Syrian Secularism: A Model for the Middle East

Article excerpt

Westerners don't see that Syria's embrace of diversity is a crucial bulwark against extremism.

When journalist and talk-show host Charlie Rose asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in May about the greatest challenge facing his country, he evidently did not anticipate the response to revolve around preserving Syria's secular identity from the threat of extremism.

In fact, Mr. Rose's shock prompted him to repeat the answer to ensure that he understood the president. An editor for Foreign Policy magazine dismissed President Assad's answer as a mere public relations stunt aimed at "winning the sympathies of a Western audience."

The reactions of Rose and Foreign Policy's editor not only reflect broad ignorance of Syria in America, but obliviousness regarding the nature of the struggles and threats confronting the Middle East, even among so-called experts. While the region faces numerous volatile issues, the secularism enjoyed by many societies and governments acts as a safeguard, preventing disintegration.

Embracing, not rejecting, religion

Secularism is often defined as "indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations." Syria defines it differently - not in terms of "rejection," or even "tolerance," but in terms of "embracing" all religions and "taking pride" in a diverse heritage.

While some countries in the Middle East tout themselves as a state for one religion (the Jewish State), Syria prides itself on being a state for all religions - and no religion. It is this formula that defines the true Syrian identity.

The Syria I grew up in embraced everyone. My own father is a decorated veteran of the 1973 war against Israel. Yet, when his first child was born after the war - and after four previous heartbreaking miscarriages - it was a Syrian Jewish doctor in whose hands he entrusted my life. I owe my life to that doctor, who saved me after a complication during infancy that nearly resulted in my death.

My father was no exception. Syria's Jewish community was historically among the most successful, with clients and friends from across Syria's diverse ethnic and religious social fabric.

The Syrian Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, is such an integral part of our society that Pope Benedict XVI extolled Syria as "an example of coexistence and tolerance to the world." Indeed, there are more than 13 Christian denominations in Syria.

Still, our history is not one of unscathed harmonious coexistence. We have seen our share of sporadic internal conflict. …