Islamic State Crackdown in Syria's Deir al-Zor

City residents complain about strict rules on dress and everyday conduct.

Islamic State Crackdown in Syria's Deir al-Zor

City residents complain about strict rules on dress and everyday conduct.

Residents of the city of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria have spoken out against Islamic State (IS) and the hard-line regulations it has imposed as it seeks to expand its control of areas near the border with Iraq.

IS took over most of Deir al-Zor in July 2014, capturing all the areas held by other rebel groups. It also controls key oilfields in Syria’s east.

In Deir al-Zor, as elsewhere, the group enforces its own interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) and rules known as “hisbah”.

At the scheduled prayer times, the religious police who enforce hisbah,  the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, force people to go to the mosque.  The committee has offices in every town and city under IS control.

Abu Khatab al-Tunsy is an imam who enforces hisbah.

“We enforce virtue if people stray from it, and we prevent vice if people gravitate towards it,” he told people during Friday prayers in the eastern suburbs of Deir al-Zor. “We protect society from deviance and religion from harm.”

Besides requiring attendance at prayers, the rules of hisbah envisage fines for contravening other regulations such as wearing the full “niqab” (costume required for women), meetings between men and women not related by blood or marriage, and smoking.

The punishment for selling cigarettes is a fine of 25,000 lira (around 130 US dollars) and a week in jail. Smokers are fined between 1,000 and 2,000 lira and jailed for a day. For women, appearing without the full niqab is punishable by a fine of 5,000 lira.

Wael practices the Sufi strand of Islam and deplores IS’s regulations.

“What these men seek is not enforcement of sharia, because our faith is flexible and not coercive,” he said. “They’re more interested in collecting taxes and fees than in promoting virtue and preventing vice.”

“When the IS confiscates cigarettes, it doesn’t burn them as people tend to believe,” Wael added. “Large amounts of these confiscated items go to IS members who smoke.”

Others agree that IS is just after money.

“I no longer know whether they are an Islamic caliphate as they claim, or a financial one,” said Mohammad, a 22-year-old resident of Deir al-Zor.

Like other IS members, the hisbah enforcers are identifiable by their traditional Pakistani-style costume. Deir al-Zor people joke about them, as many originate from the region but never prayed in the past. Some say they use their association with IS to target their enemies or anyone who disagrees with them by describing them as “infidels”.

“Damn them – they implement sharia without any evidence,” said Wael. “Don’t they know when the mosques were built? Don’t they see the pilgrims from the area? This society is Muslim to the core – they cannot simply pronounce that Syrians as unbelievers.”

Abada, 36, agrees with Mohammad that personal gain shapes IS member’s actions.

“Most IS supporters are smokers, and most confiscated items end up with them for their benefit,” he said, arguing that hisbah has served to turn people against Islam.

“The criminal actions of those who claim to be protecting Islam are in fact what harms it,” he said. “For example, I don’t know of any precedent for a groom to be arrested and detained for hours on his wedding night, citing any reason under hisbah such as mixing of the sexes or some other violation.”

Abada believes that the financial opportunities offered by taxes and fines have made the enforcers more greedy.

“They keep one sixth of the fines they collect, and this has strengthened their grip on residents,” he said. “They say the rest goes to the Baut ul-Mal, the primary financial institution of the Islamic State.”

Others strongly oppose the group’s intolerance towards anything but its own form of Islam.

“The hisbah people have no right to punish those who neglect their prayers, or to proclaim as apostates Muslims who do not adhere to their interpretation of religion, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Sufis,” said Alaa, 40.

Radiya, a young woman in her twenties, said IS’s actions have done nothing to strengthen her own faith.

“These men must stop insulting Islam,” she said “Islam is a religion of purity and forgiveness, not the severity and coarseness that they practice. Many women who used to wear the veil and are now forced to wear the niqab will throw it off the first chance they get.

“If they think that the fines they levy on women will build the kind of Muslim generation that they want, then I want to assure them that they will only breed hatred and aversion.”

This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists. 

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