May 24, 2013

By Nuha Shabaan and Jacob Wirtschafter

This week a self-appointed sharia court in the rebel held city of Saraqeb, the second largest town in Idlib province, posted a video of corporal punishment administered to two male residents of the city.

The first man, Ahmad al-Ra'i, was subjected to 50 lashes for allowing his daughter to remarry after her divorce, prior to the months-long waiting period required by some Islamic law statutes.

The groom, Mustafa Amno, received 40 lashes for the “moral vice of participating in an illegitimate marriage.”

Additional sharia vigilantism videos have appeared online over the past month in what the rebels call “liberated areas” where the regime no longer rules, including one announcing the establishment of an impromptu religious court at Bab al-Hawa near the Turkish border and another  with Jabhat a-Nusra fighters destroying stocks of alcoholic beverages in A-Raqqah.

Jabhat a-Nusra applies sharia by throwing away alcoholic beverages confiscated from a civilian’s pickup truck. Video courtesy of MrGuerrillaXL

More than 15,000 viewers have watched the Saraqeb sentencing on You Tube, igniting a discussion around the authority vacuum in rebel-held areas, interpretation of Islamic law, the threat of takfiri power against minorities and an intensifying image problem for the revolution itself.

While centrist Sunnis and Islamists associated with the Free Syrian Army were quick to denounce the administration of Quranic vigilantism in Idlib and other provinces, their remarks leave room for eventual implementation of sharia law under different circumstances.

“In moderate Islam, the rule of flogging is invoked when it is implemented in an Islamic country led by a Muslim leader, and that leader’s rule encompasses the sharia law in the whole land,” said Samir al-Ibrahim, a spokesman for Council of Free Islamic Scholars, a pro-revolution organization.

“The people who did this lack education and are undermining Islam and the revolution in the eyes of the world,” said the Idlib–based imam.

An impromptu Islamic court in Saraqib whips a groom and his father-in law on charges of violating customary waiting time between marriages. Video courtesy of almrsds

In remarks clearly more critical of the punishers than the punishment, al-Ibrahim said that “the Council of Free Islamic Scholars condemns what this group did, as it is not appropriate for the current circumstances.”

After the revolution the cleric envisions sanctions against the un-credentialed Saraqeb enforcers of religious law, vowing “they will be punished in the future by the specialist councils.”

Another Sunni cleric Haitham Afifi, who serves on the Military Council in the nearby town of Maraat Noman, denounced the public floggings in his province.

“Who gave them the right to apply what they said was God’s law? It’s obvious [those who posted the video] wanted to divert the world’s attention from the daily bombardment on Saraqeb, to ridicule us and provide to opportunities to criticize the rebels and tarnish their reputation.”

Afifi, whose background includes both Islamic studies and a career in the Syrian Air Force, is part of the FSA in Idlib, which includes trying to establish a semblance of order in the rebel-held areas.

“The Saraqeb area is subjected to the Military Council, and I’m responsible for the rebels in the same area. Let it be known, Saraqeb has its Islamic court, which is recognized by the Revolution Higher Judicial Committee and the FSA in the area,” Afifi said.

Echoing the sentiments expressed by Samir al-Ibrahim, Afifi expressed frustration with the rogue Shari’a courts while conceding the FSA’s inability to rein in the offenders.

“The FSA cannot stop them at the current time because we don’t want to open more than one frontline. You can’t fight the regime on a frontline and the Islamic battalions on another. I think these groups are subordinate to Jabhat a-Nusra, which get a lot of military and financial support to keep its control.”

For secular Syrians who support the anti-Assad revolt, the Saraqeb video points to tensions they feared would emerge as the opposition struggles to harmonize its diverse constituencies.

President Bashar Assad “has bet on the internal conflict among the forces that claim to represent the revolution. It seems he’s succeeded in achieving that,” said Jouan Yousef, a former Syrian National Coalition member now working at a opposition radio station in Switzerland.

“Conflicts among the armed battalions have started to appear, and the Salafist forces’ participation in the revolution was a major part of his wager,” says Yousef, who has a resume that includes activism on behalf of the Communist and Kurdish movements in Syria.

Unlike the Islamists under the FSA umbrella, Yousef sees no role for sharia law or punishment in the post-Assad future.

“I think the ethnic, sectarian and ideological complexity of Syria doesn’t allow for a rule like this to take place,” Yousef said. “These groups will not be able to live in normal conditions. Now they can operate because we’re living exceptional conditions in Syria, so they are taking advantage of people’s moral, material needs and their desire to topple the regime as a primary objective,” he said.

Sameer Matar, a Syrian Christian and a member of a member of the Democracy and Modernity Party, challenges the authority of the sharia vigilantes and the notion that their activities have any relationship with the uprising.

“Frankly, the Islamic committee is not elected, and is chosen by the gunmen themselves, so it should not represent the revolution. The video is a disgrace to the revolution’s goals of freedom and dignity,” said Matar, who currently is working at a television station in Germany.

“This situation has paved the way for extremists and radicals who are implementing their own agendas,” Matar said.

Outside Syria, Saraqeb may be best known as the site of the suspected use of poison gas by regime forces last month, but inside the country state and pro-regime television stations are repeatedly broadcasting of the "Islamic punishment" video to bolster the government’s argument that the revolution is a extremist Sunni project. 

Like other towns in the north of Syria, Saraqeb has been "liberated" by FSA forces unable to hold, manage, or protect it from frequent bombardment by the government's air force.

With additional reporting by Ahmed Kwider.