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Life Under ISIS, in Raqqa


Most reporting about the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL, etc.) is frustratingly superficial, or relies on virtually deranged conservative American political commentary. I know I tire of seeing stories about how we need to “flatten Raqqa,” or otherwise annihilate seemingly all the territory (and people) under the Islamic State’s control.

But then there’s a piece like this one, in Foreign Policy magazine. My only complaint is that it’s rather short. Otherwise, it provides a good look at what life is like in Raqqa. What may come as the biggest surprise is how “normal” much of it seems: people still work, they get married and have families, they still have everyday concerns like what to eat and what to do for fun.

There are also things about it which are disturbingly not normal:

Raqqa Setting consists of a number of codes you have to constantly keep in mind in order to survive under Islamic State control. If you have no prior education in sharia, or Islamic law, you better start learning. Or else, you’ll likely end up obliged to take lessons from the Salafi teachers newly installed at local mosques — lessons that require you to not only suffer the indignity of being taught their interpretation of your own religion like a child, but also to miss hours of work. “Shave the mustache. Let the beards grow,” Abu Fatima, the lecturer, said at one of the classes, the microphone held so close to his mouth it was almost shoved inside of it. He was quoting what he said was a “well-narrated saying” by Mohammed. “It’s an order by the Prophet.”

And then:

Raqqa’s citizens not only suffer from the group’s orders, but also the international war effort against it. Air raids have become practically a daily routine. On Nov. 3, the Russians joined the party. And then the French. Airstrikes damaged the main bridge on the Euphrates used by residents to enter the city and destroyed the other minor ones. It took an hour’s drive to get to the opposite bank. The West speaks of the necessity of cutting off Islamic State “supply routes,” but these are not Islamic State bridges — they are bridges used by everyone in Raqqa.

But even airstrikes begin to feel routine, after a while:

Yet, when the jet fighters interrupt, all eyes turn to the sky. Everything here is a target, because the Islamic State is everywhere. But once the bombs are dropped, people go back to what they were doing. It’s no longer a moment of reflection about life and death, nor a moment of curiosity about what happened: It’s something that has no ending.

There’s also quite a bit written about how the demographics of Raqqa have been altered, as residents not so compatible with ISIS’ ideology fled or were driven out. Combined with ISIS’ calls for fighters to congregate in Raqqa, at the same time many of those fighters have seen their hometowns ravaged by airstrikes, Raqqa has become the capital of ISIS not just on paper but, to a significant degree, in terms of ideology. It’s strange to read about people fleeing their homes due to violence, and then having those same homes–and all the possessions within–become the property of complete strangers. It’s obviously criminal, but as an American accustomed to living under the rule of law, quite alien. I suspect it was also alien to the residents of Raqqa, until ISIS came and the purges began.

That’s another thing that seems to go unreported and unremarked in stories about ISIS, especially those set in Syria. Little is said of the Syria that existed prior to the civil war that began in 2011, as if ISIS is taking over territory that had no previous functioning government to speak of. But Syria, in fact, was a stable (if not recognizably democratic) country in which basic needs were met for most. It was not a mostly empty desert populated by backward illiterates, but a country with a rich history and diverse culture. It was also a modern country, in terms of basic amenities and infrastructure that a Westerner might expect. All this is not to posit a defense of Assad or his rule, but to illustrate that Syria was not an undeveloped backwater. The civil war has virtually destroyed it, as photographs of cities like Aleppo can attest. Assad holds only a sliver of what he used to, and ISIS controls most of the rest. The country has been deeply fractured, and in the midst of these, people who were just trying to live their lives–go to work, raise families, be good and honest citizens–have seen their world turned upside down. They’ve seen friends and family members leave or be killed, or be recruited by ISIS as fighters. Many have, of course, fled to other countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and throughout Europe.

Meanwhile, it’s common in American discussion of the situation to suggest that we simply destroy Raqqa, as if atrocities in the name of defeating ISIS are conscionable. When “experts” set the tone with talk of annihilating entire cities–cities still full of civilians who want no part of ISIS–it’s no wonder that both public opinion and American reporting are so trite and superficial.

Photo by Beshr Abdulhadi