(Re-Published from Syria in Crisis, Feb. 4, 2014) On January 7, during the worst infighting between Syrian rebel groups to date, the head of the al-Qaeda–aligned Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, proposed that the rebels use an Islamic court to negotiate their differences. Calling for a ceasefire between rebel groups, Golani said the current infighting was the result of “incorrect policies” by the rival jihadi faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Golani’s statements echo other fighters’ complaints about the ISIL. As an official from an Islamist-led rebel coalition called the Islamic Front recently told Al Jazeera, the ISIL insists on “acting as a ‘state’ rather than one faction among others” and will “not submit to conflict resolution through impartial sharia tribunals like others do.” Another noted on Twitter: “We do not accept that the jihad is reduced to one single faction, just as we do not accept that any faction names itself a state.”
While the Nusra Front is designated a terrorist group by the United States and others, its members are seen by some Syrians as “fair arbiters when dealing with corruption and social services.” Young and entrepreneurial, the Nusra Front is distinguishing itself among jihadis in pushing both for a coalitionist approach to the Syrian power vacuum and for a deceptive gradualism in enforcing strict Islamic legal, or sharia, norms over time—thereby also building a postconflict template for Syria.
The ISIL’s heavy-handed approach and claims of statehood have polarized rebels and put off local Syrians. This has given the Nusra Front a chance to redirect the conflict away from the building of an Islamic state to a more flexible approach that views the question of political order from a normative perspective. Instead of focusing on the institutions of a future Syria, the Nusra Front is trying to implement a more broadly based Islamic rule of law.
Broad Legitimacy for Sharia Principles
Our own research indicates that although Golani’s pragmatic proposal for a sharia court to handle disputes may seem far-fetched or extreme to many in the West, it’s neither unrealistic nor unprecedented. After all, employing sharia law in constitutions and state penal codes is a norm shared across many Muslim states. Even if aspirational, there is something telling—in terms of political culture and identity—about the desire of Muslim governments and groups to embed sharia norms in basic laws or operating practices …
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Corri Zoli is a Research Assistant Professor at INSCT.
Emily Schneider (LAW ’13) is a research assistant in New America Foundation’s National Security Program. She is a graduate of INSCT’s Curricular Program in National Security and Counterterrorism Law and as an INSCT Research Assistant, she has helped build a database on Muslim state compliance with International Humanitarian Law.