia, for example,” Espersen said. “They [the Syrians] realized this is something that the Danish government or the parliament can do nothing about. That was a very difficult task to explain to many governments in the Muslim world but never to Syria. They knew if our prime minister had said these cartoons are now forbidden he’d be finished.”

While Syria restored calm towards Denmark internally, Asaad from Waqf said that it should do more to change the view of Syria and Islam abroad.

“A country like Syria should direct its cultural office in the embassy to organise lectures to try to bring points-of-view closer to each other and explain why Muslims reacted this way,” Asaad said, referring to the burning of the embassies. “All Arab countries neglected their duty to change the stereotype of our countries as a big desert filled with terrorists. Denmark is the one that made a move to change its image and better understand Muslims.”

Today, Denmark and Syria collaborate mainly on environmental and humanitarian issues. Denmark provides important support for Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria and the Danish Red Cross and Refugee Council are active throughout the country.

Though Majid said he feels second-generation immigrants from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria still face discrimination, he believes Denmark is his children’s home country.

“I’m Syrian and no matter how long I live in Denmark I’ll still be primarily Syrian and then Danish,” Majid said. “But my children were born in Denmark and they will always be Danish first and Syrian second.”

A shorter version of this article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Christina Markus Lassen Danish Ambassador to Syria

Denmark’s representative in Damascus comments on improving relations between the two countries.

Christina Markus Lassen Danish Ambassador to Syria / photo by Carole Farah

Could you give us a background on Syrian-Danish ties?
Denmark and Syria have had diplomatic relations since 1950. We have a strong bilateral relationship based on frequent political contacts and good people-to-people links. With the establishment of The Danish Institute in Damascus in 2000, another component was added to our relationship, giving us an excellent launch pad for Danish-Syrian cooperation and enabling even more Danes to come to Syria and get to know the country. 

How have ties changed following the cartoon crisis?
I think that we all learned valuable lessons during the crisis. We learned that knowledge, dialogue and respect between people is the only way to counter misunderstandings and misconceptions.

In Denmark the crisis made people much more interested in understanding and exploring the Middle East, learning the language and meeting the people. Now we see a growing number of Danish tourists coming to Syria, wanting to experience this beautiful country. People always leave Syria with big smiles on their faces and I believe that the personal encounter is the best and most efficient way of moving our two countries closer.

How many Syrians live in Denmark?
There are all together about 4,000 people of Syrian origin living in Denmark. Approximately 4 percent of the Danish population today is Muslim, who obviously enjoy the same civil and political rights in the Danish democracy as other citizens in Denmark.

Denmark has just released a new immigration law. Is it making it more difficult for Syrians to travel to Denmark?
Denmark is always in need of skilled people and globalisation means that people will be less bound by national frontiers. The new legislation will make it easier for well-educated foreigners to come and work in Denmark and it does not change the rules for leisure and business travel. That being said, Denmark has its rules when it comes to immigration as does any other country in the world and, being a member of the EU, there are also common European rules and regulations that Denmark needs to follow.

What are the fields of collaboration between Syria and Denmark?
I would like to mention the cooperation between Syria and Denmark in the field of cultural heritage and museums. We recently had a delegation from the Danish National Museum visit Syria. Also last year, an agreement on economic cooperation was signed between our two countries. We soon plan to also sign an agreement on educational exchange between Syria and Denmark.

How will Denmark sustain good relations with Syria?
Denmark wishes to have good relations with all countries in the Middle East. We have a mutual interest in present and future cooperation between our two countries and consider Syria a very important partner in this region. Regionally, we support a negotiated solution to the Middle East Peace Process, and there can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria.

This interview was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council

Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council comments on the integration of Muslims in Denmark.

 
 

Andreas Kamm

 

Do you think it is harder for practicing Muslims to integrate into Danish society?

I am sad to say yes. Statistics, however, show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down. Still, some Muslims say they feel that others have problems with them because of their religious beliefs and because they signal that they are Muslims.

How can Denmark change that?

I think that Danish politicians have a great responsibility. We need to work against creating a picture of the Muslim world as an enemy. Maybe 15 to 20 percent of the Danish people tend to say yes, [the Muslim World] is dangerous. So leadership from the politicians would be much welcome from our side.

