In rebel-held parts of Syria, a clash of ideologies is playing out. Powerful Islamist brigades are competing with pro-democracy civilians to shape Syria’s future.
One battlefront is in the courts. In many areas in northern Syria, Islamists have set up religious courts that deliver rulings under Shariah, or Islamic law — a fundamental change in Syria’s civil legal system.
This is evident on a recent day in a courtroom in the northern Syrian city of Azaz.
A judge and a couple of lawyers are wearing business suits in a civil case, a dispute over a carload of cigarettes. The defendant says he somehow lost the goods. His partner, a shopkeeper, wants him to pay for the loss.
The court is in session and everyone is asked to rise. The defendant is swearing an oath, his right hand on the Quran.
This is a rebel court. Self-appointed judges, lawyers and clerics started working together a few months ago, but it’s the cleric’s judgment that counts.
The lawyers are a recent addition. Attorney Jamil Osman says he joined the court system to try to insert Syria’s civil code into these proceedings.
“There needs to be the presence of lawyers because frankly, the Shariah people do not know the procedures of the judiciary,” he says.
But it’s the religious ruling that Syrians want, says Osman. The memories of the corrupt court system of the regime of President Bashar Assad are too fresh.
“Most people in Syria prefer to have this system in place because it creates a large amount of trust,” Osman says. “People trust the religious scholars.”
Expanding Hard-Liners’ Influence
Islamists — backed by ultra-conservative armed groups — dominate the courts across rebel-held areas.
As these rebels took control in northern Syria, they set up religious courts to dispense simple justice, says Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“In the interim, it’s the one system that people are able to set up and understand, and in at least two if not more provinces, it’s working,” he says.
It is also working to expand the influence of the most hard-line factions, Tabler says. The Islamists, and the Salafists in particular, have a lot of influence because they are there in the area and they are in direct touch with armed groups, he says.
But judging by what happened when Jabhat al-Nusra — the most hard-line of the armed groups — rolled into Mayadeen, a town in eastern Syria, the admiration for Islamist courts may be fading.
A large convoy of trucks and vans filled with armed, bearded men converged on Mayadeen’s municipal building to set up a religious police force.
The move prompted three days of demonstrations calling for al-Nusra to get out of town.
And in Aleppo, the largest city in northern Syria, moderate Muslims are also starting to object to these hard-line factions dominating the courts.
Tammam al-Baroudi is a businessman and activist in Aleppo. He says everyone is afraid of these hard-line groups, but so far, “the people are saying that between themselves.”
But there is growing anger, he says, over new rules. Warning signs have appeared in Aleppo: Anyone who speaks against Islam will go to jail. A doctor was arrested for taking down a black Islamic banner at his hospital. Baroudi was recently arrested and jailed over a dispute with a rebel commander.
“What I saw in these 20 days make me scared about the future,” he says.
He saw people who were brought in by the militias.
“They were in a very bad situation. They had been tortured. Anybody in the militias, he can hit him, kill him, as he wants,” Baroudi says. “This is very bad. This is the situation in Aleppo at the moment.
An Aleppo court staffed with lawyers and clerics freed him. But Baroudi says al-Nusra can arrest and try you again if they don’t agree with the ruling.
“They don’t like a judge, so they can catch you again,” he says. “This is what we are afraid all the time.”
And in the religious courts, Baroudi says, “if the judge gives you a sentence, no one can say if it’s OK or not. There is no appeal.”
“We like Shariah,” he says, “it comes from God, but not in the way they are doing it.”
What Syrians Want
There is also a fear that Islamist radicals may kick out the old form of dictatorship but replace it with an Islamist version.
In the northern city of Raqqa, militants posted leaflets announcing that anyone who supports democracy is a infidel, a serious charge in any Islamic court.
Abdelrahman al-Suri is a founding member of one of the largest Islamist battalions.
“We are not democrats,” Suri, a pseudonym, tells a group of Western journalists in an interview near the Turkish border. The heavily bearded 29-year-old oversees a system of more than two dozen courts.
He says he doesn’t need elections to know all Syrians want Islamic law.
“We know what they want and what they’re asking for and what their ambitions are, and those are to live under the laws of God and under the laws of Shariah,” he says. “So this choice has already been made by the Syrian people, even if we don’t go to actual elections and voting, this is something that the vast majority of Syrians already endorse and want.”
“We didn’t go to them, people came to us, and they came to us because we were implementing justice,” Suri says. “And this is just proof that we’re doing things in the right way.”
But not all Syrians agree — and some believe the coming fight will be with these hard-liners.