Haroutioun Akdedian is a Carnegie Striking From the Margins postdoctoral research fellow at the Central European University and a visiting scholar at the Portland State University’s Middle East Studies Center. Recently, he published an article at Carnegie titled “The Religious Domain Continues to Expand in Syria,” on the Syrian regime’s policies toward the religious domain and the objectives behind this. Akdedian is currently working on a book about the role of the religious domain in state-society relations in Syria. Diwan interviewed him in early May to discuss his article and, more broadly, Syria’s religious field.
Michael Young: You recently authored a Carnegie article on Syrian regime efforts to increase oversight over the Ministry of Religious Endowments. What do you argue and why is it important?
Haroutioun Akdedian: I argue that the regime’s continued efforts to increase the visibility and subordination of the religious field stems from two parallel outcomes of the Syrian conflict: First, due to their expanding capacity and role throughout the conflict, religious networks have gained an unprecedented level of public presence and influence in everyday life through their ability to meet social and humanitarian needs within localities. And, second, in light of disintegrating state structures, the regime has sought to reproduce patrimonial structures to consolidate its sociopolitical control.
This creates a dichotomy for the Syrian regime. On the one hand, there is a level of wariness and innate mistrust toward any entity with a significant local presence and socioeconomic capacity, such as the religious domain. On the other, the regime understands that it needs the religious domain to meet the socioeconomic requirements of war-affected localities and cities.
In this sense, Law 31, which was passed in October 2018 and expands the prerogatives of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, is a legal instrument in a versatile toolbox that the regime continues to use to reinforce dependent religious networks fulfilling desired expectations. This is important because it sheds light on power structures that emerged throughout the Syrian conflict. Post-conflict structures will be based on structures established and consolidated during the conflict. The expansion of religious networks thus highlights processes of consolidating sect-based structures and the expansion of their constituencies under conditions of state atrophy.
MY: In what way was the role of religious networks in Syria expanded during the conflict, both within government-held and opposition-held areas?
HA: Religious networks played a variety of roles during the Syrian war, depending on circumstances, geography, proximity to war zones, relations with security organisms in place, and the ability to connect to transnational networks and channels of funding. It would be impossible to list the differences and nuances among them here. In terms of commonalities, however, it could be said that religious entities capable of establishing or maintaining themselves within localities had a tremendous capacity to meet municipal and social demands, taking on responsibilities such as education and the distribution of resources, humanitarian aid, and other things. In this sense, religious networks in government- and opposition-held areas alike played an instrumental role in local power structures and in countering the politics of death, starvation, and attrition in the broader context of the Syrian war. The religious field was thus weaponized due to its ability to maintain basic conditions of livability and social order.
MY: You argue that Law 31 treats the Ministry of Religious Endowments as a significant economic actor in the country. What are the specific aims in Law 31 and how will the ministry’s socioeconomic clout manifest itself in the future?
HA: As I said, the new legislation expanded the presence and powers of the ministry and its key personnel. The legislation also provided the ministry with a level of access and influence over the primary institutions producing knowledge, namely media and education. These stipulations, in their totality, reflected the regime’s concessions on secularism, by withdrawing state authority from social responsibilities and devolving these responsibilities to the religious domain. The regime therefore continues to allow the growth of the religious field while also trying to coopt it.
Among a variety of functions—defining the “correct” version of Islam, the procedures for religious appointments, and penalties for violations—the legislation also aims to sustain and leverage the ministry’s socioeconomic role. For example, Law 31 contains multiple provisions regarding the use and development of the ministry’s lands and properties for commercial purposes and to generate funds. This consolidates the distributive function of the ministry and the blurring of distinctions between social action and religious activism. The ministry’s socioeconomic clout will manifest itself through its wide-reaching attendance and influence in social and educational arenas that were once outside its reach.
MY: How will the dynamics of clientelism and state favoritism in the religious domain likely affect the situation in urban and rural areas of Syria moving forward?
HA: Over the past decades the Syrian regime has gradually concentrated its attention and resources in developing urban areas. The geography of the popular uprisings and the armed conflict revealed the asymmetric power structures upon which the regime relied. Urban areas, due to the concentration of resources in such areas, provided the regime with a variety of means to impose its control. Military power is one example, but equally important are labor-capital relations. Given that urban areas emerged as places of capital and employment, peripheral communities, whether in rural areas or on the outskirts of towns and cities, were significantly impoverished and dependent on urban centers for income and employment opportunities. Despite the marginalization and impoverishment of these communities, the regime found the geography of unequal distribution of resources a reliable tool to maintain the concentration of power.
Broadly speaking, I expect the religious domain to follow the same path, characterized by a high presence and involvement in urban centers and continued marginalization beyond. Simultaneously, the regime will continue to consolidate clientelistic arrangements with religious actors by nurturing internal contests within the religious field through competition over state favoritism.