What do you think of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei’s call for a ban on the niqab face veil and all Arab satellite channels in Denmark which they claimed keeps Muslims’ focus on their own affairs and prevents them from integrating into Danish society?

It is counterproductive. You can not force people to change their minds from one day to the next. Why should they? It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes don not care.

Denmark has recently introduced a new immigration law with stricter requirements for would-be immigrants. What do you think of the changes?

Actually we do not like it because it is so restrictive trying to keep people out of Denmark. I think that there is a very negative rhetoric performed by some politicians in Denmark. Dansk Folkspartei, for example, has a very negative influence on the immigration process in Denmark. And the reason why the party is so negative is purely political. We are moving towards an election so they [the politicians] cook up a lot of strange things to prepare for the election.

Personal Status Matters

A campaign to halt proposed changes to Syria’s personal status code is being hailed as a milestone for the country’s civil society movement.

Syria’s civil rights movement is celebrating a successful campaign to freeze proposed changes to the country’s personal status code which they say would have reversed years of hard fought advances for women’s rights and secular personal liberties.

The campaign, heavily utilising social media forums such as Facebook, was launched three months ago after a new draft law written to replace the entire Personal Status Law of 1953 was leaked to the public. Shocked civil rights groups, MPs and religious figures argued the draft law reinforced old laws in desperate need of amendment and added new clauses which took Syria backwards. Activists described the proposed law as “frightening” and accused the committee responsible for writing it of trying to impose extremist Islamic views “similar to those of the Taliban” on Syria.

Meanwhile, shades of grey in the draft about whether or not the laws would apply to all of the country’s different religious communities added more fuel to the flames.

Arguing that the draft law contradicted the Syrian constitution, interfered with the rulings of Syria’s religious courts and reversed forward thinking on women’s and children’s rights, civil society groups compelled the government to recently declare the draft, officially at least, cancelled. The relentless campaign launched on the web in opposition to the draft stands as a milestone for the country’s civil society movement.

“The campaign that activists launched against this draft law signified progress for civil society,” Antoine Mousleh, head of St. John’s Church in Damascus, said. “The boundaries were lifted when it came to criticism of the law, people were more open. A few years ago this may not have happened.”

A fiery debate

For supporters of the draft – publicly few and far between – the controversy is without merit. They deny the draft is extremist, arguing it complies with sharia law as all personal status matters should.

“I wasn’t surprised by the draft law, it’s very similar to the current one,” Khalid Rashwani, a lawyer specialising in criminal and sharia law, said. “Certain people interested in women’s rights issues made a big fuss about the matter, but there was no need. Personal status laws should follow sharia law and in sharia law the rights of women are specified, so we should accept this. Why is it being likened to the Taliban? Most people in Syria agree that sharia should be applied in personal and family law.”

Rashwani’s position is rejected by activists such as Bassam Kadi, director of the Syrian Women’s Observatory. Kadi said the draft does not represent the views of the majority of Syrians, but those of a minority who are abusing the term sharia to impose their extremist views.

“This draft law doesn’t represent the views of society or the government,” he said. “Sharia is too broad a term to apply here. Sharia is everything that has been laid down as laws by Muslims, so if you say this draft complies with sharia laws then you must specify which ones. Sharia can be what Osama Bin Laden or anyone says it is. In this case, sharia is being used as an excuse to apply extremist Islamic laws.”

One of the most controversial articles in the draft law was Article 21. It prescribed the creation of a legal body with, among other powers, the authority to divorce a couple without their consent if one of them is deemed to be a murtad, a Muslim who has renounced his or her faith.

According to Rashwani, the authority of such a body is both necessary and legitimate. “If a man is considered a murtad, of course he should be divorced from his wife,” he said. “A Muslim woman can’t be married to a non-Muslim man, so an independent body should be able to divorce them.”

Contrary to this view, critics such as Kadi argue that nobody has the right to speculate about another person’s beliefs or to interfere in a marriage without at least one of the partner’s consent.

Pressure on moderates

Mohammed al-Habash, a member of parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus, said the proposed law was an attempt to pressure moderate Muslims to conform to more conservative teachings. “This legal body could be used as a weapon to put pressure on moderate Muslims,” Habash said. “Either they follow the same beliefs and actions as the legal body does or they will be considered a murtad and consequently divorced from their partner.”

