I met Ammar Abdulhamid in 2002 at an international workshop on democratic culture at which most of the participants were Arabs.  I had not before joined in a discussion of this sort with such a large group of Arabs, and I was delighted by most of what I heard.  The participants all came from authoritarian countries, but their own views were liberal.  They yearned for democracy in their own lands and discussed how it might be reached.  They criticized the regimes of their own countries, emboldening one another, but some caution was still evident. Lebanese voices were the freest, naturally, coming from a society that was quite open—so long as one did not speak up against the Syrian occupation of their country.  Others who spoke up were also from countries with comparatively liberal regimes—by Middle Eastern standards.

Then a fellow took the floor who struck me at once with his appearance.  His long hair was in a pony tail and he wore a casual sport coat and slacks.  He didn’t look like any Arab I had ever seen; more like a graduate student who had just stepped off the campus of Berkeley.  My mystification doubled when he began by announcing he was from Syria and it redoubled as I heard him lay into the government of his own country.  Syria!  This was not one of the region’s relatively tolerant monarchies, nor one of its authoritarian-but-not-totalitarian dictatorships, like, say, Egypt.  All of those countries rated scores of 5 or 5.5 or 6 on Freedom House’s annual survey of freedom in which the higher the number the less the freedom.  Syria regularly recorded a rock-bottom score of 7 and was bracketed with Iraq and Libya as the Middle East’s most fearsomely repressive regimes.  I was surprised that this man was even in the room, all the more so by what came out of his mouth.

I was rather afraid for him.  The next morning, I saw him and his wife at breakfast, and I approached their table.  After being introduced—Khawla Yusuf--I gave her my card and told her that Ammar had been very bold in the previous day’s session, that I assumed he was in danger from the authorities, and that if she ever thought I could help she should contact me.  Her gratitude exceeded any real power I had to affect his fate, but if he were arrested I could write an article about it, and that would be something.  Little did I know then how much cause she had to be terrified on his behalf, having seen her own father, a prominent Islamist intellectual, disappear into the regime’s torture chambers never to emerge. 

Joshua Muravchik has been a close friend of Ammar, his family and other prodemocracy activists in the Middle East for many years. He published this book about them just before the outset of the Arab Spring in late 2010 under the title "The Next Founders." This an updated version of the book published in 2012. The Chapter on Syria, The Dissident, tells the story of democracy struggle in the country from the point of view of Ammar, his wife, Khawla, and their families.

On the other hand, I also did not know that Ammar had a bit more margin for defiance than most other Syrians.  His mother, Muna Wassef, is one of Syria’s most beloved film stars, someone the regime would prefer not to antagonize.  Too, this was in the early period of Bashar Assad’s rule after succeeding his late father, Hafez, a time of slight relaxation.  Briefly, Syria’s Freedom House score ticked down (improved) to 6.5.  That still made it one of the world’s most repressive countries, but Ammar charged forward as if he lived in freedom, testing the regime, trying to push the envelope. 

I saw him occasionally at international meetings over the next few years and also followed him in the press. Western reporters in Damascus would go to him frequently because he would say things that no other Syrian would dare.  I could not believe that the authorities would tolerate his outspokenness forever, notwithstanding his movie star mother.  And they did not.  I think the last straw may have been his comment, published in the Washington Post on the eve of a Baath Party congress, that the regime was trying to pull “a rabbit out of a hat.  But the hat is bottomless, the rabbit is long dead, and the president is not a magician.”  Or perhaps it was when he said that Bashar “thinks he’s Don Corleone, but he’s only Fredo.”

Soon after that appeared, the government’s security chief called in Ammar to deliver a thinly veiled death threat, and Ammar and Khawla chose to flee with their children for exile in the U.S.  Syria’s loss was my gain.  I could not travel to Syria, because the government denied my visa application after the ambassador in Washington told me plainly that he knew I intended to interview dissidents. But, with Ammar and Khawla exiled to the U.S., I was able to interview them at length so that I could include Ammar in a book of biographical portraits of Middle Eastern democrats that I published in 2009. I discovered through these interviews that Khawla was every bit as remarkable and courageous as her husband, and that her own history was every bit as unique and fascinating.  Ammar was my subject because he was the activist, but interestingly since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” of 2011, her own activism has come to equal his.  He likes to say, with a spirit of wife-admiration I have never before seen in an Arab man, that hers surpasses his.

Like other observers, I was thrilled by the “Arab Spring”; and like others I was sadly disappointed when the prospect of fundamental change evaporated everywhere save perhaps Tunisia, and most cruelly of all in Syria.  As soldiers and Islamists and tribal chieftains clawed for power in several countries, it became painfully clear that the region still suffers from a terrible dearth of true liberals.

There are none truer than Ammar (and Khawla).  This is reflected in their attitudes on all manner of political, social, and international issues.  It is reflected as well—to those who know them—in the way they have raised their children and the way they relate to each other in their marriage.

As I have recounted, the first time I met Ammar what he said stunned me.  Over years, I have gotten to know him pretty well, but he has continued to say things that interest and surprise me, not least in this book.  From the depths of one of the world’s least free countries he has miraculously emerged, the freest of free spirits, a restless soul, and a true original. 

* Joshua Muravchik is Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute in The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also the author of The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.  A revised edition was issued in 2013 with the revised title, Trailblazers of the Arab Spring.