A town of about 200,000, Daraya is notable mainly for its grapes — and, truth be told, for its lack of social diversity. If Damascus is a little too full of people of different faiths, military sorts, and Baathist Party members, for your comfort, you beat a retreat to Daraya, where a calm coexistence has traditionally existed among only Christian Arabs, and the town’s majority: Sunni Arab Muslims. Since March 2011, however, Daraya has been on the map of the Syrian uprising because of its nonviolence activists. Concerted study of nonviolence began over a decade ago in this suburb of Damascus. Today, the nonviolent youth of Daraya has taken a lead role in organizing the town’s protests. How has this quiet suburb become an epicenter for nonviolent values in this uprising?
In 1998, a group of some twenty youths in Daraya, about fifteen to twenty-five years old, got booted from the mosque where they had been studying Quran. Their lively discussions had veered too close to social change, not acceptable in an authoritarian state. Yahya Shurbaji, then eighteen years old, was one of these youths.
Although it had an Islamic orientation, this was no fundamentalist movement. Like most Daraya townspeople, these young men and women came from conservative Muslim backgrounds, but these youths valued tolerance, universal equality, individual empowerment, and above all, peace. Their Quran teacher, Shaikh Abdul-akram Siqa, encouraged openness to other intellectual traditions. Siqa is a Daraya cleric known for thinking outside the lines since 1979. He is Daraya’s other claim to fame, frequently embattled by more conservative Sunni clerics, some of whom in past years have even collaborated with the state police to imprison him.
Siqa introduced Yahya and other Daraya young people to Shaikh Jawdat Said, who has been teaching nonviolence for decades in Syria. Said interprets the Quran with an emphasis on the sacredness of life above all, in an approach that might be called Islamic humanism. His first book in 1964, The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam, meditated on the Quranic verses about the first murder, in which Abel says to Cain, “Though you stretch your hand to kill me, I do not stretch my hand to kill you.” Said draws connections between Quranic nonviolence and Gandhi’s practices, as well as to the Buddhist thought of his friend the Daila Lama, and to the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr.
That day in 1998 when they were kicked out of Annas Mosque, young Yahya Shurbaji and thirteen other boys and ten girls sat on the ground outside and held their meeting anyway.
“It was freezing,” Osama Nassar, a younger friend of Yahya, currently in hiding in Syria, recalls. Shivering, braced against the push of the police state and the pull of religious conformism, the Daraya Youth Group was born.
The group grew to over fifty members, about half of them boys and half girls. Wearing vests saying, “until you change what is in your selves,” a Quranic verse that makes the individual responsible for his or her own destiny, Daraya Youths swept city streets in 2002.
“Give me a broom, too!” says a twelve-year-old bystander. Yahya, Osama, and the other Daraya Youths made trash pick-up cool.
“Surely they were commended for this,” you may say. Ah, but in Syria, citizens are not only not rewarded for civic volunteerism; they are punished for it.
Then, there was the anti-corruption campaign. The young women and men published an awareness-raising calendar: each month featured a drawing illustrating forms of corruption.
“Government’s role is to serve the people, you say? Not to milk them for gain?” A radical notion, in a police state, that the Daraya Youth propagated.
Their most delightful project was a public library. Members gathered books, rented a space, and put up a placard: “Paths of Peace Library.” They went to the Ministry of Education for a license, says Osama.
“No,” said the Ministry of Education. “Go to the Ministry of Information.”
“No,” said the Ministry of Information. “Go to your municipal government.”
“No,” said the municipality. “Open your library first, then we’ll see.”
Paths of Peace Library opened. The state police promptly shut it, confiscating all that dangerous material—the books.
“You said we could open,” the Daraya Youth protested.
The official of the paper government shrugged, “We have no real say. It’s them,” pointing to the state police. It is the shadow state—the police state—that calls the shots in Syria.
The Daraya Youth’s most political project was to march, a hundred strong, through the main street of Daraya in silent protest against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Syria’s government opposed the US invasion too, so you may think the Daraya Youth earned kudos from the Syrian government for this. Ah, but they organized a protest by themselves, without the Baath Party. You don’t do that in a police state.
It was enough to land them in prison. In May 2003, women members were interrogated and harassed, and Yahya Shurbaji and eighteen other men in the group were imprisoned. The group became defunct. Yahya spent over two years in prison. He emerged an insightful, congenial visionary of nonviolent struggle.
Back in the early 2000s, the emphasis of the Daraya Youth was on personal and social transformation. In March 2011, an uprising erupted in Syria. The first peaceful demonstrations took place in the southern city of Dara on March 18, far from Daraya. When the police state responded by shooting live fire at unarmed civilians, cities across Syria rose in solidarity.
Daraya’s first demonstration to be uploaded to YouTube was on March 25. Yahya Shurbaji and other men and women in the former Daraya Youth Group were at the forefront of the Daraya movement, organizing rallies with nonviolent principles. Beginning in the early Daraya protests, Yahya brought flowers for protesters to offer to the soldiers sent to suppress the demonstrations. Yahya became known as “the man with the roses.” He insisted that regime forces be viewed as human beings with choices, even in a police state.
By April, several nonviolence groups had sprung up, including the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and the April 17 Youth. Today there are some twelve groups in the Damascus area espousing nonviolence teachings, including Noble Selves, The Subversives, and Damascus Coalition for a Civil State. Three generations of nonviolence work in Syria has borne fruit in other regions too; twenty-five Kurdish Syrians began the Nonviolence Movement of the Jazeera Region around 2000. Nabd is a secular nonviolence group in the Homs area, born during the revolution, focused on growing tolerance and trust between neighborhoods of different religious affiliations. Dara has its own nonviolence teachers and study groups, such as Dr. Mouhammad Alammar of Nawa, imprisoned since September 17.
Together, members from many of these groups plan weekly nonviolent civil disobediences in Syria, posting them on the Internet in a Freedom Days Calendar. They have leafleted for the revolution; distributed cash to revolution orphans; and dyed the water of public fountains in Damascus and Aleppo plazas a red color to remind citizens that human beings are losing their lives under the repression of Syria’s authoritarian regime.
Razan Zaitouneh is a human rights lawyer and leader of the Local Coordinating Committees, a significant ground coalition in the Syrian uprising. In her essay, One Revolution Is Not Enough she describes how some hotheaded protesters, including one young man named Islam Dabbas, appalled at the unnecessary bloodshed committed by regime forces, wanted to shout insults at soldiers. Yahya persuaded the protesting youths to try offering them water bottles instead.
Razan herself, from a more legal-political side of pro-democracy activism, expresses her initial skepticism about this highly spiritual approach, but describes in her essay the visible effect it had on many soldiers. The young drafted soldiers were confused and made eye contact. Some of the soldiers began to see the protesters as human beings. The angry young Islam witnessed the transformation in some soldiers. He became one of the biggest advocates of water for soldiers, and promoter of nonviolence values, even after his father was taken to prison. Islam himself was taken to prison during a July protest, in the act of giving water to soldiers.