Economy

Ban On Syrian Money — Is ISIS About To Issue Its Own Currency?

ISIS has banned the use of newly pressed 500 and 1,000 Syrian pound notes. Some fear its the start of a currency switch, though others say it's a way for some to profit on money exchanges.

A Damascus woman reads a brochure about the new 1,000 Syrian Pounds bill issued last June.
A Damascus woman reads a brochure about the new 1,000 Syrian Pounds bill issued last June.
Ammar/Xinhua/ZUMA
Ahmad al-Bahri

RAQQA â€" The self-proclaimed Islamic State has outlawed the circulation of two Syrian banknotes issued by the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus, in what some believe could be a precursor to a complete phasing out of Syrian currency in areas under the jihadist group’s control.

Religious police ISIS" de facto capital of Raqqa have outlawed the 500 and 1,000 Syrian pound notes, issued in 2013 by the Syrian government in Damascus. The illegal currencies are to be replaced with older or smaller bills and dumped in areas outside the jihadist group’s controls, according to a memorandum obtained by Syria Deeply.

The announcement reads:

Announcement to all Exchange Shops: We have decided, with the help of God, to ban the use of the newly issued currency by the Alawite regime (the 1000 bill and the 500 bill) in our territory starting the date of the announcement. Sep 27. Exchange shops should not use it or exchange it. They should only take it out of the Islamic State areas. And anyone who opposes this law will be punished, starting from 14 November. God bless and guide you to the right path.

“ISIS informed all currency and exchange businesses about the new law,” Abu Mahmoud, the owner of a currency exchange business in Raqqa, told Syria Deeply. “They instructed us to take the newly issued bills and replace them with either older issues or smaller bills. We’ve been instructed to take the newly issued bills that we gather outside the Islamic State’s borders, to areas controlled either by the regime or by other opposition factions.”

Members of Raqqa’s Hisbah office â€" ISIS’s religious police â€" claim the reason behind the new law, which was issued at the end of September 2015, is to protect citizens under the group's control from financial loss.

“We prohibited their circulation in order to protect Muslims from financial losses,” said Abu Muhammad, a 37-year-old member of ISIS. “There are other bills that people can use. We want them to exchange these newly issued bills with other ones, so that they do not lose any money, especially if they want to use them outside Syria.”

According to Abu Muhammad, ISIS will soon issue its own currency â€" a gold, silver and copper coinage rumored to be prohibitively expensive â€" which will be the only currency accepted in areas under the group’s control.

Citizens of Raqqa with whom Syria Deeply spoke, however, said the new law was a pretext for ISIS’s foreign cadre to garner extra profits from the currency exchange business.

Mazen al-Abdalla, a 28-year-old media activist from Raqqa, believes the new law is just another technique ISIS will use to exploit people under its control.

“For months now,” Abdalla told Syria Deeply, “the word on the street has been that ISIS would issue its own gold and silver currency, and that Syrian currency would eventually be eliminated.”

Most of the jihadist organization’s non-Syrian fighters have a hand in the currency exchange business, according to Abdalla, arguing that the currency switch isn't just a simple state-building move by ISIS, but a scheme to make money. Exchange offices in Raqqa and throughout the majority of ISIS territory are either fully or semi-controlled by foreign members of ISIS.

Businessmen, storeowners and average employees alike are afraid the value of their Syrian currency in ISIS areas will soon completely collapse.

“All my cash savings are in the newly issued 500 and 1,000 pound bills,” said Abu Bassil, a 45-year-old man from Raqqa. “According to the new law, I have to exchange them as soon as possible. I can hand them over and receive smaller or older issue bills. But I'm afraid ISIS will issue its own currency soon, and in that case, I might lose all my savings.”

“The Syrian pound is worth a great deal less than it used to be, and it’s only getting worse. I’ll probably lose about one-third of my savings. But I guess one-third is better than losing all of it,” Abu Bassil said.

Rumors that ISIS's monetary authorities in Raqqa may soon issue their own currency have left Raqqa’s citizens equally panicked.

While the question remains whether the currency switch is just for show, or a secret money maker for ISIS foreign elites, Mazen al-Abdalla, the media activist, is sure of one thing: Somebody’s making money off the switch. “We’re talking about exchanging and taking an entire currency off the market,” he said. “There’s a lot of money to be made.”

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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