Cities controlled by Islamist extremist groups are suffering from lack of public and personal freedom. This dark reality is eclipsed by media and popular attention on the humanitarian suffering in these cities due to constant shelling and aerial bombing. Media attention is focused on the military and humanitarian reality, while people are busy trying to survive.
Da’wa offices and Islamic law courts in these areas are constantly trying to transform society in accordance with their ideologies using anything from street signs, road banners, to painting on walls.
Offices belonging to extremist groups such as Fateh Al-Sham front formerly known as Al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham and ISIS are systematically deploying these signs and banners in all cities under their control. One of the most prominent offices in this context is the Fateh authority for Da’wa and Awkaf. (Authority for Preaching and Endowments) which controls the deployment of these signs, banners and slogans in the city of Idlib and its outskirts.
What are these signs saying?
“Democracy is the Tyrant of the Era”
A lot of signs carry phrases that are anti-democratic: “Democracy is the Tyrant of the Era”, “Democracy is the Path to Tardiness” and “Democracy is Shirk”. Radical Islamist groups never hid their hostility towards democracy, something they consider a form of Shirk, since ruling is only for God – not for the people. They therefore consider themselves entitled to represent the rule of God on earth, hence be unopposed and uncriticized.
“Beware of Secularists”
“Secularism is the Religion of the West” and “Beware of the Secularists”; are two sample phrases found on street signs seeking to misrepresent secularism. Despite the shallowness of these slogans they still have an impact on people’s opinions, and serve the continuity of the religious regime in power.
These signs so not influence Syrian society as much as they reflect what is happening within it. In order for these groups to market themselves through propaganda, they exploit the conceptual misunderstanding of secularism by many segments of Syrian society – those who consider secularism as anti-religion and accordingly consider the Syrian regime a regime of secularism, although Syrian laws are derived from Islamic Law.
“Cigarettes Delay Victory”
Radical Islamist groups are fighting smoking in territories under their control with signs such as “Smoking is Haram/Prohibited” or “Cigarettes Delay Victory”. They also confiscate packs of cigarettes from stores and punish smokers in certain areas. Safa’a from the city of Atarib in the outskirts of Aleppo says that “cigarettes are no longer sold in stores, instead women are selling cigarettes secretly. I buy cigarettes for me and my husband but we only smoke at home. Last year they burned USD 235 worth of cigarettes belonging to our neighbor. Ever since then, he stopped buying cigarettes.”
“Scantily Dressed Women”
“Where is the law of God? The women of Idlib are scantily dressed”, this is one of the most widely spread slogans on the walls of Idlib. It appeared shortly after the Al Fath army took over the city of Idlib. This period witnessed a violent attack against women, which continues to this day. Extremists demonstrated demanding the Mufti of Fateh Al Sham to enforce what they called the law of God on women. This brought to the surface the suppressed anger of many people.
Abdul Rahman, a trader in Idlib, explains that “many felt bad when they saw young men who knew little about religion insulting women. Women’s clothing was always decent in Idlib. Nobody dared to oppose these men because most of them were armed and the city had just gone out of a battle, and was being bombed.”
“It is Forbidden to Shave the Beard”
These groups did not only apply restriction on women, men were included too. Khalid, a former resident of Idlib explains that “most men do not shave their beards because they are scared of harassment and punishment. Men are not allowed to use hair conditioners nor wear any necklaces or bracelets of any kind. The Afghan dress became popular in the streets and men are avoiding jeans. Instead, they wear Galabeya, a popular costume in the countryside and the outskirts of Syria.”
“Singing is Forbidden”
If you are driving your car in one of village roads in the outskirts of Idlib or Aleppo, you’re more likely to find signs warning you from turning on the radio or humming than you are to find road signs.
“Shisha is Forbidden”
Many Syrians don’t understand the motive behind the hatred of extremist groups towards Shisha. The phrase “Shisha is Haram/Forbidden” is one of the most widespread phrases. However, these signs only encouraged people to consume Shisha at home, and removed it from the public space.
30 year old Mohamed lives in the outskirts of Idlib. He stopped taking his Shisha with him to work. He also cannot buy tobacco for his Shisha anymore: “I have enough tobacco at home, and I don’t care what they write. Whenever I see these signs forbidding Shisha, I go home and light it up!”
“Women Must be Covered to the Nails”
Extremist groups in Idlib and its outskirts are working hard to spread the idea that women must be completely covered in loose black clothing. Several slogans can be found: “Al-Hijab Al-Hijab”, “Abide by the Niqab”, and “Wear the Hijab, Daughter of Islam”. Pictures of a black human-like figure are plastered as the ideal look that these group want for women.
Maha, a teacher from Idlib says: “Before these groups took control, long coats were popular among the more religious people in Idlib, but this was not enough for the extremists who demanded the black clothing, which prevents women form breathing and moving. These groups succeeded in making these outfits popular but not because of the signs. A lot of people are just trying to avoid harassment and punishment, which many have faced because of their clothing, or that of their daughters and wives. That is besides the harassment girls are facing in schools and on the street.
“Al-Muhajeron are our Brothers”
For a better understanding of this phrase, the word “Al-Muhajeron” is used to refer to foreign fighters within these extremist groups. Islamic extremist groups fighting in Syria are trying very hard to merge and integrate their foreign fighters and their families into the new society. Friday sermons now often urge people to allow foreign fighters to marry their daughters. This can also be seen in many street signs.
“Beware of Joking”
In territories controlled by extremist groups, it is not enough to avoid common blasphemous phrases to avoid being arrested and disciplined. You now have to also prevent yourself from joking, because it could lead to serious problems from members of extremist groups who consider joking blasphemy. But don’t worry, you will find a road sign to warn you! Abu Salih, a teacher in Idlib says: “One of my students told me that he was playing football with his friends in a park, when one of his friends was angry because he lost, so he yelled, ‘curse this ball’. One of the members of Al-Nusra Front heard him, and he was detained and beaten for three days, and his father was forced to write a pledge that his son will never do it again. He was also forced to attend an Islamic Law course in one of the mosques.”