ALEPPO — Poverty can push people to make difficult choices in any normal situation — even more so in times of war, when the basic means of survival no longer exist.
Muhammad, a school teacher from the Aleppo countryside, found that the only way out of poverty for him was to join ISIS, with the extremist group offering him a meager stipend for his membership.
Muhammad used to be financially stable, teaching in elementary and high school, building up savings to buy a house and advance his career. He is married with three children, two boys and a girl, aged from one to five years old.
But when he protested against Assad's government, Muhammad's teaching salary was cut and he had to depend on tutoring to support his family and his ill mother. With prices getting higher and his mother getting sicker, Muhammad felt he had no other choice but to join ISIS to guarantee himself a living.
His story isn’t unusual, residents say. “In the beginning, people in this area refused to join and fight with ISIS, but today they’re rushing to sign up,” said Yousef, a friend of Muhammad’s. “Many prefer to die from joining ISIS than to die of hunger and poverty.”
Muhammad spoke to Syria Deeply about his decision to join ISIS and what it means for him personally to enlist.
SYRIA DEEPLY: Why did you decide to join ISIS?
MUHAMMAD: What choice did I have but to join ISIS? After I lost my salary, I started depending on what my land gave me and on private tutoring lessons, but none of it was sufficient to put food on my table. There are no economic prospects that could provide job opportunities, and I don’t have the money to start my own business. I’ve also been through many setbacks due to my mother’s health situation, which caused me to borrow a lot of money.
Why didn’t you travel to Turkey, like many others have, to find a job?
Our dignity is lost in other countries, and my mother’s sickness kept me from doing anything. It basically ruled out all other choices.
How did your family deal with your decision to join ISIS?
My kids are too young to understand. My wife objected at the beginning … she was afraid for me because of the risks involved. But our financial situation was getting worse, so she had to accept it in the end. To die once is better for me than to die a thousand times every day out of shame.
Why did ISIS accept you into its ranks?
ISIS accepts you just by the recommendation of a previous member. Then you undertake two courses, one of which is military training.
You said your work would only be as a civilian teacher, so why would you take a military course?
My teaching job doesn’t mean I won’t have to go to the front lines. Enrollment in ISIS means you have to do whatever is asked of you. At any time I might be ordered to bear arms and fight on the front lines if I am needed. My colleagues assured me that I would have to be there only for a month after the military course, then I could get back to teaching.
Is it true what they say about salaries of thousands of dollars to those who join ISIS?
ISIS doesn’t give any salaries. The money they give at the end of the month is called a reward, and it’s not that big, but they give allowances to family members. It covers my wife and children and even my mother, so ISIS offers you a decent, but not a luxurious life.
The reward if you're Syrian and single is almost $100 every month, with a bonus in the case of military victories. A married man gets an extra $50 dollars for his wife and other allowances for his kids; there’s also a fuel allowance and housing allowance if you're renting a house. In total I get a reward of $200 per month; it amounts to $300 with all the allowances.
It seems that you don’t believe in the ideology of ISIS. How can you fight for them if you don’t believe in their cause?
I look on the bright side. My teaching job is irrelevant to my beliefs in terms of ideology, because I’m serving the people of my nation. I taught under Bashar al-Assad, although I didn’t believe in his regime, and I served in his army in spite of its certain corruption — so it’s not a matter of black and white.
Don’t you think your death in ISIS lines would be a kind of suicide?
On the contrary, if I died then I would be a martyr who died to raise the word of God. I hope my participation and that of others like me will contribute to eliminating the bad things about ISIS, because to light a candle is better than to curse the dark.
Do you think that you and other people like you are capable of making changes within ISIS, or that you’re merely pawns?
Everything in life is changeable, and ISIS is flexible as much as it is firm; it follows a decentralization policy that gives wide local authority.
When battles started between ISIS and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), you were against joining ISIS; you considered it to be treason to the revolution. What changed your mind?
I’ve changed after seeing the hypocrisy of the international community. I realized after all those years that they don’t want the so-called revolution to succeed, and they prefer to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.
When ISIS wasn’t there, they didn’t offer anything to the Syrian uprising. Then when ISIS was established, they all stood against it and fought it, while they did nothing about the tragedies Syrians lived through.
Aren’t you afraid of death?
Death is visiting us every day; everyone has become a potential martyr: men, women and children. We have been attacked for a long time now, and the [Syrian government] shelling is killing a lot more civilians than ISIS members.
What would you do if ISIS were defeated in your area?
ISIS was created to stay and expand — the reality of what’s happening now proves it, because in spite of the [U.S.-led] airstrikes, people are still rushing to join ISIS.
Are you capable of fighting against the Syrian rebels with whom you used to go out protesting, those you used to encourage and support?
My main job is teaching. I don’t think I will have to make that choice.