To trim or not to trim? For Syrian men, beards matter under militant rule

The ascendancy of the Islamic State, an extremist Islamist group that has overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria, is forcing fighters in other rebel groups in Syria to defect or try to melt into civilian population. 

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) waves a flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has renamed itself "Islamic State" and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi as "Caliph."
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Scores of Syrian rebels are pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), a force that many once fought, underscoring the extremist group's rapid consolidation of territorial gains in Syria and Iraq.  

The shift in military power means more business for Abdel Qader Mahzoud, a barber in the southeastern Turkish border town of Akcakale. His clientele are former fighters from other rebel groups, who now fear the wrath of IS, which has imposed harsh rules in areas under its control. 

For bearded fighters from other embattled rebel groups, Mr. Mahzoud is ready to give them a new look, either to blend in with civilians or to ingratiate themselves with IS when they return to Syria. 

“Eighty percent of my clients are former fighters who are returning,” says Mahzoud, trimming the beard of two Syria-bound men in the cool of night, after the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

This week IS reportedly took control of Deir el-Zour, a provincial Syrian capital near the border with Iraq, and expelled a rival jihadi group. Formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), IS has led Sunni Arab uprisings and ignited sectarian tensions in Iraq. 

Some of Mahzoud's clients cut their beard short to look like civilians rather than members of other Islamist rebel brigades that are at odds with IS. 

Others let their beards bush out in a bid to blend in with IS fighters. IS favors beards that hang two fists long, somewhat longer than other Islamist groups. It also prohibits men from sporting goatees, which are popular among young men in Syria, including rebel fighters. 

“Each group has its own style. I have many customers who want to grow their beard and hair out because they are going back to repent. Even those who fought [ISIS] are repenting and pledging allegiance,” he adds.

Border crossing

Hundreds of rebels from Raqqa, the IS stronghold in Syria, live in Akcakale, a sun-scorched cluster of flat roofs and dusty streets. Others, like Ali Abu Hussein hail from Tell Abyad, the IS-controlled Syrian half of the town, which is separated by a railway track and a fence of barbed wire. The border gate opens thrice a week to allow traffic into Syria. An IS-allied group controls the border gate on the Syrian side. 

Although Raqqa and Tell Abyad were already more conservative than Syria's capital Damascus, daily life has transformed under IS's black and white banner. All shops must close during prayer times, conservative Islamic dress is mandatory for both genders, and women must travel with a male guardian. Music and smoking are banned.

Mr. Hussein crossed into Akcakale seven months ago during clashes between his rebel brigade Al-Farouk and IS. Now he works as a day laborer making at most $100 per month. Tired and broke, he asked a tribal figure to mediate his return to Tell Abyad. An IS contact will meet him at the crossing. Dressed in a checkered shirt, he came to the barber to trim his beard before departure. 

“[IS] has spread the message that he who wants to go home is welcome as long as he repents and pledges allegiance to them,” Hussein says. Friends who already went back have told him it's safe to go. Still, he worries that an informer might rat him out to IS. 

“I don’t trust [IS] as a whole...Foreign fighters don’t know me so they won’t be able to determine if I was member of another [rebel] group but Syrians there would know,” he says. 

Door to repentance

For Syrians from other rebel brigades who fought against the group, the door to repentance is theoretically wide open. The first step is to declare that they will not fight IS. Then they can join the group as fighters or return to their families. 

Former fighters who cross into Tell Abyad are escorted to the Islamic Court to repent and swear allegiance to IS. “They come to repent in batches of five to fifteen,” says Abu Rashid, a fighter whose group runs the Syrian border post.  

“As long as they haven’t killed anyone from [IS], everything will be fine for them,” Abu Rashid says via an interview on social media. 

Meanwhile, several tribal elders and brigade commanders have turned to YouTube to announce their defection from the opposition Free Syrian Army and pledge their allegiance to IS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who recently declared himself an Islamic caliph. 

Flogged for auto paperwork

Khaled Abu Mohammed, a native of Raqqa and a former fighter with a rival Islamist group, has been on the receiving end of IS's harsh interpretation of Islamic law. He says he was recently detained and flogged for nine days over alleged irregularities in the paperwork of his car.

“[IS] is a more merciful alternative than living in Turkey,” he says, adding that he's making a test run to Tell Abyad to determine if it's safe to bring back his wife and son. He made arrangements with his in-laws to take care of them in case he fails to return. 

Mr. Mohammed considers himself a conservative Muslim. His wife wore the full-face niqab veil long before IS rose to power. But he's a smoker, which is a punishable crime under IS. Waiting for his turn at the barbershop, he smokes half a pack of Winston cigarettes.

“I’ll smoke secretly at home, what else can I do? It is very scary what we see on videos [crucifixions and beheadings]. A human being means nothing to them. What they are doing is not Islamic law. Islam does not allow a Muslim to kill Muslims just like that. They have no boundaries,” he says.

Many, however, argue that security has improved and petty corruption has decreased under IS rule. Mahmoud, a construction worker from the village of Al-Thawra in Raqqa Province, goes back and forth between IS-controlled areas and Turkey, where he visits family and friends.

“There are a lot of work opportunities with [IS],” Mahmoud says after finishing a game of chess with a friend in Akcakale. “There is no more theft. People get their rights. Not all of them are good apples...but as a whole life is better.”

And, crucially, IS now seems to be firmly in control – and the Syrian regime is nowhere to be seen. "We have no choice but to make peace and deal with them," Mahmoud says. 

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