Rejection of democracy is a common thread running through jihadist groups. The Syrian group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which evolved out of former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, is no exception. Indeed, rejection of democracy is among the key principles of HTS. It is worth, however, exploring HTS' rejection of democracy in more detail. The commentary below was published on the channel of Abu Abdullah al-Shami (Abd al-Rahim Atoun: a leading figure in HTS) and shared on other channels of HTS leaders (e.g. al-Zubeir al-Ghazi and Abu Mariya al-Qahtani). It is a commentary on the mentioning of democracy in a recent civil society initiative in Idlib city (which is controlled by HTS) that featured participation from many associations and bodies, including those from the Turkish-occupied north Aleppo countryside- an area whose dynamics differ considerably from Idlib and its environs.
The argument for rejecting democracy (namely, that it contradicts Islam because it entrusts rule to someone besides God) is a familiar one. However, the commentary also argues that when most Muslims advocate democracy, they do not do so knowing that it contradicts Islam but rather because they erroneously think it concords with Islam. For instance, they think the mechanisms of democracy are in accordance with the Islamic principle of Shura (consultation). In addition, many erroneously pose a dichotomy of democracy vs. dictatorship, and equate democracy with freedom, not opposed in spirit to Islam when contrasted with dictatorship.
As such, the commentary suggests that the way forward is not to be harsh with the Muslims who advocate democracy, but rather to educate them with mildness and gentleness. In other words, one can see this commentary as advocating a generous 'excuse in ignorance' approach towards Muslims who advocate democracy despite the fact that it contradicts Islam. Further, the commentary warns against thinking that the administration of society is like the administration of a battalion or group based around one ideology. Instead, the existing Islamic instinct as in the 'liberated' areas of northwest Syria must be cared for and nurtured over time.
Below is my translation of the commentary. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Comment on an event-
The word democracy said by one of the people on the margin of a meeting that bears the slogan 'Hand in hand we support our revolution.'
Let us consider it within the given facts:
1. HTS- as is well-known from its statements, publications and manhaj [program] that it teaches to its soldiers and its general manhaj- does not consider democracy to be right, as it contravenes the sole reference of authority for HTS which is the Islamic Shari'a.
2. Democracy has a doctrine and has its means of implementation. Democracy in the doctrinal sense contravenes Islam, as Islam arises on making rule belong to God, whereas democracy arises on making rule belong to one besides God (whoever else it might be). As for the mechanisms of democracy, like elections for example, it has some aspects of resemblance to the mechanisms of the Islamic system in rule, and here the matter may be confusing to some as they think that democracy accords with Islam, and among them are those who have thought it is a form of applying the principle of Shura in Islam.
Likewise democracy is commended for freedoms as opposed to the totalitarian dictatorship systems, so some fall into the dichotomy of 'democracy vs. dictatorship,' so they think that democracy is the only alternative to dictatorship.
3. The one who uses the word democracy from the Muslim masses who are in the position of the masses and imitators in Shari'i knowledge, even if they are at a degree of cultured nature and knowledge in other aspects of fields of knowledge: that person does not mean for the most part the meaning that contradicts the Islamic Shari'a, as he does not know the extent to which democracy contradicts Islam. Therefore one must observe that person's meaning, and through the reality we know that most of those who use the word or term democracy from the Muslim masses mean by it the freedom of which they dream that does not conflict in its spirit with the religion of Islam, as opposed to the state of affairs under the authority of dictatorship.
This is the case with most of the Muslims. As such, the obligation of the mashayakh and the Ahl al-'Ilm and the preachers and the mujahideen towards them is to explain, clarify and educate, and take them by the hand to get them to know the prior meanings with all gentleness and mildness, far removed from censure, harshness, punishment and judicial proceeding.
4. The incident alluded to should not be used to attack any side or record points and positions, but rather it represents the extent of the shortcoming of all sides in disseminating the da'wa among the people after eight years of this revolution and this blessed jihad.
5. Even if the meeting were under the supervision of HTS or within the areas of its control or with its blessing, it is not allowed to hold it responsible for the prior error.
6. If the soldiers of jihad and guardians of the revolution from the sons of HTS and every mujahid and fighter on the land of al-Sham from any faction think that the administration of society and people will be like the administration of the military battalion, they are wrong, and this error of theirs will lead them to failure, and they will not be a help for their leadership in the administration of the stage after the responsibilities grow large and the burdens increase. Rather, they will be a burden so long as they do not understand the societal state and the means of administering it, as the administration of society in all its colours, sides, in addition to its intellectual and cultural colours and backgrounds and its million figures, differs fundamentally from the administration of a military battalion, or the administration of a group of a specific ideology. And let the generation of mujahideen youth know that the society present right now in the liberated areas is not on the same ideological conceptions that this faction or that bears, and the people do not know the details of the issues of manhaj of thought for every group, and the masses of the people are on general Islamic fitra [instinct/character] that has been the true mobilizer for the revolutions. And it should now be considered its reserve storage and strategic storage, so that must be well looked-after in the application aspect and before that in the psychological aspect.