The Unprecedented Ramifications of the Awqaf Law and Parliament’s Response

Towards the end of September, a considerable controversy started to stir in Syrian society as a new piece of legislation, comprised of almost 40 pages, found itself making the rounds on social media. The unrivaled debate that followed the issuance of this new Law electrified citizens and lawmakers alike. It was after all a member of parliament (MP) in the People’s Assembly who leaked the text of this new Law on his Facebook page in order to provoke a public outcry over its contents. Since the People’s Assembly was not in session at the time, President Bashar Al-Assad invoked his authority under Article 113(1) of the Constitution to issue Legislative Decree 16/2018, which revamped the powers and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (known in Arabic as ‘Awqaf’). It is not entirely clear which individuals drafted the bill in the first place but observers presume it was mainly the work of civil servants employed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments with the tacit backing of the political leadership.

The Awqaf Law as it came to be known initially caused a political storm among segments of the general population and MPs in the People’s Assembly. As they saw it, the Law expanded the powers and authorities of the Ministry of Religious Endowments at the expense of other ministries and public institutions, including that of the Grand Mufti of Syria. The Ministry of Religious Endowments, which was established in 1961, had never possessed such dominance as envisaged by the Awqaf Law. Groups and individuals opposed to the Law feared that the power of religious authorities and organizations would grow and threaten the secular nature and culture of the Syrian state. Protests among MPs and citizens in the media and on social media platforms claimed that the new Law would inadvertently empower religious interest groups and political organizations, who they feared were lurking beneath the political surface, at the expense of the secular institutions of the state.

The Awqaf Law decreed that one of its main objectives was to combat extremist ideology while promoting moderation. Specialized bodies and committees overseen by the Ministry of Religious Endowments would be responsible for controlling the religious content found in books, on television and in the media while religious activities, behaviour, practices and sermons would also be monitored. In order to facilitate their work, they could set up influential branches throughout the country. The Law also sought to make it lucrative for individuals to seek employment in the Ministry of Religious Endowments by offering its civil servants certain financial and other incentives, though these were later curtailed. The Law also made provision for the establishment of religious educational institutions, which would be subjected to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religious Endowments and not the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Higher Education.

The Ministry of Religious Endowments is considered to be the wealthiest among other ministries and public institutions because of the donations it receives and the properties and assets it owns. Therefore, many feared that the Ministry could use the provisions in the new Law to gain disproportionate clout over other state bodies. Herein lay one of the reasons for the public backlash and for the impetus on the People’s Assembly to act.

According to Article 113(3) of the Constitution, as long as at least two-thirds of MPs attend a parliamentary session after the People’s Assembly returns from its recess, they have the right to repeal or amend legislative decrees issued by the President of the Republic through a law passed by a majority vote. In an unprecedented move not seen before, the People’s Assembly did just that and rejected Legislative Decree 16/2018 in its current form. Consequently, MPs voted to impose a range of amendments that would curb any new powers enjoyed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Such activity had not been witnessed in Parliament since the early 1960s. It will therefore no longer be as easy for detractors of the People’s Assembly to characterize it as a rubber stamp legislature. Following the vote, President Bashar Al-Assad accepted the amendments and ratified the new Awqaf Law provided for in Law 31/2018.

The new Law 31/2018 checked the powers of the Ministry of Religious Endowments enjoyed under the short-lived Legislative Decree 16/2018, especially the leverage it was anticipated to have over the other public institutions. Moreover, it restricted contact between the Ministry and military families in order to maintain an arm’s length distance between the former and the Armed Forces. In addition, it revoked the power of the Minister of Religious Endowments to appoint foreign nationals to religious posts.

One area of Legislative Decree 16/2018 that remained untouched in Law 31/2018 was the role to be played by the Ministry of Religious Endowments in selecting the Grand Mufti of Syria. Tensions have been rumored to exist between the Grand Mufti and the Minister of Religious Endowments for some time. Before the advent of these new Awqaf Laws, the status of both personalities vis-à-vis the state was relatively not so different to each other in practice. However, Legislative Decree 16/2018 changed the nature of the relationship which Law 31/2018 upheld, thus leaving the post of the Grand Mufti at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Minister of Religious Endowments. In the past, the President of the Republic had the full authority to appoint the Grand Mufti but the procedure was amended in the new Awqaf Laws. According to Article 35(a) of Law 31/2018, the Grand Mufti shall be appointed for a renewable term of three years and his functions and powers so determined by a decree issued upon the proposal of the Minister of Religious Endowments. Therefore, the Minister now has meaningful authority to influence the selection of the Grand Mufti, which has never been the case in the 57-year history of the Ministry. The polarizing effect of the Awqaf Law that ensued witnessed the Grand Mufti reportedly joining the secularist camp in opposing this controversial piece of legislation.

