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In civil war-torn Syria, a new clash of ideologies is emerging within rebel-held areas. Powerful Islamist brigades are competing with pro-democracy civilians to shape the country's future. One area where this clash is showing up is in the courts. In parts of northern Syria, Islamists have set up religious courts that deliver rulings under Shariah law.
NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: To see the ideological battle, just walk in this courtroom in the Syrian city of Azaz. There's a judge, a couple of lawyers. They're wearing the business suits. This is a civil case, a dispute over a carload of cigarettes. The defendant says he somehow lost the goods. His partner, a shopkeeper, wants him to pay for the loss.
The court's in session. The defendant - oh, we're all being asked to rise. The defendant is swearing an oath, his right hand on the Quran.
This is a rebel court. Self-appointed judges, lawyers and clerics started working together a few months ago, but it's the cleric's judgment that counts here. The lawyers only joined recently.
Jamil Osman joined the court system to try to insert Syria's civil code into the proceedings.
JAMIL OSMAN: (Through Translator) There needs to be the presence of lawyers because, frankly, the Shariah people do not know the procedures of, well, the judiciary, simply put.
AMOS: But it's the religious rulings that Syrians wants, says Osman. They remember the corrupt court system of the Assad regime.
OSMAN: (Through Translator) Most people in Syria prefer to have this system in place because it creates a larger amount of trust. This is the best solution because people trust the religious scholars, essentially.
AMOS: These courts across rebel-held areas are dominated by Islamists backed by ultraconservative armed groups. As these rebels took control in northern Syria, they set up religious courts to dispense simple justice, says Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
ANDREW TABLER: In the interim, it's the one system that people are able to set up and understand. And in at least in two, if not more provinces, it's working.
AMOS: And it's also working to expand the influence of the most hard-line factions, says Tabler.
TABLER: The Islamists and the Salafists in particular have a lot of influence because they're there and, B, they're in touch directly with armed groups.
AMOS: But judging by what happened when Jabhat al-Nusra - the most hard-line of the armed groups - rolled into Mayadeen, a town in eastern Syria, the admiration for Islamist courts may be fading.
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AMOS: This video shows a large convoy of trucks and vans filled with armed, bearded men. They converged on Mayadeen's municipal building to set up a religious police force. The move prompted three days of demonstrations, calls for al-Nusra to get out of town. And in Aleppo, the largest northern city, moderate Muslims are also starting to object to these hard-line factions dominating the courts.
Tammam al-Baroudi is a businessman and an activist in Aleppo.
TAMMAM AL-BAROUDI: No, no, no, at all. They don't like it at all. They're afraid from it. Everybody afraid from that.
AMOS: Is there any way to say, I don't like it, I object?
AL-BAROUDI: Yes, we are saying. But until now, the people saying that between themselves.
AMOS: But there is growing anger, he says, over new rules. Warning signs have appeared in Aleppo: Anyone who speaks against Islam will go to jail. A doctor was arrested for taking down a black Islamic banner at his hospital. Baroudi was recently arrested and jailed over a dispute with a rebel commander.
AL-BAROUDI: What I saw in these 20 days make me - I am...
AL-BAROUDI: ...scared about the future.
AMOS: He was freed by an Aleppo court staffed with lawyers and clerics. But he says al-Nusra can arrest and try you again if they don't agree with the ruling.
AL-BAROUDI: Sometimes you go from outside this court. They don't like the judge, so they can catch you again. This is...
AL-BAROUDI: ...this is what we are afraid all the time.
AMOS: There's also a fear that Islamist radicals may kick out the old form of dictatorship but replace it with an Islamist version. In the northern city of Raqqah, militants posted leaflets announcing that anyone who supports democracy is an infidel, a serious charge in any Islamic court.
ABDELRAHMAN AL-SURI: (Foreign language spoken)
One, two, three. One, two, three.
AMOS: We are not democrats, Abdelrahman al-Suri tells a group of Western journalists in an interview near the Turkish border. He doesn't need elections to know all Syrians want Islamic law. This heavily bearded 29-year-old oversees a system of more than two dozen courts. He's also one of the founding members of one of the largest Islamist battalions.
AL-SURI: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: We didn't go to the people, he says, they came to us because we were implementing justice. And that's proof that we're doing things the right way.
But not all Syrians agree. And some believe the coming fight will be with these hard-liners.
Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.