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Looking for Democracy in Idlib: Diary Entry

After being forced to flee eastern Aleppo in December, Wissam Zarqa moved to Idlib. Although the insurgent-held province is not known as a bastion of democracy, Zarqa will always remember it as the place where he voted in his first democratic election.

Written by Wissam Zarqa Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A Syrian man casts his vote in a ballot box at a polling station in the city of Idlib as the city’s first civilian council is elected, two years after it was overrun by rebels and jihadists, on January 17, 2017. AFP/Omar Haj Kadour

IDLIB, Syria – Hatred of democracy is spelled out in graffiti on many walls in Idlib city. Strangely, however, it was in this very city, at the age of 35, that for the first time I felt I had the right to vote in a fair and democratic election. Last month, I voted to elect a new president of Idlib University.

In the 2000 Syrian presidential election, Bashar al-Assad was the only candidate. Though Syria held its first multi-candidate election in 2014, voting was held only in government-controlled areas and Assad won again, in a result that former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry called “a great big zero.”

I taught high school students and English Literature students at Aleppo University before I was displaced from the eastern side of the city in December 2016. A few months later I moved to Idlib and began teaching at Idlib University.

Idlib is the last major Syrian city that remains outside the clutches of both Syrian government forces and the so-called Islamic State. It was liberated in March 2015 by the Army of Conquest – an alliance of seven rebel and insurgent groups. Today, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance of some of the strongest factions in Idlib, is the preeminent political and military force.

Nonetheless, Idlib University is still trying to practice democracy. Dr. Mohammad al-Sheikh was elected president with more than half of the 85 votes. The remaining votes went to the other two nominated candidates, with the exception of one ballot, which was left blank. (That one wasn’t mine!)

The university’s former president, Dr. Mostafa Talib, was one of the candidates nominated for the position. He has an excellent reputation as caring for the students. On many occasions, he has paid the tuition fees for students who could not bear the financial burden. However, in these elections, there was a desire for change. It seems Syrians now have a phobia of an individual remaining in power for too long.

These elections were not the first instance of democracy in Idlib province. In January 2017, Idlib city residents elected their first local council. The council was supposed to take over from the civil administration, which had been appointed in 2015, three months after the election, but its authority has so far been limited.

However, the two elections underscore an important and ongoing debate in Idlib. On the one hand, there is a school of thought that contests democracy, arguing that it is a form of “man-made” law that opposes Islamic law. On the other hand, there are those who argue that democracy is an optimal way to choose a leader who can understand and apply Islamic law in a way that fits the age in which we are living.

With this debate in the background, I find myself obliged to discuss democracy with my students every now and then.

In one class I taught in the Idlib countryside, I explained to my young students the meaning of the phrase “the majority is not always right.” When I asked them to name the American president, they answered immediately: “Trump!” When I asked them how he had become president, one student replied, “He has a lot of money.” I agreed that he did but argued that there are many other wealthy individuals, yet none of them became president. At this prompt, they concluded that he had been elected over the others because the majority had chosen him.

“Is the majority always right?” I asked. They replied with a confident and resounding “No!”

In a lecture on research methodology and qualitative and quantitative research, I had my university students compare the concept of democracy with the concept of “Shura” in Islam. Shura is an Arabic word that translates as “consultation.” The Prophet Muhammad and the Quran use the term to denote consultations with the group of people who would be affected by a decision. If we consider this concept of Shura, we come to realize that Islamic law is not, in fact, incompatible with democracy.

Despite its drawbacks, I believe in democracy and do believe that a qualitative democracy is the best way to apply the Islamic principle of Shura. But several big questions remain: How do we sow the seeds of democracy in Idlib, and if we manage to do so, will democracy be able to save us from the many threats looming on our horizon? However, the most terrifying question of all is whether my part of the world will be allowed anything more than a phony and hypocritical form of democracy.

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