RAQQA, Syria – After declaring itself the Islamic Caliphate in a June 29 speech by leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is now seeking to consolidate its power in eastern Syria, a crucial step in the formation of a cross-border autonomous state. It remains in uncontested control of Raqqa, the city from which it gathered enough strength to launch its June offensive on the Iraqi city of Mosul.
But despite its growing power in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces, the group has faced increasing backlash and even occasional public protest from civilians who are fed up with its particularly harsh brand of Sharia law, which among other things says that women should be covered head to toe and bans alcohol and extramarital sex.
The Sunni militant group is now seeking to pacify locals in its stronghold. Activists and residents here say that since the start of Ramadan on June 27, fighters have been handing out zakat, or alms, of 2,000 Syrian pounds ($12) to every person who pledges allegiance to ISIS. Once a person pledges allegiance, he or she receives an Islamic State stamp on their Syrian identity card.
“They are giving 2,000 pounds per person, and 20,000 per family,” says Ahmad al-Ali, an activist. “But many families refused the ISIS stamp and didn’t get their zakat.” Zakat is the Arabic term for making charitable donations, one of the pillars of Islam.
Al-Ali says the main reason many families are refusing the stamp is their need to travel to other Syrian cities that are not controlled by ISIS; they say going to those localities with an Islamic State decal on their papers would “create problems” at checkpoints along the way. It would be especially problematic for the Raqqa residents who still work at the city’s remaining government offices, still managed by the Syrian regime. They often have to travel to regime-controlled cities to pick up their salaries.
Those residents say the money being offered by ISIS is not enough to sway them.
“This amount does not feed a family of 11 people, like mine,” says Abu Mohammed, an unemployed father in Raqqa who, still desperate, took the stamp and the aid. “I can’t find a job opportunity in Raqqa, because more people are taking refuge here, and job opportunities are scarce. The aid from ISIS is barely enough to feed my family for a few days.”
For ISIS to convince the people of Raqqa that they should support the Islamic Caliphate, Abu Mohammed says “they need to give poor people in Raqqa enough money to sustain a decent life.” He and others say civilians should receive a cut of the money ISIS makes off oil from the province’s wells.
“We are distributing zakat on the money we are gaining from oil,” says Abu Samer, the ISIS official in charge of distributing Raqqa’s zakat. “We know how catastrophic things are for our people in Raqqa, and that poverty is on the rise. We are trying to give job opportunities to the unemployed, by employing them in the administrations and institutions that the state established to serve Muslims.
“We try to help them overcome their hardships.”
Edited by Karen Leigh.