This prompted the crowd to burst into competing chants of “civil state” and “Islamic state.” The protesters narrowly avoided coming to blows, and the march carried on through the city streets.
That same week, at another protest in the rebel-held district of Bustan al-Qasr in the northern city of Aleppo, the now notorious activist Abu Maryam became irritated by a large Islamic banner, rolled it into a ball and threw it behind him into the crowd. He was put on trial by a local Islamic court, and whipping for what they called mockery of religion.
Syria Deeply spoke with several anti-regime activists – Abu Kinan, 28, from Daraya, an embattled southwestern suburb of Damascus; Manhal Sami, 24, and Omar Shaker, 23, from Homs city; and Manhal Barish from Saraqeb – to get their take on what these contrasting alterations mean for the future of their country.
SD: How do you view disputes between Islamists and those who back a civil state?
Manhal Barish: These disputes are positive. They demonstrate that the revolution is continuing. They also show that the Islamists do not have control of the revolution. Such altercations are normal, though this one in Saraqeb was fiercer than usual. As long as there is no violence or weapons involved, the conflicts between Islamists and civil activists are not cause for concern.
Abu Kinan: Disciplined debates are definitely healthy and part of building the new Syria. In Daraya, we have Islamic trends and others who want a civil state, but our disagreements are purely intellectual. Our local council was formed to bring together the majority of these varying movements.
SD: Is there meaningful dialogue going on between the two sides?
MB: We have dialogue and altercations and cooperation between the Islamists and secular activists. Yesterday I was with Jabhat al-Nusra and we had an argument. Today we are working together. We should not run away and leave them to work alone.
AK: The Daraya local council includes people from both sides but we are always trying to find common ground. For example, the council members might attend a martyr’s funeral and sit and converse to show we are all in this together.
We did have some arguments on which flag to fly at our demonstrations. The Islamic movement was insisting on showing this as an Islamic revolution to build an Islamic country, while the secular movement insisted on showing that the goals of the revolution are freedom and dignity for all segments of society. In the end, we decided to fly the white Islamic flag and the revolutionary flag.
We have no problem with raising the flag of Islam, because all it says is: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet”, but we know that politically this is perceived as something extreme.
SD: How do you find common ground?
Omar Shaker: If you approach anyone who wants an Islamic state and describe a civil state to him without naming it as such, he will agree with it. I have also convinced secular friends not to be extremist secular. If you get through to one person, he will speak to others and before long we will be many.
What Abu Maryam did was wrong and what the people did in Saraqeb was wrong. If you attack people they will become defensive, but if you speak with them one on one, then you can convince them.
Keep in mind that many civilians are now refugees, whether inside or outside the country. Both of these protests were small and maybe half the people attending them were fighters. When the civilians return to their homes, they will play a major role. Syrians won’t accept extremists.
Manhal Sami: What we agree on is holding the regime, as well as the opposition, accountable. We believe that living in accordance with Islamic law means giving freedom to Kurds, Armenians and other minorities. There are also many points of contention, but the good thing about most of these discussions is that, to use a phrase from Homs, they end in a kiss on the cheek.
SD: What do these disputes mean for Syria’s future governing model?
MS: These are some people who want to establish a secular state and others who want to establish an Islamic state, but both extremes are rejected by the larger society. The majority rejects a completely secular state. Most people also reject an Islamic state because it would not take into account contemporary circumstances.
You find diverse political opinions not only among civilians, but also among the Free Syrian Army. There are members of the Free Army that want a civil state. Then there are civilians who support Jabhat al-Nusra and its principles. Jabhat al-Nusra rose to fulfill a duty, but it is not their place to govern. You can be sure that the Syrian people will never be governed by force again.
SD: What has changed among civil society since the revolution began?
OS: In the past, if an authority told you who to vote for and you questioned him, he would respond, “Because you have to” and that was enough. People will not accept this anymore. If you try to force your beliefs on someone, he will immediately compare you with Bashar al-Assad.
In Douma [a suburb of Damascus suburb], they made a demonstration against the FSA. They also made a sign for the Liwa al-Islam brigade accusing them of eating well while the people are going hungry. Liwa al-Islam later started distributing flour. And after the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade was accused of making arbitrary arrests, their commander ordered that signs be put on rebel checkpoints instructing his men to respect civilians. People are starting to get a sense of democracy; that they have the right to complain and have a response.
We are living for the first time in freedom, and it is not an easy transition. It is the first time people can speak their opinion freely. But after four decades of a dictator and his son, we do not want to replace Abu Ali [a common Alawite name] with Abu Omar [a common Sunni name].
The people have the right to question and vote for what they really believe. Even if they choose extremists we must accept because it is democracy. They have to learn for themselves. If another dictator comes to power, I am sure the people will rise up again.