17 Jun 2015

Life under Islamic State: the devotion of some young Syrians

Everyone’s afraid of someone round here. Akcacale, the closest Turkish town to the part of Syria controlled by Islamic State, is full of smugglers and spies. That’s why many of the refugees I’ve met in the past two days don’t want to talk on camera – they don’t know who will be watching.

“If you speak against them they’ll cut your head off,” said a young man in a dark green polo shirt who I met in a park. “Who?” I asked. “Whichever ones you speak against!”

The people of Tel Abyad have good reason to fear. President Bashar al Assad‘s government controlled the town until 2012 when the rebel Free Syrian Army took over. Fourteen months ago Islamic State militants drove out the FSA. As of this week, the FSA is back with the Kurdish forces, the YPG. The sensible thing to do is keep quiet and obey whoever is in charge.

But the boy in the green shirt and his family were clear about which rulers they preferred. “The Islamic State is the best,” said his cousin, Mustafa Mohamed, a young man with shoulder length hair dressed in a white shirt and jeans. “There is no better life. Everything is under the law of God. Safety is the first thing and we had that. There were no thieves.”

Most people prefer harsh law to no law at all, but these young men had absorbed the ideology as well.

“Before they came we had forgotten the true Islam,” said Mustafa. “These people showed us the right way.” He was a big fan of the foreign fighters who had come to  Tel Abyad – Saudis, Tunisians, Uzbeks, Americans, British….

“British?” I asked.
“Yes. Jihadi John came to Tel Abyad about six months ago.”
“How did you know it was him?”
“He’s famous! He’s in Brigade 17. He wore the same as he did in the videos.”
“Were you afraid of him?”
“No, because I’m a Muslim. He was right to kill those journalists because they were all spies under the cover of journalism.”

They eagerly explained how if you stole a bicycle left unlocked in the street that wasn’t a real crime, but entering a house to steal was punishable by amputation from the wrist for a first offence, from the elbow for the second and the shoulder for the third. The guy in the green shirt, who had spent time in Raqqa, the IS headquarters, said he’d seen homosexuals thrown from high buildings.

“It’s exactly as it was in the time of the Prophet,” he explained. “Well, they didn’t have tall buildings in those days so they had to throw them off mountains.”

At this point a stout middle aged woman in a blue headscarf appeared and offered me a cigarette. I said I thought smoking was against the laws of Islam, but she said it was fine if you did it in the house where no-one could see you. The women of the family, I noticed, were wearing normal hijab, their faces uncovered. In Tel Abyad under IS, they said, if a woman went out inadequately covered her male companion would be beaten as punishment, or the family would be fined a gram of gold – about US$50, a huge sum for Syrians.

“We accepted it because the rulers told us,” said the woman in the spotty dress. “But we can take it off now because they’re not here. It’s very hot.” Her male cousin demurred – niqab wasn’t hot. “What do you know?” she shot back, suddenly fiery. “You don’t feel what I feel.”

The men, it seemed, had accepted the IS ideology completely. The women weren’t going to argue,  but I got the feeling they were less convinced. Soon, the family hoped, they would go home and live under Kurdish and FSA rule, and obey whatever new law was imposed upon them.

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