Residents of the city of Deir-ez-Zor in eastern Syria have spoken out against Islamic State (IS) and the hard-line regulations it has imposed as Hisba cars patrol the streets in search of anyone who violates the regulations.
ISIS took over the majority of Deir-ez-Zor in July 2014 when it gained control of all rebel-held areas. It also controls key oil fields in Syria’s east.
In Deir-ez-Zor the group has implemented a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law and courts known as “hisba” – which literally means “accountability”.
During scheduled prayer, the enforcers of hisba, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, spread themselves between the city’s mosques and force people to pray. The committee has headquarters in every town and city in Syria that have come under ISIS control.
Abu Khatab al-Tounsy is an imam and enforces hisba.
“We enforce virtue if people stray from it and we prevent vice if people gravitate towards it,” he informs people during Friday prayers in the eastern suburbs of Deir-ez-Zor. “We protect society from deviance and religion from loss.”
Besides enforcing a strict adherence to scheduled prayers, hisba also results in fines for contravening other regulations such as wearing the full niqab or the ban on smoking. It is prohibited for a man to meet with a woman who is not related to him by blood or marriage.
The punishment for selling cigarettes is a fine of 25,000 Syrian Pounds (around 130 US dollars) and a week in jail. Smokers are fined between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds (five to 10 dollars) and jailed for an entire day. Not wearing a full veil is punishable by a fine of 5,000 pounds (25 dollars).
Wael practices Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, and he deplores the strict regulations in Deir-ez-Zor.
“What these men seek is not the enforcement of Sharia, because our religion is flexible and not coercive,” he said.
”They are more interested in collecting taxes and fees than in promoting virtue or preventing vice.”
Citizens ask themselves if they should still pay their bills if their money ends up going to ISIS leaders and officials.
“When ISIS confiscates cigarettes they don’t burn them as people tend to believe,” Wael added. “Large amounts of confiscated goods go to members of the ISIS who smoke.”
Others say the group is just after money.
“I no longer know if they are an Islamic caliphate as they claim, or a financial one,” said Mohammad, a 22-year-old resident of Deir-ez-Zor.
The enforcers of hisba wear traditional Pakistani clothing, as worn by other members of ISIS.
Residents of Deir-ez-Zor joke about them as many of them originate from the region but never prayed in the past. Some say they have used their association with ISIS to spite their enemies or those who disagree with them by painting them as infidels.
“Damn them, they implement Sharia without any evidence,” said Wael. “Don’t they see when the mosques were built? Don’t they see the pilgrims from the area? This society is Muslim in essence, they cannot simply pronounce Syrians as unbelievers.”
Abada, 36, agrees with Mohammad that personal gain is at the root of their actions.
“Most ISIS supporters are smokers, and most confiscated items end up with them for their own benefit,” he said, arguing that hisba has only served to turn people against Islam.
“The criminal acts committed by those who claim to be protecting Islam are in fact what harms it,” he said.
“For example, I do not know of a precedent for a groom to be arrested and detained for hours on his wedding night for any reason under hisba such as because of gender mixing or some other violation.”
Abada believes that the financial benefits they receive from taxes and fines have made the enforcers of the regulations greedier.
“They keep one sixth of the fines they collect, and this has strengthened their grip on the residents,” he said. “They say that the rest goes to the Bayt al-mal, the primary financial institution of ISIS.”
Others strongly oppose the intolerance to different forms of Islam.
“The hisba have no right to punish those who neglect their prayers, or to proclaim as apostates Muslims who do not follow their interpretation of religion, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Sufis,” said Alaa, 40.
Radiya, a young woman in her twenties, said ISIS' actions undermine rather than endorse her faith.
“These men must stop insulting Islam,” Mandeel 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.”
Radiya believes the regulations are counter-productive.
“If they think that the fines that they levy on women will build a generation of Muslims according to their wishes, then I want to assure them that they will only breed hatred and aversion.”