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Jabhat al-Nusra imposing extremist views in Syria
Residents of Aleppo and Deir Ezzor say the group is imposing its strict agenda under the cloak of providing aid to residents.
By Moeen Jamal and Waleed Abu al-Khair
Lama's face pales when the conversation turns to Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), members of which have filtered into the liberated neighbourhoods of her hometown, Aleppo.
Lama, who wears a hijab and describes herself as religiously conservative, said she did not expect JAN to exploit the Syrian people's revolution for freedom and democracy to impose extremist views.
She said she experienced many lifestyle changes over the last couple of years.
First, her daily routine changed from walking to university to marching in demonstrations as an active supporter of the opposition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Now, she is concerned about JAN's presence in her hometown.
"The situation in Aleppo is not easy," Lama, who uses an assumed name out of fear for her safety, told Al-Shorfa. "Chaos reigns, and JAN moves at will in town. Silently, it implemented a very smart plan on the ground, recruiting people to chant its name and raise its banner in demonstrations."
JAN established itself as a military force and used the provision of aid to citizens to gain popular support as a way to impose its views and its extremist interpretation of Islamic sharia on the community, Lama said.
"Some citizens are driven by economic difficulties and hardship to mindlessly side with JAN because it covers the shortages and provides them with flour, bread, food, fuel and gas," she said.
"But what happens afterwards?" she asked. "Currently, citizens in need are siding with them. But they will later discover that there is a price for all these services, and this is when the problem will surface, because Syrians, while devoutly Muslim, are moderate and reject extremism."
Lama said JAN's attempts to impose its extremist interpretation of Islamic sharia on the community are beginning to seep into public view.
For example, smoking and listening to music are prohibited "wherever [JAN fighters] are present", she said. "Being a girl, I avoid them and do not mix with them, especially after being called a kafira (infidel) by a JAN element for wearing trousers."
Lama described an incident she witnessed involving a photographer from an Arab country.
"I happened to be in a neighbourhood they were passing through and a photographer snapped a picture of their car," she said. "Their reaction was violent. They attacked him and tried to confiscate his camera. After a heated argument with him they ordered him to delete the photographs and threatened to break his camera on his head if he tried to photograph them again, calling him an infidel."
Lama said as much as the group pretends to stay away from the public eye it closely monitors everything that gets published about its activities.
JAN using religion as a 'cover'
There are currently two courts in Aleppo: JAN's sharia committee and the FSA's unified judicial court, Lama said.
JAN set up headquarters for its "sharia committee" in the city's former Eye Hospital, said Faisal al-Ahmed, an Aleppo resident also using an assumed name.
He said all JAN members present in the building dress in "mujahedeen garb".
In a telephone interview with Al-Shorfa, he said the situation in Aleppo is very tense "due to the abuses committed by these groups, who use religion as a cover".
On March 13th, he said, the group arrested Dr. Othman Othman for taking down the JAN banner that had been raised atop the hospital. The strong public reaction -- from doctors and civil and armed groups unaffiliated with JAN -- prompted his release one day later.
"JAN elements are acting under the cover of the sharia committee, conducting arbitrary arrests for trivial reasons, such as smoking in a public place or objecting to the black al-Qaeda banner," al-Ahmed said, noting that the group also has been confronting women for not wearing a hijab or for wearing figure-revealing clothing.
'Theirs is not our revolution'
JAN's influence extends beyond Aleppo to Deir Ezzor, prompting Qassem -- who is from a nearby village -- to move with his family to Turkey, where he works to provide assistance to those displaced from his hometown.
"For all practical purposes, I did not have to leave my village after the FSA and local citizens achieved military victories and liberated the people of the region," he told Al-Shorfa. "But the emergence of JAN in some provinces prompted me to leave my home and head to Turkey after I was personally involved in incidents that almost got me thrown in JAN's prisons."
Two months ago "I left my house to buy some necessities," he said. "I lit a cigarette, and before I was halfway through it, two young bearded men dressed in black jumped on me and beat me badly. People who knew me intervened, so they let me go, repeatedly saying I was a kafir."
Days later, when Qassem was buying vegetables and bread, the same young men forbade the shopkeeper from doing business with him on grounds he was a kafir.
The two followed Qassem, intercepted him a third time, and assaulted him.
"Moving around became dangerous for me, because of those who followed me and labelled me a kafir," he said. "Manifestations of JAN made their way to us; they have taken over the reins of everything, even food and fuel. They put pressure on children to enter the mosques, and assault women for wearing trousers, even though they wear hijabs."
Qassem decided to leave his village for his family's safety, until, he said, the situation stabilises.
"Theirs is not our revolution," he said. "JAN is alien to Syria and the concepts of the revolution. We did not demand the ouster of Assad's regime so JAN could take its place with its extremist religious edicts. This is not Islam."
'JAN is hijacking the civil revolution'
"JAN is clearly in the process of hijacking the civil revolution the Syrian people shed their blood for," an activist going by the nickname "Leila from Aleppo" told Al-Shorfa.
In addition to vulnerable Syrian youth, JAN relies on "Arab and foreign fighters who infiltrated Syria under the pretext of waging jihad in the Levant", she said.
"JAN controls all the essentials of daily life, such as bread and fuel, and also acts as an official authority, granting weapon and movement permits and receiving complaints from citizens, exactly as a police department would," she added.
This has not prevented secular activists from standing up to JAN elements on more than one occasion, she said, to stop the abuses and excesses that use religion as a cover.
"The people of Aleppo, while devoutly religious, reject extremism and takfiri Islamist groups, which are alien to Syrian society," she said.
'A state where freedom prevails'
JAN does not seek to fulfill the aspirations of the Syrian people, Lama said.
The Syrian people rose up to topple the Assad regime, she added, and "did not call for revolution just to fall victim once again to tyrants".
They dream of a state where freedom and democracy prevail and where elections are decided by the ballot box, she said.
"What the people do not want will not prevail, and we do not want JAN, which controls external appearances and wants to dictate the nature of our relationship with God," she said.