Ever since the Islamic State, or ISIS, recaptured the city of Raqqa at the start of 2014, fear and caution has become the norm among residents. Anxiety comes from dancing around the dangerously long list of items, habits and public behaviors that are banned by ISIS, all of which carry a heavy punishment if one is caught violating the ban.
Most noticeably, ISIS has forbidden women from leaving the home without the supervision of a male relative and wearing the proper attire, which is dubbed “the shield” – a long, loose dress that covers women from head to toe. Smoking is banned. It’s illegal to sell tobacco, any CDs containing secular music, and any DVDs of Arabic or Western movies.
Men are prevented from shaving their beards and forced to pray at the mosques. Law, physics, chemistry and sociology have been scratched off the academic curricula. And only ISIS members and supporters are allowed to have guns.
Men are also prohibited from wearing tight clothing or replicating Western dress codes. Shopkeepers who do not have saleswomen are not allowed to sell any women’s products, and women’s clothing is banned from being displayed in shop windows.
Anyone breaking these rules has to answer to ISIS, and each transgression carries a specific punishment. In response, many of Raqqa’s residents have left the city, only to visit infrequently. Others have fled after ISIS declared them apostates. Those remaining in the city deal with the fear and hardship of a new, bleak kind of life where killing, torture and kidnapping are commonplace.
Mustafa, 27, is a resident in Raqqa and decided to stay, rather than flee his family home. The price of that decision has been his personal adaptation to a difficult new way of life.
“In the marketplace or on the streets of Raqqa, I find myself wary, looking at the large number of ISIS members among us,” he said.
“They are everywhere and they carry arms. I find myself scared of seeing one of them heading my way or even looking at me to quickly check myself: is there something wrong with the way I dress or with my things? Is there something wrong with me or am I carrying something that’s forbidden? Or that my cell phone has music on it or the names of a few people wanted by ISIS, or even pictures of my city, because I will automatically be accused of giving the enemy coordinates or that I’m collaborating with them? That’s why I and all the people of Raqqa delete everything off our phones.”
The change has pushed Mustafa and other like him to change how they interact, down to the language they use in the street.
“Most people here including myself now use formal Arabic [instead of the usual colloquial Syrian accent] and we speak of the Islamic Sharia, fatwas and religion. If an argument arises, we automatically state issuing fatwas and calling each other kaffirs [disbelievers or infidels], instead of appreciating the other’s point of view,” he said.
“This is mainly due to how we each understand this futile tradition that’s been imposed on us … the daily interactions, the circulars and the sermon tents frequently set up by ISIS. We even started using the word sheikh to refer to local authorities, imitating ISIS for fear of saying something else that would be deemed anti-Islamic. That’s why we have copied IS in the way they talk and behave as well as their daily routine.”
Mustafa said he became eager to memorize some of the sayings of the Prophet and a few Quranic verses, just to be ready in case he was ever questioned by ISIS and quizzed on anything relating to Islam.
“I want to be able to give them the right answer to avoid punishment … so as not to be dragged to jail, like cattle. It could escalate and I could be whipped or tortured, because ISIS would think that I don’t know enough about the Sharia and Islam. I could even be killed if they considered me a kaffir.”
Mustafa says ISIS has also left a visual mark on the city.
“What reminds me the most of the ISIS presence is the overwhelming use of the color black. Everything is black now in Raqqa. ISIS paint their headquarters black, as well as the walls at the markets … women wear the black dresses, covered from head to toe in ‘the shield.’ Black ISIS flags are everywhere: on cars, in markets, on electricity poles and on street corners. ISIS members roam the streets and they too are dressed in black. In Raqqa, it seems the color black and fear go hand in hand,” he said.
Alongside the predominance of black comes a dark and sober message, with stern religious overtones.
“They write slogans that glorify their Islamic state and their caliphate, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi. Sometimes, they write prophetic sayings and Quranic verses, mostly the ones that show God’s punishment and wrath, instead of writing the verses that remind us of God’s mercy and tolerance,” said Mustafa.
Abu Omar, 39, said that ISIS has implemented a new method of public intimidation: public executions, carried out in brutal fashion.
“They arrange public executions and then decapitate the body of the civilian or prisoner of war,” he said. “All of this is done in public squares in front of people. They herd people to watch the execution without giving any consideration that there are children and sensitive people among the crowd.”
He added that ISIS had even gone as far as sticking heads on the fences of public parks and squares. Other heads were simply left in the street. Abu Omar said that this approach is used to fuel fear among residents – to send the message that they should not disobey ISIS, while adhering to their laws and the Sharia. Otherwise, they would suffer the same fate as the person who was killed and put on public display.