Syria/ 4. Current issues in cultural policy development and debate  

4.2.4 Cultural diversity and inclusion policies

It was mentioned in the ninth article in the first chapter in the first section of the new Syrian constitution, “the constitution sponsors the protection of the cultural diversity of the Syrian society with its all components as it is considered a national heritage that reinforces national unity in the frame of Syrian lands unity."

There are inconsistent statistics for religious and ethnic minorities in Syria varying between resources during short time-periods which proves that these statistics are not scientific along with having different backgrounds some of which are political:

  • A statistic mentioned in a book published by the Syrian Information Ministry in 1982 called, “Syria Today”, states that “86 percent of Syrians are Muslims, 13.5 percent are Christians and a few thousands are Jewish.”

  • A study of a statistic that was published in 1984 points that “76.1 percent are Sunni Muslims, 11.5 percent are Alwaites, 3 percent Druz, 1 percent are Ismailis, 4.5 percent are Christians and0. 4 percent are Shi’as.”

It’s mentioned in the international religious freedom report issued by the American State Department in 2006 that “Sunni Muslims form 74 percent, while the report estimates the number of Alawites, Ismaalists and Shi’as 13 percent of the population, Druz form 3 percent and different sects of Christianity, according to the report, form 10 percent of the population.”

In a book entitled, “The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism, and Tribalism in Politics” by professor Nicolas Van Dam, a Dutch diplomat, he says, “Sunni Muslims who speaks Arabic form the majority of 57.4 percent of total population regarding religion and language, while remaining groups may be considered ethnic or religious minorities; the biggest religious minority in Syria is the Alawites at 11.5 percent, Druze at 3 percent, Ismailis at 1.5 percent while Roman-Orthodox Christians form 6.4 percent, and are the most important Christian community in Syria which makes up 14.1 percent.” We should point out that “community” terminology is an abstract political terminology used within this context for purposes described as not precisely scientific, because a community here is defined as a group of people living abroad in a new country that is not their mother country.

The “We’re All Partners of the Syrian Electronics” website has posted a statistic that is dated back to 2005 (during the peak of the international pressure on the Syrian regime and the predictions of its future) conducted by specialists. According to the resource: “45 percent are Sunnis, 20 percent are Alawites, 15 percent are Kurds, 12 percent are Christians, 3 percent are Druze, 3 percent are Murshdis, 5.1 percent are Ismailis and 0.5 percent are Shi’as.”

Mr. Yeseen El Haj Salih – a Syrian writer, researcher, condemner, and translator- discusses the previous statistic on “The Civilized Dialogue” website[1] in an article entitled, Minorities do not Exist in Syria, but The Besiege of Sects is Possible, from which we mention some extracts: the statistics show numbers and percentages that are stunning and unfamiliar, and which go against what’s decided in all the resources that we know on the new and modernized Syria. It’s written from an ideological and political standpoint, and dominated by indications that are shallow and abstract as it points out that Syrians are minorities only “just like the Lebanese case” and that “the majority” is not many and “the minority” is not little.

The main nationality of the Syrian Arab Republic is the Arab nationality. The number of those who belong to the Arab nationality in Syria range between 77% - 90% of the census of the Syrians, whereas the remaining percentage is of the Kurds, Sharks, Armenians, and other minorities.

The majority of the Syrians are Muslims whereas the Christians with their different sects constitute about 12% of the Syrian people.

Syria is considered a diverse country in terms of cultures, nationalities, and religions. In their statements, the Syrian politicians view this diversity as “the source of the social cohesion in Syria and that it represents one of the power factors in the Syrian society and not a source of conflicts and disputes”.

Different minorities practice their rituals and celebrate their feasts in different ways and levels, it can be noticed that there are Sharks and Armenian associations, where they teaches their language and hold different activities with the aim of grouping people of these minorities and forming small social communities to practice respective traditions.

In some cases these associations obtain limited support from the Ministry of Culture, such as offering theaters for free to celebrate a specific occasion or to present a performance that embody their traditions. While Kurdish nationals have suffered a lot in Syria starting from the Arab Belt Project, which was issued by the Syrian government in 1965 and aimed to make the north-eastern province of Syria (along the Iraqi borders up to Ras El Ain in the north) empty of Kurds and settle Arab families instead. Building the Euphrates dam (which started in 1968) was a good opportunity to impose the project and as a result, hundreds of Kurdish families were displaced and lost their land after some had not been given the Syrian citizenship in 1962. The Kurds continued to suffer for many decades.

It was mentioned in the report (year 2000) of the Human Rights and Freedoms Defending Commission in Syria:

The number of Kurds who haven’t been given Syrian citizenship is approximately 200 thousand. A rule numbered (7889/G) was issued in Hasaka on 15/10/1999 to prevent neighborhood administrators or public parties from giving any document that revealed the situation of the Kurds.

Also, a decision numbered (768) was issued in May 2000 closing shops that sold Kurdish music (or preventing them from doing so) as well as the prohibition of speaking Kurdish.

According to Human Rights Watch report in 2010, Kurdish language could not be used or taught at schools in Syria, banning the establishment of such schools along with the prevention of publishing books, magazines or newspapers in Kurdish.

The report has more revealed that security forces “opened fire to disperse Kurds while they were celebrating the Kurdish New Year in 2010, north of Raqqa, which led to the killing of at least one person.

Furthermore, a military court gave sentence of four months in prison to nine Kurds who were thought to have participated in the celebrations held in Raqqa and being accused of “provoking sectarianism”.

On 24/3/2011 and during her press conference, the Syrian president’s advisor, Buthayna Sha’ban, noticeably addressed Kurds and spoke about the Nayrouz feast, considering it a feast for all Syrians, as well as sending regards to Kurds on this occasion. This was the first Syrian official speech that indicated this feast and publicly recognized the Kurdish culture as one of the Syrian cultural components. Some considered this openness by the government towards the Syrian Kurds as an opportunity to encourage them not to participate in the uprising in Syria.

It is not possible to recognize activities organized by governmental cultural institutions that aim to promote  concerns or heritage of these minorities, on the national level and abroad. However, there are initiatives that seek to underline the social cohesion. One example is Busra festival, edition 2007, where the Ministry of Culture concentrated on highlighting on the Syrian cultural diversity by presenting folk dancing bands that represent various Syrian communities. In the meantime the Syrian flag was held at the end of each dance by the dancers indicating that the differences between these communities are melting within conception of a national belongingness.

The year 2011 was a major turning point for the question of teaching Kurdish language; Kurds formed a military force that took control of several Kurdish cities in North and North East Syria and regime  and opposition military forces were both expelled. In 2012 institutions concerned with social affairs were created, among them the Kurdish language organization “szk” that took on the task of integrating Kurdish into official school curricula in regions largely controlled by Kurds. Tthe Syrian regime responded by creating obstacles. In 2013 the determination to teach the Kurdish language in public schools became a reality after the Ministry of Education gave its implicit consent to teach a Kurdish curriculum.[2]

In April 2013 Damascus University announced its need to contract two Kurdish language schools that have a license in any specialization and have teaching experience and qualifications to teach Kurdish, with the aim to open new sections within the University’s Language Institute.

After legislative Decree No. 49,published by the Syrian regime’s President in April 2011, the judgement granted Syrian nationality to Kurds registered as foreigners in the Hasakah province records. The President’s rhetoric is still devoid of any focus on Kurdish cultural rights as one of the components of Syrian society, and some consider that this discourse is of purely political.

[1] Website of the Civilized Dialogue:

[2] According to several websites on the Kurdish cause in Syria  

Chapter published: 06-05-2016