Secular-leaning judges have set up a more liberal alternative to sharia law courts in Aleppo but face an uphill battle for influence as Islamist groups shore up support in rebel-held Syria.
The sharia courts have the backing of an array of hardline rebel groups whose fighters help enforce their decisions in rebel-controlled districts of Syria’s main northern city.
The judges of the rival Unified Judicial Council mostly lack the firepower to enforce their writ, but chief justice Marwan Kaed, who was a civil judge in Bashar al-Assad’s regime, is proud of presiding over a more liberal legal system.
He recounts one case in early March in which rebels of the mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) brought before him a girl in skin-tight jeans, accusing her of backing Assad’s secular regime.
The veteran judge, with salt-and-pepper hair and a scholarly air, says he gave the armed rebels a patient hearing then turned to the young woman.
She told him she had sidled up to one of the rebels to express solidarity and cracked a joke about Assad, but he misunderstood and turned on her. If she really supported Assad, she said, she would not do so openly.
Kaed says he took a deep breath and delivered his judgment — she was free to go, a ruling that made the rebels gasp in horror.
He argued that the woman should not have been judged by her tight-fitting attire, unusual in conservative Aleppo where most women typically wear loose-fitting Islamic clothes.
“And even if she ideologically (and not militarily) supports the regime, do we have the right to arrest her for her beliefs?” he recounted asking the rebels.
“We must not demonise anyone who views things differently. We need to develop a tolerance for different ideas and support diversity of expression,” he said, admitting this was a liberal philosophy the rebels struggled to digest.
But for others, even within some factions of the ostensibly secular-leaning FSA, the court is a “toothless tiger” lacking any of the enforcement powers of the sharia courts.
Primary school head Noor al-Haq recounts how when her husband, an FSA brigade commander, was roughed up and detained by another brigade who mistook him for a wanted criminal, she put her faith in the religious courts.
She said the sharia court promptly summoned the chief of the rebel unit that had taken him and launched an investigation. She said her husband would likely still be in detention if she had gone to the rival court.
The Islamic courts have the backing of some of the most powerful rebel groups in Aleppo, including the Al-Qaeda-loyalist Al-Nusra Front and the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, which have gained respect for their battlefield prowess.
While the religious courts have ordered lashing with a plastic chord as a deterrent against crime, they have so far refrained from resorting to extreme Taliban-style Islamic punishments such as amputations or death by stoning.
But the courts still inspire dread in Haj Othman, an Aleppo-based doctor renowned for his work in treating the war-wounded in rebel-held areas.
He was whisked away last month by police dispatched by the Sharia Authority after he pulled down an Islamic poster from his office inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith.
What troubles him most is that his detention came without an arrest warrant. He was released the next morning after sleeping in a prison cell alongside 50 others, many of them charged with petty robbery.
“We need an establishment that is different from the Assad regime. We don’t want one dictatorship to be replaced by another,” he said.
Kaed too had a run-in with the religious courts when the Sharia Authority arrested some of his colleagues as they refused to hand over a newly refurbished building where they sought to set up a new civil court.
Despite efforts by an FSA brigade to resolve the matter with Islamist commanders, it remains under dispute.
“At the end of the day, we are all brothers. Anyone who fights against the regime is my friend,” Kaed said.
“We only have a difference in ideology,” he added. He expressing doubts nonetheless over whether the rival legal systems would ever be united.