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 Islamist groups, we suspect that Islamists are rethinking their position on democracy in order to widen their ideological net and recruit more fighters. 

Baffling as it seems, transforming pro-democracy activists into radical jihadists is neither impossible nor completely illogical. The Syrian revolution began as an anti-Assad, pro-democracy movement, and its most active participants drew inspiration from the moderate uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. But when Assad began brutally suppressing the protests, many Syrians either fled the country or turned to groups fighting under the banner of the FSA, which aspired toward a unified, democratic Syria. 

With the Syrian civil war in its third year, however, the FSA has been unable to fulfill its revolutionary promise. Its forces have been decimated by the combined onslaughts of well-financed jihadist groups and an Assad regime reinvigorated by the lack of Western intervention and staunch support from Russia and Iran. The FSA’s corruption, infighting, and poor organizational capacity have also significantly eroded the trust and confidence of its soldiers, many of whom have left.

For Islamic brigades, the FSA’s fragmentation has presented an opportunity to draw new members into their own ranks by demonstrating that their leadership skills, organization, and resources have allowed the groups to succeed in battle where the FSA could not. Some former FSA fighters we interviewed switched to Islamist groups not out of inspiration for jihad, but because of poor fighting conditions inside the FSA. “I was with my old group [FSA] until I fought with Ahrar al-Sham,” stated one former FSA fighter. “I liked their way of treating fighters, so I joined.” In particular, Islamist groups are seen to provide better care for injured fighters. One rebel fighter who switched from the FSA to Ahrar al-Sham told us, “My friend got injured and they [FSA] didn’t support him.” Second, the Islamists pandered to moderate skeptics by emphasizing their common cause—the removal of Assad—and downplaying their desire for an Islamic state, leading new converts to believe that Syria’s future would be decided by its people.

Indeed, 94 percent of the Islamist rebel fighters we interviewed have retained their revolutionary goals to defeat the Assad regime. And only a quarter of the ostensibly “Islamist” rebels claimed that their goal is “to build an Islamic state” in Syria. This finding suggests that many rank-and-file fighters may have purely strategic motives in fighting under an Islamist banner—they just want to see Assad go.

For Islamist groups, this pool of committed fighters is but a fleeting advantage. As long as Islamists remain committed to liberating Syria from Assad, the rebels will fight with them. But if the war is won, the Syrian rebels may not commit to the broader principles of jihad or show any interest in building an Islamic state. To try to prevent that from happening, Islamist groups have invested heavily in the reeducation of new recruits through daily religious lectures delivered not by fellow Syrians but by sheiks trained in Saudi Arabia.

This strategy seems to be paying off. Nearly three-quarters of the Islamist fighters we surveyed claimed to have grown more religious since the war began. “Under the Assad regime, we did not know true Islam, but after the revolution, the hardship we experienced forced us to be closer to God,” explained one Syrian fighter who joined the FSA but later switched to al-Nusra. “Religion gives us inner peace, which is exactly what we need now in the war zone, when everyone left us.” Taking advantage of the rebels’ generally low levels of education and cursory understanding of democracy, Islamist lecturers condemn the evils of Western-style democracy and tout the benefits of an Islamic state. The fatal flaw in Western democracy, they argue, is the separation of state and religion, which they portray as an absolute prohibition of religious practice; and in the absence of sharia law, corruption, prostitution, drug use, and other vices flourish. The sheiks also teach that Western secularism is responsible for Assad’s corruption and brutality. As one sheik explained, “Assad is committing crimes because he is secular, and he is secular because of Western influence.” Another sheik explained to us in a private interview:

"Democracy has had it all wrong from the very beginning. I have read about and researched [the origins of] democracy. Democracy is itself a kind of crazy religion, where the people are given the control, ruling the country through elections. Elections existed in the old days of Islam, but only the virtuous people in society—those with good reputations—were allowed to vote. But in today’s world, people have become corrupt. If we ask these people to vote, to elect someone to be in charge, then they will choose the biggest thief among themselves. That’s why I am against democracy, against rule by the people. Democracy, in today’s sense, is bad because it does not encourage people to live by sharia law."

It is currently unclear how the Islamists’ version of democracy might work in practice. But according to the sheik quoted above, it might offer candidates the choice of opting out of certain Islamic practices but offer incentives to opt in. The sheik explained his idea of religious freedom with the following example: “When al-Nusra took control of Idlib, they said that girls will have a choice at school whether to wear the niqab or not. But if they want to wear it, the school will provide the niqab for free.” By incorporating themes of liberation from tyranny into jihadist rhetoric, Islamist groups have successfully appealed to moderate supporters of the Syrian revolution. Since the average Syrian has at best vague notions of democracy, having lived only under dictatorial rule, co-opting democratic values for jihadist purposes is not as odd as it might seem: both democratic and jihadist movements have historically involved bloody uprisings that seek to overturn prior political and social orders.  

Finally, by reframing the struggle for jihad as a quest to preserve the right of religious expression, Islamist groups have also bolstered their recruitment efforts inside Western democracies. We interviewed four foreign fighters who came from Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, and Algeria. As one of them remarked, “Democracy is freedom and in particular freedom of opinion and choice. So I personally choose al-Nusra.”

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