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Friday, 29 May 2015

Freedom Charter: An Invitation to Reality


Photo: Protest in Homs, 18 April 2011, from a set of images at The Guardian.

By Fardous Bahbouh

Fardous is a teacher at King’s College London. @FardousBahbouh

This post is one of a series on the Freedom Charter. See also:

Do you know what fear of persecution means? I vividly remember when I was teaching English at a university in Syria in 2007 and we had a listening activity from a textbook for advanced students. In that activity, we heard a Spanish student asking her English teacher to explain the meaning of “civil liberty.” The teacher explained to her student “in a country that has civil liberty, if the president does something you do not like, you could write an article in a newspaper criticising the president.” The teacher then asked the student. “Do you have civil liberty in Spain?” “Of course!” the Spanish student replied. At this point, I stopped the recorder. “So do we have civil liberty in Syria?”  I asked my students. Some of them looked surprised by the rhetorical question and others had large cynical smiles on their faces without saying anything. One student said, "But Miss, there is a camera in the classroom!”

The fear I saw on my students’ faces was completely opposite to the determination and strength Syrians showed when we took to the streets to demand our rights and dignity in 2011. It was during those protests when I felt proud of being Syrian the most! It is true that the current crisis in Syria is frightening. Also, given the scale of destruction and grief, most of us find ourselves grappling with the question “Was it all worth it? All those lost lives, injuries and destroyed homes?”

The Syrian Freedom Charter is an invitation for all Syrians to look at the bigger picture and not lose sight of our vision for a better future. Over 50,000 Syrians in various locations inside and outside Syria took part in the survey. The FREE Syria Foundation to Restore Equality and Education, and all the volunteers who conducted the survey, tried to make it as representative as possible. It outlines what Syrians want, most importantly: the rule of law, human rights and equality for all Syrians regardless of their gender, religion or ethnicity.

As Rafif Jouejati, co-founder of FREE Syria explained during the Launch of the Freedom Charter at Amnesty International in London, this project aims at promoting dialogue among Syrians and fostering national unity, which is crucial to challenge extremism and sectarianism. Looking at sectarianism in Lebanon and Iraq, it is obvious that we can’t build the Syria we want on sectarian divisions, as Lina Khatib explains in her article, Sectarianism Is Not Part of the Solution for Syria.

I believe that ending the fighting in Syria requires an international solution and an agreement between the competing regional powers. The country will go through a transitional stage of reconciliation including prosecution of war criminals. We also need to build an active and strong civil society in Syria that ensures the work of any future government is consistent with what the people really want. The Freedom Charter project is a great initiative to engage all Syrians in the process. It is an opportunity to establish a unifying foundation for the Syria that we will rebuild.

Looking at the South Africa Freedom Charter offers hope and inspiration. South Africa has always been an ideal model of a nation’s struggle for freedom and equality. The South African Freedom Charter was written in 1955 before Mandela was imprisoned. About forty years later when Mandela was freed and became president in 1994, the freedom Charter formed the basis for the South African constitution.

The reality is fighting in Syria will not last, and we can’t give up on our country. We have paid a very high price for our revolution and we must continue to work together toward achieving our dream. I personally want a Syria where education is guaranteed for all, and where universities serve as fear-free centres of enlightenment!

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