Other parts of the proposed law lambasted by critics include Articles 63 and 92 which prohibit secular people from marrying. “Every person has the right to marry regardless of his or her beliefs,” Habash said. “Therefore, I disagree with the attempt to prevent secular people from being allowed to marry.”

Restrictions were also proposed for interfaith wedlock outside the Islamic courts. Article 38 in the draft law states that a non-Muslim woman married to a Muslim man outside the Islamic courts cannot legally register the marriage unless her husband agrees. A Muslim man, on the other hard, can register a marriage even if his alleged wife denies it exists. “This law is completely unacceptable,” Mousleh said. “If a Muslim man says a woman is his wife, that’s it, she’s his wife no matter what she says. Her word counts for nothing. This law treats Christian women like women in the old days of war, when they were captured as trophies.”

Another cause for alarm was Article 140, which states: “A husband is obliged to pay expenses for his wife’s education according to his financial ability and as long as the wife’s study does not contradict with her family obligations”. Critics argue this article would mean young girls could lose their right to education, adding that it runs contrary to reforms that have raised the age of compulsory education to 15. “This law means that a husband can prevent his 13-year-old wife from studying, using the excuse that it affects her household duties,” Kadi said. “It tries to undermine progress made via reform of Syria’s education laws.

Activists were also angry the draft law still contained several clauses which they have long campaigned to change. Just like the current law, Article 45 in the draft law permits boys to marry at the age of 15 and girls at the age of 13. The reinforcement of this law dealt activists, who have worked hard to raise the age of marriage to 18, a huge blow. “Children at such an early age don’t even know what marriage means, let alone what it is to create a family of their own,” Kadi said. “The law should have been changed.”

Rashwani, however, said allowing marriage to take place at the ages of 13 for a girl and 15 for a boy was not only suitable in certain cases, but sometimes a necessity. “Boys and girls living in Deir ez-Zor, for example, become mature earlier due to the tough circumstances in the Jazeera region, therefore they should be allowed to marry younger,” he said. “Sometimes it’s even necessary for a young girl to marry earlier because when both parents die, she has nobody to look after her.”

Drafted in secret

Critics of the proposed law are also deeply concerned about the manner in which it was drafted – it was drawn up in secret by a committee of anonymous sharia scholars, without the knowledge or input of other interested social and religious parties, and sent directly to the prime minister’s cabinet instead of parliament for public discussion.

“I call it a conspiracy because the draft wasn’t sent to parliament,” Kadi said, “The committee knew the reaction the draft would get which is why they didn’t put it to the press. They sent the draft to a few interested ministries and bodies with a note which gave a deadline for comments within a week. A week is not enough time to read such a large law, let alone comment.”

Habash echoed similar concerns. “The prime minister gave permission to the [former] minister of justice to choose the committee, but unfortunately he only chose from one corner of Syrian society,” he said. “Most Syrians believe we should follow our religion when it comes to personal status matters. But that doesn’t mean we should only ask one sect. All groups need to be consulted when it comes to such a significant law.”

There has been much speculation about why such a select committee was given the authority to write the draft law. According to Kadi, the government was just as surprised by the content of the draft law as civil rights groups. “The government followed procedures and asked the justice minister at the time to set up the committee,” he said. “However, they didn’t keep checks on the committee and what it was writing. Before they knew it, this crazy draft law had been written and was causing controversy.”

While the proposed law has been shelved by the government – Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’allem told the regional English-language newspaper The National last month it would never be passed – civil rights campaigners like Kadi say his fellow activists cannot rest on their laurels. Ultimately, Kadi said the blame for why such a draft law was able to reach such an advanced stage lies with civil society.

“The problem is that civil society organisations in Syria have a phobia of Islam – many dare not criticise wild interpretations of it because they’re scared of being labelled non-believers,” he said. “The content of this draft is civil society’s fault, because it hasn’t kept checks on extremist figures trying to infiltrate the system.”

I published this article with British journalist Fay Ferguson in Syria Today magazine

Building New Opportunities from the Past

Syria must play a key role in dispelling negative images of Islam in the West by doing more to promote its rich Islamic past.

Syria must work harder to highlight the greatness of its former Islamic civilisation and culture and intelligently use the past to strengthen the modern development process, His Highness the Aga Khan, chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network and spiritual leader of the global Ismaili community, said during a recent trip to Syria. The Aga Khan made the comments at the inauguration ceremony of the Aleppo Citadel in Syria’s second largest city on August 26.

