by Stephen Starr
Islamic courts in liberated Syria may be popular, but religion is not the reason why
At an administrative level, Islamic courts in liberated Syria are often run and organised by self-appointed judges—and can be anyone from men who are either lawyers and Imams who are well-read and respected to simply university law students. They are charged with keeping day-to-day life ticking over by issuing birth and death certificates, assessing divorce applications and dealing with petty crime. Above them in authority, ideologically extremist groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham have gained popularity among civilians for bringing gas, flour and general security to communities wracked by the experiences of conflict.
Many of the original dynamos behind the revolt in northern Syria—army defectors and protesters who took up weapons in response to Assad’s violence—simply chose to sit on what they had once the regime left town: in and around Aleppo, hundreds of factories were stripped and their contents sold off by some such rebel fighters. Unlike rebel elements motivated by religious ideology, these individuals chose neither to govern nor to take the fight to Assad. Moderate forces, by their very definition, are waiting for the war to end before attempting to introduce their interpretation of governance, and in the new, free Syria they have been side-lined by extremists.
Faced with an overwhelming military onslaught from the regime, many other secular fighters turned to God as a force to give them meaning. Gradually, their ideological reference points have shifted: although they started out fighting against Bashar Al-Assad’s rule, today, many fight for an idea: God’s will and law over Syria. Of course, the most radical elements of the rebel opposition are not necessarily successful because they are well trained or have access to advanced weapons—it is more because they are willing to drive trucks full of explosives into government checkpoints and military bases, and thus take ground from the regime. To this end, civilian communities in liberated areas of Syria have become overwhelmed by the rhetoric of those who govern them. And in rural areas, where education had been substandard for decades and access to money (and therefore travel) scant, turning to God’s way of governing in the form of Islamic courts was not a difficult transition to make.
And recent history tells us more. In Ba’athist Syria, civilians were (and in government-controlled areas continue to be) subjected to extremely intrusive state involvement in their everyday lives. Today, civilians pack the courts of northern and eastern Syria seeking guidance about often the most trivial of issues. This is a hangover from decades of Assad rule when the government sought to keep civilians dependent on the state in order to, among other things, plant the idea that nothing could function without the government’s deep involvement.
In a word, the Ba’athist state’s tentacles were deployed into people’s lives to an extent that people simply could not imagine living without that immense state involvement, a sentiment that continues today in rebel-held Syria. As the war in Syria drags on, Islamic courts are becoming increasingly entrenched in civilians’ lives, although the secular basis for governance persists in many rebel-held areas.
As the Daily Telegraph reported in May, there are, of course, outspoken moderates unwilling to lie down in front of gunmen seeking to Islamicize liberated Syria. There are other grounds for hope. During its modern history, Syria has not been an overtly Islamic, conservative or ideological society. Anyone who visited the centers of power of Aleppo or Damascus or the Syrian coastal region before March 2011 would attest to that. But the longer that men with guns reign and archaic methods for maintaining law and order are entrenched, the more difficult it will be to re-establish the secular mosaic that Syria once was.
Stephen Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising. Now based in Turkey, he lived in Syria for five years until 2012.
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