Life Under ISIS: Eighty Lashes For Cutting His Cousin's Hair

A barber cuts hair in his damaged salon in the rebel held al-Ghariyah al-Gharbiyah town, in Deraa province, Syria February 28, 2016. When Fallujah was overrun by ISIS fighters, the militants were adamant. Beards were obligatory: no man could be clean shaven and Western haircuts were forbidden. Alaa Al-Faqir/reuters

Even in a city as dangerous as Fallujah, Salem had a peculiarly dangerous occupation, which meant that he was at risk of corporal punishment and financial ruin every day he lived there.

A 35-year-old man, who, like everybody else quoted, does not want his real name published, he is the sole breadwinner of his family and also cares for his sick and elderly father. At the time the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) took over Fallujah in January 2014, he was earning his living as a barber.

During the first six months of ISIS occupation, the militants were generally moderate in their enforcement of Islamic fundamentalist regulations. ISIS did not have a complete monopoly of power in the city and did not want to alienate its people.

But on important issues of principle, such as the correct Islamic haircut, the militants were adamant from the beginning. Beards were obligatory: no man could be clean shaven, and Western haircuts were forbidden.

"Shaving was prohibited and the punishment for shaving someone was severe," says Salem. ISIS closed most of the barber salons in Fallujah, but not Salem's, "because mine was a simple poor salon without posters so they didn't close it."

Even though his salon remained open, there were strict limits on what Salem could do for his customers, so he did not make enough money to feed his family. He tried supplementing his income by selling vegetables in the market and only worked as a barber when he got a call from old customers, friends and relatives.

He had no trouble until the day of his cousin's wedding when disaster struck. He says: "My cousin came to my salon and asked me not only to dress his hair, but to shave his beard." Salem was horrified by such a dangerous proposal, because he was conscious of the punishment ISIS was likely to inflict on any barber ignoring the shaving ban.

He turned his cousin down flat, but the man then asked for his hair to be cut short in a modern way rather than left to grow long as ISIS demanded. The cousin argued that "nobody would notice because it was the afternoon and the street was empty." Unwillingly, Salem complied with his cousin's request and "dressed his hair, adding gel to make it look good."

Salem and his cousin soon found out that they had badly underestimated how closely ISIS monitored illicit haircuts. Four days after the wedding, Salem learned that his action had been reported by an ISIS informant to the local religious authority.

He was arrested and then sentenced to 80 lashes to be administered in public and, in addition, his salon was to be closed. In the event, he had received only 50 lashes when "I fainted and was taken to the hospital."

Deprived of his ability to make a living in Fallujah, Salem went first to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which was mostly under ISIS control. ISIS monitors and restricts movement within its boundaries but he was able to pass through ISIS checkpoints, explaining that he was going to visit his brother in Ramadi.

He stayed there only four days because of continuing airstrikes and shelling shortly before ISIS captured the last government-held enclaves on May 17, 2015. He left for Baghdad and finally Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he hopes to find a job.

Salem says that many families were leaving Ramadi, but adds revealingly that "many preferred to stay, among whom was my brother. He says that, although they are living under bombs, ISIS is far better than the Shia militia and the Iraqi army."

For all its failings, Sunni Arabs in Iraq contrast ISIS with an arbitrary and dysfunctional Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Asked to compare the situation in Ramadi before and after the ISIS takeover, Salem says that under government rule, Ramadi had no electricity, no fuel, no internet and no clean water.

The local hospital and medical centre were not working, despite vain pleas to the government from local people. "Under the rule of IS," says Salem, who has no reason to like the group which beat him savagely and closed his business, "many big generators have been brought to Ramadi from Fallujah and Raqqa. In addition, they are repairing the power station at Khesab. As for the hospital, ISIS brought in doctors, surgeons and nurses from Syria, so it is working again."

The 5 or 6 million people living in ISIS-controlled territory exist in a world full of prohibitions and regulations. Breach of these divinely inspired rules is savagely punished.

Salem says that nobody in Fallujah is ignorant of ISIS rules because they were previously read out in public every day, though this has now been reduced to three times a week. Speaking from memory, he gives a number of examples:

  • Girls are not allowed to wear jeans and must wear Islamic dress (abaya and veil). Make-up is prohibited.
  • No smoking of cigarettes or hubble-bubble. The punishment is 80 lashes, but may include execution if there are repeated violations.
  • Using the word "Daesh" is forbidden and the punishment is 70 lashes.
  • Women's sewing shops are closed in case a man enters.
  • Women's hairdressers are closed for the same reason.
  • Gynecologists must be female.
  • Women shall not sit on chairs either in the market or in a shop.
  • Shops must close at the time of prayers.
  • Taxi drivers who take customers to a distant destination they have not asked for and then demand money to bring them back are considered to have acted "to disrupt the interests of the people" (apparently a common crime in Fallujah). The punishment is amputation or beheading.

There are many other crimes and prohibitions that Salem might have mentioned.

When ISIS declared on June 29, 2014 that it was re-establishing the caliphate, its opponents in the outside world hoped that its eccentric laws and their brutal application would provoke resistance. After all, what was being enforced went far beyond sharia or Saudi Wahhabism, so many of whose tenets are similar to ISIS.

But there is as yet no sign of counter-revolution or even effective armed resistance against a movement that has mercilessly crushed all opponents. Those living within ISIS territory who hate and fear it have reacted by fleeing rather than resisting.

The self-declared caliphate is too well rooted to disappear. Its slogan, "The Islamic State remains, the Islamic State expands," is still true.

Chaos and Caliphate is available at OR Books. Newsweek readers get 15 percent off when using the code "NEWSWEEK."

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