Speaking at the ceremony, the Aga Khan emphasised the importance of reviving the history of the civilisations of the global Muslim community, the Ummah. “We don’t do enough to illustrate to the peoples of our world the greatness of the Islamic civilisations and cultures of the past,” he said. “The background to this initiative is very simple. It is to illustrate to the peoples of our world, the history of the civilisations of the Ummah, because they don’t know our history, they don’t know our literature, they don’t know our philosophy, they don’t know the physical environment in which our countries have lived, they view the Ummah in terminology which is completely wrong.”

The Aga Khan also said that Syria, with its wealth of architectural and cultural treasures, holds a unique position in the history of Islam. “My interest in working in Syria is to take the various lead countries of the Ummah and say, ‘Let’s start, let’s move together, let’s revive our cultures so that modernity is not only seen in the terminology of the west, but in the intelligent use of our past’,” he said.

Cultural restoration programme

The ceremony marked the completion of a nine-year cultural revitalisation work programme on the citadels of Aleppo, Salah ad-Din and Masyaf that once formed a system of fortresses in central-western Syria. More than just simply restore historical sites, the programme, carried out by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), worked to provide sustainable development opportunities. As such, it included developing management guidelines and investing in visitor infrastructure such as visitor centres, pathways and signage, in addition to training antiquities staff, local craftsmen and building professionals in modern conservation practice. The programme also recruited and trained locals from poor communities living around the historical sites to help in the restoration process, providing employment opportunities to some of Syria’s most disadvantaged communities.

“By rehabilitating these environments we create an indigenous economic process,” the Aga Khan said. “It’s not driven by tourism.

It’s simply driven by improvements in the quality of life. People trade, they do their things. It’s true that tourism is one of the factors, but I think our experience up till now is that it is more important to create that economic dynamic of the community.”

Works at the Aleppo Citadel focused on Ayyubid, Ottoman and Mamluke features of the fortress and were partly funded by the World Monuments Fund. The AKTC landscaped around the citadel’s entrance, created a pedestrian zone and improved traffic planning and lighting in collaboration with the Directorate of the Old City of Aleppo.

Works at the Salah ad-Din Citadel focused on the Ayyubid and Mamluke sections, mainly the mosque, minarets, school and baths. Although the school and mosque were structurally stable, successive phases of modern repairs using inappropriate materials had altered and damaged the historic fabric. Where feasible, the modern interventions were carefully removed. The walls, ceilings and roofs were then repaired and finished using materials and techniques identical to those employed by the original medieval craftsmen.

The unique location of Salah ad-Din Citadel, perched on a ridge between two deep ravines amid a green forest, coupled with its architectural variety, makes it a site of rich tourism potential. Yet the number of people visiting the site is decreasing. Therefore, the AKTC also worked on promoting and marketing the ruin.

The Masyaf Citadel is the smallest and least known of the three sites targeted in the restoration programme. Although the castle’s superstructure remained intact, it had been significantly damaged by earthquakes and invasions. The site has also been used for accommodation, as well as a place to tether livestock. The AKTC’s work at this site involved minor reconstruction work to prevent collapse and consolidate the deteriorating ruins.

The project at Masyaf also involved improving the town centre – upgrading the markets and pedestrian areas and creating more attractive facilities for visitors, as well as conserving and enhancing the historic remains of the Old City. In collaboration with shop owners and local authorities, AKTC rehabilitated the town’s local souq.

The project also worked to improve building regulations by granting free design assistance to land and house owners who intended to build in the central area. A number of pilot rehabilitation projects for sensitive buildings were also prepared to promote new, adapted designs for the inner town area.

After the inauguration, the Syrian Government and the AKDN signed three new agreements for projects in the areas of microfinance, health care and tourism. The tourism project will see the AKDN invest SYP 920m (USD 20m) to restore and convert three houses in Old Damascus, Beit Nizam, Beit Sibai and Beit Kuwatli, into a five-star hotel.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) focuses on health, education, culture, rural development, institution-building and the promotion of economic development. It is dedicated to improving living conditions and opportunities for the poor, without regard to their faith, origin or gender.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.