Secular commentators dismiss religion as a malign force in the world. But from Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi to the Arab spring, faith is inspiring the new peaceful protest.

The names Yahya Shurbaji and Ghiyath Matar might mean little to people outside Syria. Inside the country, however, they are considered heroes by many, having helped to inspire, organise and mobilise the non-violent protests against the despotic regime of Bashar al-Assad before being arrested, detained and, in the case of the 26-year-old Matar, tortured and killed in custody by Assad’s secret police in September.

In Daraya, the suburb of Damascus where they lived, Shurbaji and Matar pioneered the tactic of distributing roses, dates and bottles of water to young soldiers sent by the government to open fire on unarmed demonstrators. The former earned the sobriquet “the man with the roses”; Matar was nicknamed “Little Gandhi”.

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