Free Army fighters walk in a field of flowers during a reconnaissance mission, April 10, 2014.
Khalil Ashawi / Courtesy Reuters

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

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