Freedom of speech is one of the most important rights that people need so that they can fully express their opinions and realize their potential.
But what would happen if that right was taken away from the people?
What does it really look like when it becomes illegal to speak your mind?
In this article I will describe the state of freedom of speech in Syria, before and during the revolution – under the Assad regime, under the control of the Free Syrian Army and in ISIS controlled territory . Everything in this article is based on what I have seen with my own eyes in Raqqa.
Before the revolution began, people in Syria were too afraid to say or write anything against the government or al-Assad family because security branches would arrest them, and possibly torture them for doing so. In some cases the torture was fatal.
This oppression permeated all areas of public life. The government would pay for fabricated evidence to be produced against certain people and sent to the security branches, who could then take action against the people accused of being anti-government. There are four security branches in Syria. On paper, one is for the military, one for the air force, one for national security and one for state security, thus making them each distinct branches – but in reality they all exist for the same reason: to oppress the people and make sure that no one crosses the line by speaking about the faults of the government.
Before 1982, those security branches were performing the duties they had originally been designed to do. However, when the Islamic Brotherhood started protesting against the government, they all started repressing the protesters, prosecuting them and even killing members of the brotherhood. Eventually, the Islamic Brotherhood was outlawed in Syria, and anyone who joined it would be imprisoned and tortured. After this uprising was suppressed, the role of the security officers changed from taking care of their own jobs to keeping a close eye on the citizens and making sure they do only what they’re told to do.
When someone is captured by one of the security branches, they don’t provide a reason for the arrest – they just come to his home (or workplace) and take him away. In order for his family to find out where he is being held, they need connections inside security branches or have to pay bribes in return for information. This made people afraid to speak out and they rarely did so.
In 2011 the Arab Spring came to Syria and threatened to undermine the Al-Assad regime and kick-start a real democracy that ensured the freedom of the people. Little did we know that some people would take advantage of this revolution and turn it around so they would have the power to crush others.
Originally, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was constructed to protect peaceful protesters from the fire of the Syrian army and security officers, but then the FSA turned to fighting the government. This move was supported by the government’s opponents, but soon enough, smaller rebel groups started to take control of towns and villages in the name of the FSA. The leaders of these rebel groups used their newly acquired power to settle personal disputes, arresting anyone with connections to the al-Assad regime. Most civilians disliked these tactics, as they saw that they were going against the spirit of freedom in which the revolution started. In areas under FSA control people had more freedom of speech than under the Al-Assad regime and could speak out against the crimes of the rebel groups.
As the rebellion continued, some groups began impose local government based on Islamic Sharia (the laws of Islam that are found in the Holy Quran and the stories of the prophet Mohammad). At that point most of the people who were part of the revolution saw that it was only taking them from one dictatorship to another. Even Muslims were against it because it wasn’t creating the freedom that we started the revolution for and we knew that all the other religions and branches of Islam would be targeted by this new government.
Another group was al-Nusra, which was also was determined to build an Islamic country in Syria. Under the control of al-Nusra people had the same freedom that they had under the FSA control or the rebel groups.
ISIS was also established, and as recent events have shown, they are much more extreme than either the al-Assad regime, FSA or al-Nusra. Many of its members were hardline extremists who had been in Syrian jails for many years. ISIS were also determined to build a society based on the Islamic Sharia and anyone who spoke against them would get arrested and killed in public. They were accused of being against Allah and Islam, and the punishment usually entailed decapitation by sword, then displaying the dead body and head on spikes in public.
One day in Raqqa, before the colleges closed, a few members of ISIS came to our university to talk to the students. I stayed to see what they had to say; they claimed that they were there to show us the true face of the Islamic State and to break the “fake wall made by the media between the people and the Islamic State”. They started talking about their goals and how they want to bring us back to “true Islam” and told us that we should quit college because we didn’t need to study for years on end. One of them said “I can teach you how to make a bomb in three days, you don’t need all these years in college.”
When they asked if anyone had ever seen the Islamic State doing something wrong, some students stepped up and started to talk to them. Most of the answers given by ISIS members weren’t direct and they didn’t give a single convincing answer to the students’ questions. They curtailed all arguments by saying that it was the word of Allah and if you were against it then you were an infidel, and against Allah.
By looking at the current situation, it is evident that the oppression against which the protests and rebellions were first directed have not improved over time, despite changes in leadership. We can only hope that the scenario in Syria does not become any worse.