ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

Life in the Islamic State

Understanding ISIS is not about comparing life in the Islamic State with life in the United States or Canada. In that comparison, it does not fare well. That said, for those who travel to join ISIS from abroad the comparison has some value. There are people who have left the United States, Canada, or European countries to live in the Islamic State. The reasons for this have been given elsewhere in this book. The point here is that these people represent a small percentage of those living under the authority of ISIS. For the vast majority of ISIS recruits, the comparison is to life under the Iraqi government or the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Life anywhere outside of an immediate combat zone is roughly the same. Even when combat is happening only a few miles away, humans adjust rather quickly to establish some level of normalization—children play, people get food, they eat, they work. Because of this, a detailed account of a day in the life of an ISIS resident will not be provided. Information on this daily life is rather widespread. There are a few bloggers who regularly post about life in the Islamic State and there are people who have left the Islamic State and described life there. Then there are the official and semiofficial versions of life in the Islamic State. They vary wildly in their descriptions. In this chapter, the intent is to communicate a best guess of life for the average person.

ISIS makes a great deal of effort to communicate that it has created a better existence for its community. To determine the validity of this claim, it is necessary to consider what life is like outside the community of ISIS.

If you lived in Iraq in 2014 or in Syria under regime authority, then you would have experienced some of the following challenges regardless of your religious beliefs or ethnicity. Power outages would be common. Depending on where you lived, you may have only had power a couple of hours a day. You probably did not have a refrigerator in your home because it is expensive and requires a consistent flow of electricity. This would force you to prepare your food every day and then eat it all or, if it is perishable, it will spoil. The bread you buy does not have a lot of preservatives so it will go stale or mold within a couple of days so you have to get it every day. You are not safe. There are regular attacks. People get kidnapped. Bombs go off. People are shot. Children are not allowed to play outside most days and many schools are closed because teachers are primary targets. Delivery of cooking gas is spotty; therefore, you may not have a hot meal for some days at a time. Your parents may be out of work, forcing you to live off the generosity of family and friends. This is a bleak image, but by no means the bleakest that can be drawn. Life is hard in both countries. Some of this was true prior to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. The security situation was much better and the frequency of resources was more reliable, but the average Syrian or Iraqi lived a life of significant poverty by North American standards. There are wealthy families in both countries that live much like the rich do anywhere, but average people were much worse off then and are suffering significantly more now.

Without taking these considerations into account, it can be difficult to understand why someone might put up with the lifestyle described in the next paragraphs. Most people will tolerate a lot to have stability of resources and security. Life in the Islamic State is proof of this.

Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq and the largest city under ISIS control. Those living in Mosul currently have spotty electricity because ISIS has not been able to get the main power generators to function at a normal capacity. So people in the city usually get two hours of electricity during the day and two hours at night. ISIS recently restarted schools in Mosul with textbooks and a semistandard curriculum. The textbooks emphasize a strict Islamic interpretation and regularly discuss the glories of jihad in physical education, math, and history. Many parents are choosing not to send their kids to school because they do not agree with the curriculum and the Iraqi government has stated that it will not recognize any educational certificate—diploma—coming from the Islamic State. This may mean a lost generation of children reaching adulthood without an education. In the Middle East, there is no tradition of home schooling. Teaching the children at home is difficult and unlikely.

When a person leaves the home, appearance is important. Women need to not have any flesh showing except maybe their hands. Men must have a beard—preferably a long one. A goatee is not acceptable. Men and women can be punished by being beaten immediately by the morality police or if they continue to violate the standards they can be punished more severely. That said, this tends to be a simple issue of social and immediate correction. No one is being executed for improper dress standards. Women cannot leave the house alone or be unescorted. They must always have a male relative with them. Social interactions are not allowed between Muslim men and women who are not married or properly escorted and chaperoned.

ISIS also forbids smoking, the consumption of alcohol and pork, or the violation of any other Muslim dietary laws. During the month of Ramadan when all Muslims fast from sun up to sun down, all restaurants are closed and eating or drinking in public is a crime.

Many items available in modern societies are in short supply or not available. ISIS can import most things into the caliphate, but it is difficult so they are expensive and typically limited to fighters. Fighters get paid by the state so they have a steady income, and it is a decent income by the local standards—$300 to $500 a month. Regular workers make much less so there is an incentive to be a fighter. In late 2015 and early 2016, U.S. bombers targeted buildings holding large quantities of cash that has affected the amount paid to fighters and other employees of ISIS. Some salaries have been cut by as much as 50 percent.

Minorities and non-Muslims can be treated well though they must maintain their status as protected people. In the United States, we would call this being a second-class citizen. Most, non-Muslims, who have spoken of their life in the Islamic State, say that as long as they keep their head down and live quietly they are not bothered.

In general, life is secure and stable. There are no night raids into people’s homes. Respect is shown to heads of households and to families and women so long as standards are followed. Despite the apparent lack of rights and basic services, even the persecuted tend to prefer the predictable security of ISIS over a return to chaos.