Welcome to Hell: Life Under ISIS

February 10, 2015 Topic: Civil Society Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ISISSyriaIraq

Welcome to Hell: Life Under ISIS

"Acts of violence against the local population are designed to reinforce ISIS's authority and show its power through fear."

For revolutionaries and radical groups alike, appearing to govern (setting policies, laying out standards,  regulating) is essential to establishing legitimacy in the eyes of the population they seek to rule.

Many Islamist insurgency groups have tried to do this across the Middle East and parts of Africa.

During the seven years of its rule in Afghanistan, the Taliban stipulated social and educational rules on the population. In Somalia, Al Shabaab was known for its strength in policing and taxation, and derived significant local legitimacy from it. There are now fears that Boko Haram may be beginning the transition from insurgency to administration as well, with reports that the group is providing security so that the weekly markets in the Nigerian city of Mubi can operate. Last year, the Libyan city of Benghazi was declared an “Islamic emirate” by the same militants that attacked the U.S. consulate in 2012.

One of the most interesting cases was in Mali. In 2013, after the French intervention, a letter from the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was found that chastised local Islamic militants for implementing Sharia Law too quickly. The letter goes on to state that the long-term goal was to “make it so that our Mujahedeen are no longer isolated in society, and to integrate with the different factions, including the big tribes and main rebel movements and tribal chiefs.”

Of course ISIS has also declared itself a “state” and made known its ambitions to form a fully-fledged Caliphate. But it has also started to reshape the local social, political and ethnic fabric in more fundamental ways.

Sarah Birke, in an essay for the New York Review of Books this month, takes a close look at the way ISIS has attempted to govern the Syrian city of Raqqa, taking over the administration of everything from education and health to providing “consumer protection” by regulating the price and quality of products. There is even talk of ISIS establishing its own currency. As Birke describes, the detail and reach of administration is somewhat remarkable:

Schoolteachers are allowed to continue to teach, but with an altered curriculum in which such subjects as chemistry and French have been removed and Islamic studies added. A junior doctor in her twenties who went into exile in September told me how the department heads in her hospital in Raqqa had been replaced by Islamic State men—complete with titles such as “emir of general medicine.” Female doctors were now only allowed to treat female patients, and in full niqab. “How am I meant to operate in black gloves and with barely my eyes showing?” the doctor asked me.

But strict religious governance can't be imposed without the deconstruction of what came before it. Acts of violence against the local population are designed to reinforce ISIS's authority and show its power through fear. One example is the newly renamed Sahat al-Jaheem Square in Raqqa:

Residents said they were terrified of the group’s horrific punishments. In a central square in Raqqa, heads are posted on spikes with a sign above them indicating what transgression was involved. The square used to be called Sahat al-Naem, or paradise, but is now called Sahat al-Jaheem, or hell; the doctor I met told me she took a route to work that took three times as long just to avoid it.

But, as Birke notes, ISIS is taking more fundamental actions designed to destroy the social, political and ethnographic fabric of Raqqa and make it something distinctly different:

Months ago people in Raqqa began describing how foreign jihadists were bringing in their families, or marrying Syrian or foreign women—who, like men, have been drawn to ISIS in greater numbers than to any previous jihadist movement. Many have been impressed by the actual setting up of a “caliphate” and some benefits of living there. The Islamic State distributes housing to fighters, and according to some accounts, widows receive welfare benefits based on how many children they have. ISIS sees children as important to ensuring its future. Although parents told me that ISIS does not force children to go to school, it recruits young people under eighteen into its ranks, runs Quranic lessons and events for children, and, parents told me, likes to make sure children witness beheadings and violence so as to get accustomed to it.

While other Islamist groups have tried to institute their radical and strict forms of religious governance on local populations, ISIS is attempting to restructure society from the ground up. For example, ISIS militants are encouraged to produce children en masse with “suitable wives,” the men of ethnic and religious minorities are killed while the women and children of those groups are enslaved. A report by Amnesty describes ISIS fighters systematically targeting women of non-Arab minorities and non-Sunni Muslims with rape and sexual enslavement.

The systematic nature of this rape, enslavement and murder shows that ISIS aims to reconstruct the social, cultural and ethnic fabric of the societies it conquers. While horrible and disturbing, there is a “method to the madness.”

In Raqqa, as more of the Syrian population has fled the city, foreign fighters and their families have moved in, leaving one resident Birke quotes as saying: “By the time I left I no longer recognized Raqqa as a Syrian town.” This is one small part of the mass population movement that is occurring across the entire region, and one of the under-reported consequences of the conflicts emanating from the Arab Spring.

The ethnic cleansing, forced migration and mass sexual assault and violence happening in Syria under ISIS has a historical parallel: the Bosnian War, where conflicting parties tried to reorder the ethnic, religious and cultural fabric of territories they controlled. It is important to remember that twenty years later, Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering, and has never regained the political or social cohesion it had before.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Public Domain