Many questions were asked regarding the rationale and potential consequences of a law that would increase the authority of the Ministry of Religious Endowments over a number of aspects of everyday life in Syria. There is no doubt that Syrian society has been steadily growing more conservative since the late 1970s. Some perceived the Awqaf Law as an attempt to cater to the conservative communities by giving the religious establishment more influence over the state and society in Syria, which had previously been the constitutional purview of the Baath Party until 2012. Others saw it as a vent or outlet for conservative thoughts and beliefs to find expression within the confines of the law. It could have even been a means to test the pulse of Syrian society.

All in all, the passage of Legislative Decree 16/2018 appeared to be an attempt by the government to accommodate religious conservatives and obtain greater oversight over far-right communities in Syria. The Law does after all mention the need to combat extremism and intolerance in society. By doing so, it does follow that the Syrian state seeks to find a way to reintegrate a significant portion of the population back into the mainstream of society after almost eight years of war that inevitably pushed many people to the far right of the political spectrum.

The original tenets of the Baath Party in Syria confirmed it as a leftist and liberal political grouping in the sense that it wanted to promote secularism as a state policy while curbing the influence of competing conservative forces. The standoff between the two camps in Syria reached its climax in the early 1980s. Even though politically speaking the Syrian state is liberal and secular in nature, society has grown more religiously conservative not only in Syria but across the Arab world. Rather than unwisely attempt to challenge this current, the Syrian state appears to be accommodating it.

The war in the country has polarized society further and pushed pro-government supporters more to the left in their support of liberal values such as secularism while opponents of the government have veered to the far right. The conflict cannot be won by one side or the other outright. The conflict also epitomizes the general state of the world where far-left and far-right forces are on the rise while the center ground is being surrendered whether politically, economically or socially because it has proven ineffective and marginalized certain communities. In this context, accommodation of conservative forces on the right seems to be the Syrian government’s desired choice as evidenced by the passage of the Awqaf Law.

The reception of the Awqaf Law among secularists was negative with many calling on President Bashar Al-Assad to reject it. It is not the first time that legislation of this nature has been challenged. In 2009, an attempt to rewrite the Personal Status Law with provisions reflecting right-wing religious thinking was met with loud cries of protests. The government eventually scrapped the bill. In 1973, President Hafez Al-Assad’s original constitutional draft omitted the requirement for the President of the Republic to be from the Muslim faith. Protests soon erupted in northern conservative cities in Syria and the government retracted its position. In December 2010, the government sanctioned the opening of a popular casino. As soon as unrest gripped the country, the casino was closed in April 2011 as a gesture of goodwill towards the religious leadership in Syria that stood by the government at that sensitive time. Despite the Syrian state’s secular standing, it has to walk a tightrope on matters of religion not least because the Baath Party is historically a liberal force built for the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s but holding power in an era when religious conservatism is on the ascent.

The controversy surrounding the Awqaf Law is an episode from which a few themes can be derived. It is not simply only a law related to the powers and functions of a government ministry. Rather, it is a piece of legislation that provoked a polarizing reaction pitting secularists in Syria against what they perceived as a surrender of authority to religious conservatives in society. The irony of a Baath Party administration that once had the constitutional mandate to lead the state and society taking this course of action cannot be overlooked or underestimated at all. The passage of the Awqaf Law also conveys the government’s recognition that the war in Syria has pushed communities on both sides of the political spectrum further to the far edges while the greater threat lies in neglecting to absorb those on the far right back into mainstream society.

Finally, the drama of the entire episode culminated in a move by the People’s Assembly to reassert itself for the first time in decades and amend the Awqaf Law as best it could to satisfy the public appetite. While there is room for further development, it is no secret that the People’s Assembly elected in 2016 is noticeably more active than its predecessors were dating back to February 1971. When analysts look back at the events that took place in Syria in the autumn of 2018, they may potentially point to them as a watershed moment where the power of popular discontent and social media managed to influence the lawmaking process in a constructive manner.