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Syria: Treatment of Sunni Muslims

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 1 July 1989
Citation / Document Symbol SYR1389
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Syria: Treatment of Sunni Muslims, 1 July 1989, SYR1389, available at: [accessed 18 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Although Syria has no official religion, 85 percent of the population is Muslim, and of these, 85 percent are members of the Sunni sect (i.e. 72 percent of the total population). [George Kurian, Encyclopedia of the Third World, Third Edition, (New York: Facts on File Inc., 1987), p. 1882.] One source maintains that "although all religions enjoy, in theory, equal status before the law, Islam is the most favoured." [ Kurian, p. 1882.] However, the U.S. Department of State asserts that "there is no official preference given to one religion over another." [ U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1988, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989), p. 1513.] The 1973 Constitution states that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, [ Amnesty International, Amnesty International Briefing: Syria, (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1979), p. 3.] and Islamic law is the source of Syrian jurisprudence. President Hafez al-Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an Islamic branch with elements of Christian and Pagan tradition, considered by some conservative Sunni Muslims as heretical.

Most non-Alawi and non-Sunni groups have the freedom to practice their religion, though proselytizing by foreign missionaries is forbidden, and the government controls religious training, fund raising, construction and meetings. [ Country Reports, 1987, p. 1318.] Seventh Day Adventists, however, are forbidden to practice their religion. [ Ibid.] Jews are the only minority whose passports and identity cards note their religion. They are subject to foreign travel restrictions, and are prohibited from joining the military. Jews and other small minorities are reportedly excluded from holding senior positions in the Ba'ath party. [ Country Reports, 1988, p. 1515.]

The Ba'athist government of Assad emphasizes secular Arabism, and "seeks to overcome sectarian and class consciousness by building a sense of national rather than ethnic identity. However, ethnic, religious, and regional allegiances remain important, and Assad's sect, the Alawi, occupy most important military and security positions." [ Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 1987, p. 1313.] The chief grievance of the Islamist opposition is "the erosion of Sunni power and status as the Alawites [have] increased their role in the regime." [ Islam in Revolution, p. 115.] "Muslim organizations opposed to the Assad regime have capitalized on the widespread dissatisfaction with the privileged position enjoyed by the Alawites." [ Tareq Ismael and J. Ismael, Government and Politics in Popular Islam, London: Frances Pinter, 1985),

p. 137.] The Syrian Islamic fundamentalist movement has drawn support from the population by identifying itself as a Sunni protest movement against the Alawite government. [ R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985), p. 112.] The Sunnis have been calling for a greater Islamification of the state, in opposition to the Ba'athist policy of secularization.

The government has banned the activities of a number of groups, and foremost among these being the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin), a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group which openly challenged the Ba'athist secularist government of President Hafez al-Assad in the seventies and early eighties. [U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1987, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), p. 1313. ] Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is prohibited, and, according to one source, punishable by death. [Delury, World Encyclopedia of Political Systems and Parties, p. 1072.] Amnesty International reports that a number of the prisoners who have died as a result of injuries sustained through routine torture or ill-treatment while imprisoned, were prisoners arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood. [Amnesty International, Syria: Torture by the Security Forces, (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1987), p. 16.]

For a discussion on the interaction between the dominant Sunni majority and the Alawites, please refer to the attached documents. Most cover the same events, but are included to corroborate each other, and to point out the fact that, for all the Sunni and Muslim Brotherhood discontent, authors do not provide evidence of restrictions on the practice of the Sunni religion.

Please see the attached articles:

- U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1988, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.

- You already have a copy of Degenhardt, Henry, ed. Revolutionary and Dissident Movements, Essex: Longman, 1988, which discusses the Muslim Brotherhood.

- George Kurian, Encyclopedia of the Third World, Third Edition, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1987.

- Tareq Ismael and J. Ismael, Government and Politics in Islam, London: Frances Pinger, 1985.

- R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985)

- Henry Munson, Jr., Islam and Revolution in the Middle East, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

- Sami Zubaida, Islam, the People and the State, London: Routledge, 1989.

- Alan Taylor, The Islamic Question in Middle East Politics, Boulder: Westview Press, 1988.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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