RAQQA, Syria – Residents in Raqqa say the Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has said it will cut electricity in the city during Ramadan.
The Sunni extremist group, which has inflicted a particularly severe brand of Sharia law over Raqqa since returning to control of the eastern city in February, is reported to be making the cuts in order to “follow the example” of the Prophet Mohammad, who lived 1,400 years ago without any form of electricity. Civilians here say entertainment like internet and television – which require power – are crucial to surviving daily 13-hour fasts in the heat of summer. So is air conditioning, especially among the elderly.
A fatwa issued by the group’s local Sharia committee says the city – its stronghold in Syria and the launchpad for a June march on Iraq that saw it take control of Mosul and open the border between the two countries – will witness a total blackout during daylight hours from now until the end of Ramadan on July 28.
“ISIS fighters informed us about this fatwa [largely] via [announcements made at] mosques,” says Samer, a 35-year-old resident. When civilians asked the reason for the fatwa, Samer says they were told variations of: “You are not better than the Prophet and his companions who were living without electricity or any entertainment to alleviate heat and make them forget their thirst.”
The fatwa has been met with widespread condemnation by civilians here, who have already seen their basic rights and freedoms severely restricted by ISIS. Women must be covered at all times, tobacco and alcohol have been made illegal, and anyone who challenges ISIS’s rule is punished by anything from imprisonment to public flogging.
“The fatwa is not related to Islam and will further ignite hatred and ire against ISIS,” Samer says. “It is alien to our beliefs, traditions and customs.”
Mohammad, a member of the group’s sharia commission in Raqqa, says the fatwa is meant to make the city’s civilians spend the holy month of Ramadan praying and worshipping God without being distracted by television shows and other entertainment.
But it could backfire, further igniting the sparks of protest that have flared against ISIS in Raqqa for months. It “has brought us back to the Stone Age, the dark ages,” scoffs Mahmoud, 64, a retired policeman. “All that’s left now is to declare that cars are an abomination and that we should only ride camels. Who knows? They may [one day] decide that, and we might be forced to go to pilgrimages to Mecca on foot to follow the example of our ancestors.”
Mahmoud says that ISIS should withdraw its fatwa, if only because without air conditioning, people – especially the elderly – could be killed in the scorching heat.
The electricity ban isn’t the only Ramadan fatwa issued in the city by ISIS; another will prevent women from being in the streets without a chaperone.
“When we agreed to wear veils, ISIS started to want more,” says Suad, a 51-year-old schoolteacher. “Now I cannot recognize any woman in the streets except by her shoes or handbag.”
Adds Um al-Abd, 59: “We used to wait eagerly for Ramadan when we could practice our traditions and customs. But thanks to ISIS, we now fear Ramadan. Now it’s filled with misery, heat and thirst.”
“I can hardly believe that this is really taking place in Raqqa in the 21st century,” says Saeed, 54, a lawyer. “A woman needs a chaperone to walk in the streets? Even during the times of Prophet Mohammad there was no such practice.”
Still, IS has its supporters in the city – and Ramadan will not change that.
“Cutting off power will force people to spend their entire time worshipping God without following television programs that contradict Islamic law,” says Mohammed, 33, who has a university degree in sharia law and is imam of a mosque in Raqqa. “We need such fatwas and the members of the sharia commission should be more strict in prohibiting smoking, forcing citizens to go to mosques to pray, and preventing women’s exposure to men whatever the reasons.”
Saeed, the lawyer, drags deeply on a cigarette. “Where are the advocates of Islam who brag about protecting Islam?” he asks. Then he quickly threw it to the ground – like so much else in Raqqa, smoking has been forbidden.
Younes Ahmad reported from Raqqa and Karen Leigh from Tbilisi, Georgia.