Logo Wide

Julani Freezes Morality Police in Idleb Amid Extremist Tensions

Due to mounting public discontent, the work of this religious police was discontinued, Syria TV says.
Julani Idleb
Julani Freezes Morality Police in Idleb Amid Extremist Tensions

Undoubtedly, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, has been significantly impacted by the popular movement in Idleb that seeks his removal. Interestingly, this movement has also inadvertently served al-Julani by allowing him to marginalize the extremist faction within his group that has been meddling in civilian affairs.

According to confidential sources, who spoke to Syria TV website, al-Julani has ordered the suspension of the “Public Morality Police,” a nascent body yet to be officially launched, citing the need to avoid confrontations with the public.

The General Amnesty Decision by HTS Didn’t Stop Demonstrations Against Julani

Historically, since its inception, Al-Nusra Front established religious police units (Hisbah), tasked with overseeing markets and enforcing moral conduct by preventing “mixing” and “abominations” among other duties. These units allowed Al-Nusra to exert substantial control over the population in everyday life aspects.

As Al-Nusra transitioned into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, it continued to incorporate the religious police into its framework, aligning with its evolution from a jihadi group to a more national and revolutionary-oriented entity. However, it retained the religious police to placate the “extremist movement” within its ranks, which has been critical of the group’s transformations, viewing them as a dilution of religious rigour and laxity in enforcing strictures. This retention aimed to maintain unity, prevent fragmentation, and avoid defections to other extremist factions.

Transformations of religious police in HTS

In 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra initiated the Hisbah apparatus, a religious police force that deeply intruded into civilian life. This force regulated aspects such as women’s attire and young men’s hairstyles, banned the sale and public consumption of tobacco, and enforced strict modesty codes. The Hisbah’s operatives monitored public and private spaces, ensuring compliance with the group’s strict interpretation of Islamic norms, even modifying how businesses could display their goods.

Due to mounting public discontent, the work of this religious police was discontinued. Notable incidents leading to its cessation included the mistreatment of women by female preachers in Idleb’s market in June 2017, a physical altercation involving a university official over dress code disputes, and the detainment of bus drivers for allegedly allowing mixed-gender interactions. The Hisbah also carried out corporal punishment on those deemed to have breached legal norms.

In March 2018, the organization renamed the Hisbah to “Sawa’id Al-Khair,” slightly relaxing its previous restrictions. Despite these changes, it continued to enforce similar practices and faced ongoing public opposition until its operations were finally halted in mid-2019 due to continuous protests and demonstrations.

In May 2020, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham reintroduced the religious police under a new guise, “Al-Falah,” promising lighter enforcement and reduced conflicts with the local population. This rebranded effort marked a decrease in clashes, signaling a shift towards a more moderated approach, although still maintaining certain restrictive practices under the guise of promoting virtue and preventing vice.

One notable distinction between the operations of Al-Falah and its predecessors is its approach to tobacco sales, which Al-Falah no longer targets, although it continues to enforce prohibitions against hookah smoking in public places.

Al-Falah marked a significant evolution in the strategy of the religious police under Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Unlike the Hisbah and Sawa’id al-Khair, which acted as authoritative enforcers with a mandate to supervise public behavior, Al-Falah branded itself more as a preaching body with the motto “enjoining good and forbidding evil,” focusing on advocacy rather than strict enforcement, depending on situational needs.

Leadership styles also differentiated Al-Falah from its predecessors; whereas the Hisbah and Sawa’id al-Khair were directed by prominent figures from the extremist faction within the organization, such as Abu al-Yaqzan and Abu al-Fath al-Farghali from Egypt, Al-Falah was managed by less radical Syrian leaders. 

In September 2021, as part of a strategic pivot to diminish the sway of extremist elements and foster a more open interaction with the international community, Tahrir al-Sham disbanded the Al-Falah unit. This move was unpublicized and unofficial, aligning with broader efforts to transition from overt religious enforcement to more institutional roles intended for external engagement.

Subsequent to the cessation of Al-Falah’s operations, there was talk within the leadership about reestablishing a similar entity under the governance of the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government, albeit with a more formal and regulated framework. This plan was put on hold until early 2023, when the Minister of the Interior unveiled a proposal to create a new “Public Morals Police.” However, the lack of urgency from Al-Julani in implementing this new body was evident, and the official declaration was delayed until recently, alongside the leak of a draft “Public Morals Law” comprising 128 articles, still pending formal announcement.


This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

Helpful keywords