The Society

Syria Table of Contents

SYRIAN SOCIETY IS a mosaic of social groups of various sizes that lacks both a consistent stratification system linking all together and a set of shared values and loyalties binding the population into one nation. Distinctions of language, region, religion, ethnicity, and way of life cut across the society, producing a large number of separate communities, each marked by strong internal loyalty and solidarity. Although nearly twothirds of the people are Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims, they do not constitute a unitary social force because of the strongly felt differences among beduin, villager, and urban dweller. A perceptive observer has spoken of the "empty center" of Syrian society, a society lacking an influential group embodying a national consensus.

The ethnic and religious minorities, none of which amounts to more than 15 percent of the population, nevertheless form geographically compact and psychologically significant blocs that function as distinct social spheres and dominate specific regions of the country. Because the religious groups in each locality function as largely independent social universes, a "minority mentality," characterized by suspicion toward those of different groups, is widespread among both minority group members and those of the majority group living in minority-dominated areas where they are therefore outnumbered. Psychologically and politically, religious distinctions are by far the most significant ones. In all groups, loyalty to one's fellow members, rather than to a larger Syrian nation, is a paramount value.

The religious communities are more than groups of coworshipers; they are largely self-contained social systems that regulate much of the daily life of their members and receive their primary loyalty. The independence of the religious communities is a distinctly divisive force in society. Although Islam provides the central symbolic and cultural orientation for about 85 percent of Syrians, minority communities, most with a long history in the region, maintain cultural and religious patterns outside the Muslim consensus.

The religions, sects, and denominations differ widely in formal doctrine and belief. Nevertheless, there exists in Syria a stratum of folk belief and practice common to rural and uneducated persons of many religions. Members of various groups hold certain common beliefs in saints and spirits and observe related practices, such as exorcism and visitation of shrines, regardless of the disapproval of the orthodox religious authorities.

In addition to linguistic and religious dissimilarities, three forms of traditional social and ecological organization further divide the society. Most Syrians, including many members of religious and ethnic minorities, inhabit rural villages and earn their living as subsistence farmers. A dwindling number live the admired nomadic life of the beduin, or tribesman. The remainder, including a substantial number of recent migrants from the countryside, live in cities and towns, many of which date from ancient times. Each of these three represents a distinct, usually hereditary, way of life, followed by particular social groups and separated from the others by such social barriers as marriage restrictions, education, and occupation.

The ascent to power of minority groups and their implementation of Baathist policies of secularism and socialism, has left most non-Muslims financially better off than the average Syrian, putting them in an anomalous position. On the one hand, many have reasserted their solidarity with Syria's opposition to Israel, the West, alleged imperialism, and capitalism. On the other hand, some observers have noted an exodus of numerous urban businessmen, professionals, and managers, particularly Christians and non-Arabs. In response, during the mid- and late-1970s, the government encouraged the return of these émigrés and attempted to develop a climate more favorable to them.

Successive Syrian regimes have attempted to consolidate a Syrian national identity by eliminating the centrifugal effects of sectarianism. Despite these efforts, Syria's postindependence history is replete with conflict between minority groups and the central government.

In part this conflict can be attributed to the French mandatory administration, from which Syria inherited a confessional system of parliamentary representation similar to that of Lebanon, in which specific seats were allocated to Christians, Kurds, Druzes, Alawis, Circassians, Turkomans, and Jews. These ethnic and religious groups were guaranteed 35 of parliament's 142 seats. Minority groups also protested what they believed to be infringement on their political rights, and in 1950 successfully blocked efforts by the Sunni Muslim president to declare Islam the official state religion. A 1953 bill finally abolished the communal system of parliamentary representation;subsequent legislation eliminated separate jurisdictional rights in matters of personal and legal status which the French had granted certain minority groups.

The struggle to balance minority rights and Sunni Islamic majority representation remains a paramount theme in Syrian domestic affairs. In 1987, the Syrian government was dominated by President Hafiz al Assad's Alawi minority. The secular socialism of the ruling Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party deemphasized Islam as a component of Syrian and Arab nationalism. However, Baath ideology prescribed that non-Muslims respect Islam as their "national culture."

In 1986 educational and cultural institutions remained under close governmental supervision. Such institutions were designed to further government objectives by raising the general level of education and literacy, strengthening awareness of Arab cultural achievements, building public support for official policies resting on the principles of the ruling Baath Party and seeking to foster a sense of Syrian national unity. Public bodies serving these objectives multiplied during the late 1960s and by the mid1980s included the ministries of education, higher education, information, and national guidance and culture. Their activities were complemented by several directorates, authorities, and planning boards. In the consolidated budget for fiscal year ( FY) 1985, nearly LS (Syrian pound) 3.43 billion, or 14.5 percent of the government's expenditure, were earmarked for education of minorities. Despite the educational system's failure to achieve the government's goals, education remained an important channel of upward mobility for minorities.


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Source: U.S. Library of Congress