Religious Police Patrol Aleppo’s Countryside

Aleppo – By Basel Dayoub – al akhbar – 3.2.2013 – The battle for Aleppo does not get the kind of media attention it did during the early days of the opposition’s offensive to take the city. Neither the regime nor the opposition has been able to make much headway in the past several months.

Residents of the embattled city, whose main concerns revolve around security and survival, were shocked to hear that opposition groups who control the Aleppan countryside are deploying a vice-and-virtue police to enforce a deeply conservative interpretation of Islamic law. The opposition insists that the new force is the revolution’s version of a civilian police squad, whose primary purpose is to fight crime, particularly those committed by undisciplined members of the armed factions. In fact, there are those who support its creation for this very reason.

One local resident, for example, argued that “there were a number of transgressions committed by some Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, and this police force will punish those involved — their door is open to whoever wants to lodge a complaint. We shouldn’t judge them before we’ve tried them.”

Then, rumors began to circulate that such a formation was patrolling the streets of the town of al-Bab in Aleppo’s countryside and herding people into mosques during prayer time and preventing women from driving cars. The opposition quickly denied the news. They insisted that the picture of a religious police office circulating on the Internet was taken in Saudi Arabia and attributed to the opposition to tarnish its reputation. Regime loyalists responded by taking several pictures of the office from different angles to establish its location. The following day, the so-called Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo issued a statement banning women from driving. The group also released several video clips showing men of various Arab nationalities patrolling the streets and forcing people to pray.

Another video posted on YouTube by opposition activists shows a prominent member of the Saudi virtue police, Abdallah al-Hattel, in a pickup truck in the suburbs of Aleppo calling on people to attend to their prayers.

These developments sparked the anger of many of Aleppo’s women. “This revolution for freedom is driving us further into the arms of the Syrian army and the regime’s approach to social and individual freedoms,” Mais al-Omar declared. “What we lacked were political freedoms,” she continued, “but instead they decided to take away our social and individual freedoms. All the masks have now fallen and we can see their true nature and the extremist ideas they advocate.”

Secular opposition activists were shocked by the news, with some suggesting that the whole affair was fabricated by the regime. One activist told Al-Akhbar that if the reports are true, then “it is a crime against the Syrian woman who has been flying planes for many years now and has entered many fields that were once exclusively male, like joining the army and becoming judges.”

Others in the opposition camp belittled the importance of such a development, saying that the decision to form the police force “was taken by an unelected group that does not represent the Syrian revolution, which is seeking to take advantage of the chaos caused by the stubborn regime.”

Another regime opponent, Safa Maarawi, condemned the religious police, but nevertheless blamed the regime for “repressing the secularists and building thousands of mosques. Its first response to the revolution was to throw secularists in jail, thus opening the way for the Islamists, which it then exploited to scare people.” There were, however, opposition voices who openly supported the virtue-and-vice squad, arguing that “it is part-and-parcel of the freedom revolution, which means that the conservative Muslim majority has the right to impose its views on society, as long as it is the majority.” The university student, who said he was forced to take up arms to defend peaceful protesters, conceded that “Syrian society will find it difficult at first, as was the case with our Saudi brothers a century ago, but they will eventually discover that their purpose is to apply Islam and justice.”

FSA supporter Salem, for his part, maintained that “the regime’s media is blowing the matter out of proportion, for it is a secondary and minor development compared to the much larger civil and peaceful revolutionary movement,” pointing out that no one should be disturbed by members of this police force, for “they suffered terribly at the hands of the regime and are known for their high religious values.” Samer Othman also defended the creation of such a force, noting that their primary role is “to pursue criminals, thieves, and those who drink alcohol — the focus on preventing women from driving is merely to cover up all these positive aspects.”

By Basel Dayoub –