BEIRUT (RNS) Radical Syrian opposition groups now in control of Aleppo and much of its surroundings are forming increasing numbers of religious police units to enforce a strict form of Islamic rule, such as banning alcohol sales and making prayer compulsory.
The actions of these groups, many of which are made up of foreign fighters, are gaining in reach in a country that has been largely secular and free of Islamic jihadist radicalism.
"Rebels have brutally imposed a conservative dress code for women and crushed any ( secular) opposition in these areas," Syrian author Talal al-Atrache said.
Known as vice and virtue police, these squads are enforcing the edicts of courts put in place by rebels in the various Syrian regions where the Syrian government has been pushed out.
The main purpose of the courts is to adjudicate criminal allegations and issue rulings against members of regime forces or undisciplined members of the armed factions, said Mourad al Chami, spokesperson for the Syrian Military Council in Damascus.
"However, like in any other war, there have been reports of excessive behavior on the part of these religious courts and police squads," al Chami admits.
Much of the spread of Islamic courts has been in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and scene of nearly two years of battles between rebels and government forces. Fighters aligned with radical groups in Iraq and elsewhere have made their way there to fight the regime of Bashar Assad and at the same time have slowly been imposing their laws on villages and neighborhoods they control.
In some towns, Islamist militants patrol the streets and warn men to not shave and refrain from alcohol, and tell women to wear the abaya, a long black garment that comes with a veil.
"There have been several reports of liquor stores forced to close down," said al Chami, who added that most demands are limited to pockets of terrain and not widespread.
Mouaz al-Khatib, former head of the Syrian National Coalition, which is a group of opposition forces, has said he is aware of cases where women were executed for alleged sexual misbehavior, said Thomas Pierret, a specialist of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Videos circulating on the Internet depict punishments imposed by vice and virtue squads in Syria, though the footage can not be verified as accurate.
One video shows a demonstrator being arrested because he had thrown away a banner inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith associated with radical Salafi movements. Author al-Atrache says the demonstrator, identified as Wael Ibrahim Abu Mariam, is punished by 10 strokes of metal pipe by the Shariah Authority in Aleppo.
Another video shows secular activist Abdallah Yassine being charged for inciting unrest by Shariah Tribunals in Saraqeb, in the province of Idlib.
Pierret says he has seen no evidence of wide-scale and systematic enforcement of "Islamic virtue" in liberated areas. He says some of the vice and virtue committees were formed to establish dominance over rival Islamist groups rather than impose Islamic law on residents.
And the enforcement of Islamic law, or Shariah, differs widely because of Syria's diverse societies, said al Chami.
He said Islamist groups such Jabhat al-Nusra have been able to impose strict Islamic laws in some areas but not in others. They were unable to enforce a stricter interpretation of Islam in the suburbs of Damascus, such as in Reef Demashk, because of the population's relative liberal views, he said.
In the areas where they have been successful, residents may have been swayed by the groups' charitable help and offers of religious instruction rather than a genuine movement toward radicalism, al Chami says.
Moaz al Khatib, himself an Islamic scholar, has criticized al-Nusra for enforcing an uncompromising version of Islam. The Syrian National Council announced recently it intended to establish a more moderate version of sharia law, but what that means is not known.
"The reference to sharia ( by the council) means very little without further specification," Pierret says.
(Mona Alami writes for USA Today)