By Sinam Sherkany Mohamad

Peace is not the absence of tension but rather the prioritization of cooperation and justice. In the Middle East today, there is an abundance of conflict. What was once the cradle of civilization is now engulfed by violence and war. Spurred by an intolerance to differences, these conflicts have prevented meaningful progress and human development.

Because of its unique and ancient history of civilization, the Middle East today is an intricate mosaic of culture, religion and ethnicity. You cannot remove a color or segment from a mosaic without ruining the complete picture. In the same way, those who seek to enforce a singular vision or identity on the people of the Middle East can never do so peacefully. It cannot work in a place that is so diverse.

The change so many wish to see, the change that will bring peace, must come from the people. Existing grievances of oppression and persecution must be cooperatively addressed before a movement for peace can gain ground. All cultures and people are legitimate. It is oppression and persecution which are illegitimate.

We in the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) have sought to create the sort of mass movement which will build peace. It is through understanding of the needs and differences of the many peoples of Syria that we have begun this process. By entrusting the primary responsibilities of governance to the local communities, we have given space and power to individuals who understand their own situation and lives better than any central government could.

The democracy which has been pioneered in our communities is unlike any other previously attempted. Women and minorities are given not just the rights of existence, but the right to self-determination and expression. When real democracy is promoted without exclusion based on identity or belief, people truly come to believe in it. The greatest fear of our opponents — those who rely on division between people and are fueled by violence and hatred — is that we unite for a greater cause and reject their violence and hatred.

Those who have dogmatic, narrow worldviews hope to solve the minority question by eliminating that very question through the extermination of those who hold different beliefs and views. The extremists of the Islamic State and the thugs operating on behalf of the Turkish regime can only succeed when the people are afraid and divided. The future they promise is evident in their actions. This can be seen in the attack on Afrin, when the Turkish army allied with jihadist groups to destroy the peaceful and democratic society that our people had created there. The route of eliminating opponents by force and bullets will never yield a lasting peace; it will only breed more war.

Peace does not come from international conferences either. These discussions often include many outside powers with no human stake in the conflict at hand. They often have few true representatives of the will of the people. They propose solutions detached from the complex reality of societies who are trying to rebuild themselves after war.

This is why so many rounds of Geneva talks on Syria have failed. The process has excluded the SDC and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, despite our efforts in the war against terrorism and in building a unique social model of coexistence. Peace is only possible when everyday people are aware of the importance of living together and working towards a better future. The people of our region do not work together because of fear, threats, or any other external factor, but rather because of a shared dream of peace, stability and coexistence.

What must be accomplished is a popular campaign for peace led by the people who reject the road of violence and brutality. This cannot be accomplished only through democracy or economic prosperity, but by a cultural shift towards peace accompanied by the creation of institutions which protect the rights of all people to express themselves. We must embrace the mosaic of difference. There is no real democracy without respect for all religions, genders and ideologies. When neighbors of different races and religions are able to greet each other as friends and equals, then we will know that our movement has succeeded.

Imagine what this opportunity for a truly democratic and peaceful society could bring to the war-torn Middle East. Christians, Muslims, Yezidis, Jews and all others could practice their faith without persecution. Millions of Kurdish and Syriac children could learn their language and practice their culture without fear. Women could aspire to the same heights as men without barriers, and fully participate as equals in our society. We could finally look past the discord and focus on harmony.

The old way of tradition and force has failed us. We must look to build a system which embraces the future, rather than the past. It is in the interests of us all to build this future together. Those who obstruct the way of human progress may convince the people of our region that they have much to fear from the democratic movement. But in truth, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.