Jihadist rule in Mosul sparked backlash against religion

Mosul, Iraq - In recaptured areas of Mosul, the extreme interpretation of Islam that jihadists forced on the local population for more than two years has sparked a backlash against religious observance.

After the Islamic State group seized the city in June 2014, it made prayers compulsory for people who were outside their homes, banned smoking, mandated beards for men and veils for women, smashed artefacts it said were idolatrous, publicly executed homosexuals and cut off the hands of thieves.

The jihadists cast their efforts as enacting the true interpretation of Islam -- an assertion that most Muslims reject -- but for some people, rather than making them more religious as intended, IS extremism had the opposite effect.

The call to prayer sounds over a mosque's loudspeakers in a recaptured area of Mosul, but a butcher named Omar continues working -- something that would have been impossible under IS rule.

"Mosul is an Islamic city and most young people used to pray," but IS was "forcing us... we had to go to the mosque against our will", he said.

Before eastern Mosul was retaken from IS during the massive operation to recapture the northern city that was launched on October 17, shops had to close five times a day for prayers.

"One day, the boy who works with me received 35 lashes because he hadn't been praying," Omar said.

"Now, we are no longer obliged to close our stores... Whether we pray or not, the decision is ours."

Imam Mohammed Ghanem, who was forbidden to conduct Friday prayers under IS rule because he refused to pledge allegiance to the group, said the jihadists sparked a backlash against religion.

"Now some people hate the time of prayer because IS forced them" to pray, Ghanem said.

- 'Too much pressure' -

"They reject these rules because they associate them with IS, even if they are in fact true Islamic precepts," he said.

"Put too much pressure on something and it will explode. This is what's happening now with the people: they want to live the way they want," he said.

According to Ghanem, part of his work before IS seized Mosul was educating people about Islamic practices and correcting them if necessary.

"Now, we say nothing because they reject religious authority. If we tell them they are doing something wrong, they tell us that we are from IS," he said.

In another area of eastern Mosul, where rain is accumulating in craters left by the fighting, Imam Fares Adel said he too has changed the way he interacts with the faithful.

"Now we are afraid to give advice to people because they feel uncomfortable with the religious clothing" worn by imams, said Adel.

The imam said he understands those residents who "reject Islam", but thinks the situation will "gradually" return to normal.

"The number of people is gradually increasing and they will all come back once of the footprint of IS has disappeared," said Adel.

In Ghanem's mosque, latecomers have to pray outside.

Around 40 worshippers kneel near fruit and vegetable stands to pray, while hundreds are squeezed inside the mosque.

"The imam has a good mentality and he speaks well to us. More and more people are coming back" to the mosque, said 25-year-old resident Mohammed Ali.

Now, without the threat of IS reprisals, "they come because they choose to".