In the spring of 2011, it would have been impossible to predict that in Syria, in a few years’ time, many of the pro-democracy activists who built a peaceful movement to bring down President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship would be turning to jihadist groups that are now embroiled in the bloody civil war. Over the past year, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), once regarded as a force of moderate, secular democratic reformers, has partnered with—some members have even defected to—various moderate and radical Islamist groups, including the al Qaeda–linked al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
This trend is perplexing given the fundamentally incompatible values of jihadists and democratic revolutionaries, especially on the basics: human rights, tolerance, and political pluralism. To understand this paradox, we conducted a survey of 50 Islamist fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra, along with several sheiks, who were educated in Saudi Arabia. These surveys were conducted as part of our broader Voices of Syria project, which includes over 500 interviews with Syrian civilians, rebel fighters, and refugees in Syria and Turkey. In order to safely conduct interviews with Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra fighters in Idlib, our interviewer had to seek permission from the informal Islamic court that has jurisdiction over the territory occupied by those particular brigades. All interviews were conducted face-to-face, privately, and anonymously.
Based on our research in Syria from late April to early May 2014, the Islamist fighters we interviewed were surprisingly supportive of democracy. In the long-besieged province of Idlib, about 40 miles west of Aleppo, we found that 60 percent of the Islamist fighters we interviewed from Ahrar al-Sham and the al Qaeda–affiliated al-Nusra agreed that “democracy is preferable to any other form of governance.” Further, 78 percent of these Islamists also strongly agreed that “it is essential for Syria to remain a unified state,” which seems to contradict the goal of building a more encompassing Islamic caliphate. Although this finding may seem at odds with the theocratic aims of