Anti-Islamist activists formed an opposition coalition in Paris this weekend, arguing that without a separation of church and state, the hoped-for revolution in Syria could lead to Islamist rule in the country.
Travelling from the United States and throughout Europe as well as the Middle East, Syrian opposition activists gathered in Paris this weekend to launch the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians (CFLD).
The first primarily secular opposition group to emerge from the uprising against the regime, the CFLD argues that Islamists are the driving force behind the Syrian revolt – a situation that could lead to religious rule, when and if President Bashar al-Assad is toppled.
“If we want Syria to enjoy a prosperous future, there must be a separation between religion and state,” Sheikh Ma'shooq al-Khaznawi told FRANCE 24 at the conference on Saturday. “We do not have a problem with God and the Prophet and the Koran, but with people who are the self-appointed spokesmen of God.”
The coalition is made up of Muslim, Christian, Arab and Kurd activists who are “united by the human and universal values of secularism and democracy”, spokesperson Randa Kassis told FRANCE 24 on Sunday. “We are all against totalitarianism in any form, and that includes Islamist rule,” she said.
More than fanatics and secularists
Rival opposition groups?
“We're not against the [Syrian National] Council, but we have our own proposals of what should happen in Syria.”
– Spokesperson Randa Kassis of the secular CFLD, on the mainly-Muslim opposition group, the Syrian National Council.
The Syrian National Council, a largely Muslim opposition group that rivals the CFLD, has already held conferences in Turkey, Doha and Brussels over the past few months but has failed to unite Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic opposition factions. Largely divided between Islamists and secularists, the matter is further complicated by Arab and Kurd rivalries.
“Secularists and Islamists have not yet managed to see eye to eye; it’s a slow process, but there are elements on both sides that could facilitate dialogue between them,” Bassam al-Bitar, of the Washington-based Alenfetah opposition party, told AFP on Saturday. “We need to show that this is not just a case of Islamists, fanatics and us,” he added. “We’re calling on minority religious groups to join the uprising too.”
Kassis reiterated Bitar’s call for action, blaming the threat of an Islamist government for the lack of involvement of minority groups like Christians and Kurds. “Islamist rule is a real danger,” she told FRANCE 24. “And for that reason, religious minorities are wary of taking part in the revolution. But they must work together to topple the Assad regime.”
Call for arms?
Opposition activists inside Syria entered their sixth month of protests last week, and some 2,600 people have already been killed in the unrest, according to UN figures. With no end in sight to the brutal repression by the Assad regime, some opposition supporters have called for military assistance, similar to the ongoing NATO operations in Libya.
A Syrian poet exiled in the United Kingdom, Muhydin Lazikani believes that arming rebels is the only way to topple Assad. “We should call for international protection because we have reached a dead end,” he told FRANCE 24 at the Paris conference on Saturday. “After six months of protests, things have not changed in Syria and the system continues to kill without fear.”
Kassis, however, rejected the militarisation of the uprising. “We at the CFLD all agree that we do not want to see people armed,” she said Sunday. “If we arm youths today, then we’ll only push the Assad regime to kill and torture even more people,” she said, at the same time thanking France for supporting opposition movements in both Libya and Syria.
France is one of Europe’s most vocal states in calling for a UN Security Council resolution on sanctions against the Assad regime. On Thursday, the French government welcomed the announcement that 140 members of the Syrian opposition had, for the first time, united behind the Syrian National Council and agreed to let the council represent them.
As Paris-based academic Burhan Ghalioun pointed out, one of the major problems facing the CFLD is how to communicate the secularist ideal to the Syrian people. “In view of the confusion over this term in the Arab World,” he said at the conference on Saturday, “we should probably forget mentioning a ‘secular state’”.