Iyad el-Baghdadi is president of the Kawaakibi Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on the future of liberty in the Muslim world.
The news came as a gut punch to me and many activists around the world: Raed was a friend, an inspiration, and a teacher. If I am to speak about what he taught me, I wouldn’t know where to begin, and wouldn’t know where to stop. But I write these lines to try to tell you who he was, why we are shattered by his loss, and why we were lucky to have had him.
During the 2017 Oslo Freedom Forum, Raed began his speech by showing a video of the aftermath of one of President Bashar al-Assad’s massacres in Kafranbel, a small town in northern Syria where the dictator’s warplanes had bombed a marketplace. “It’s relatively easy for me to show you what happened. But it’s almost impossible to describe the smell that hung over the marketplace after the massacre — a smell of dust, gunpowder, burned blood and flesh, and burned vegetables.” He then asked a simple question: Was it worth starting a revolution against Assad, if the result was destruction like this?
Raed was there to tell us why it was, in his view, more than worth it.
Raed was known to most activists interested in Syria or in the wider Arab Spring, but he wasn’t a household name. He normally introduced himself as “manager of Radio Fresh,” the local radio station in Kafranbel, which was also Raed’s hometown. (He also shared his insights with a wide range of global media, including the Washington Post.) But if you asked him about his work, its astounding scale and scope quickly became apparent.
Though the phrase “civil society leader” was accurate, it didn’t really do him justice. His organization ran local media businesses, vocational training programs, therapy services for teenagers, volleyball and soccer leagues, medical treatment facilities and neighborhood parks all across Syria’s Idlib governorate — in addition to organizing regular protests in that little town of less than 30,000 inhabitants.
Building civil society was, to Raed, the highest form of resistance against Assad. “Assad convinced the world — and convinced us — that Syria cannot exist without him. What we did here was to prove that we can. We decided to guide our own destiny with our own hands,” he once said during an interview.
It is no wonder that Raed was hated by both Assad and the extremists. Assad burned his organization’s offices twice and bombed them twice. The Islamic State, on the other hand, attacked the same offices twice and, in January 2014, gunmen suspected to be from ISIS fired a hailstorm of bullets at Raed from close range, hitting him three times in the chest. He survived, but a few months later, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria had him arrested and tortured.
It would not be the last time al-Qaeda would kidnap him. The extremist group abducted him again in January 2016, but this time the story ended differently. Immense popular pressure forced al-Qaeda to release him — and to issue an apology. To Raed this was a moment of immense pride: “Civil society was victorious over guns.” It was a moment that vindicated his philosophy. A strong society, he believed, was the best bulwark against both tyranny and terrorism.
Raed’s philosophy showed why he was far less concerned with military developments on the ground than one might have expected. In another interview, he explained his belief that an awakened society is the best and most stubborn form of resistance to both dictatorship and terrorism: “If civil society keeps developing in the right direction, the military situation will become far less important. If society is strong enough, then tyranny has no chance.”
Raed knew this was not a task that could be accomplished in just a few years, after five decades of life under the Assad family. “The chances that my generation will see a normal and free Syria are remote,” he once said. “It is for our children that we decided to rise.”
This is why Raed did not think of leaving Syria, even knowing that he lived as a marked man who could be assassinated at any time. Raed traveled outside Syria from time to time, but he always returned to Kafranbel. To leave was unthinkable to him, because that’s where his project and his life’s work was — in Syria, building its civil society.
Raed is gone — but the civil society infrastructure he built lives on, as do countless young Syrians he has trained, empowered and inspired. The day after his funeral, the protests that he helped organize for five years were back. This week, the banners read: “Raed and Hammoud, it may appear that they killed you, but you are still with us as an inspiration and a light of freedom.”
During that 2017 speech in Oslo, Raed drew an analogy between the French Revolution and the Syrian revolution: “The French Revolution changed the face of Europe, because it changed people on the inside. The Syrian revolution will change the face of the Middle East, because it’s changing people on the inside. And because revolution is an idea, and no weapons can kill an idea.”
Don’t let them tell you there are no good guys in Syria. There are — but the world chooses to ignore them while they’re alive, only to eulogize them after their death.
Perhaps I should allow my tears to run down my face as I bid you farewell, Raed. This is my promise to you: We will never stop working for what you died for.