Baghdad — Just months into his term, Iraq’s government is suddenly implementing long-dormant laws banning the importation of alcohol and arresting people over social media content deemed morally offensive. The action has raised concerns among religious minorities and rights activists.
Some see this as an attempt by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to counter potential political challenges from religious conservatives and to deflect attention from economic woes such as rising prices and wild currency fluctuations.
The ban on the import, sale and production of alcohol was adopted in 2016, but was only published in the Official Gazette last month, allowing it to come into force. On Saturday, Iraq’s customs authority ordered a ban on all border crossings.
Although many liquor stores throughout Iraq continued trading as usual – possibly using up their stocks – border crossings dried up overnight with the exception of the northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which has not enforced the ban. Meanwhile, liquor prices shot up due to short supply.
Ghazwan Isso produces a popular anise-flavored arak at its factory in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. He sells it at 15 shops in Baghdad, along with imported, foreign-made liquor.
“There are imported goods at the borders that are not allowed to enter, worth millions of dollars,” he said.
Iso said he is stuck in warehouses with $3 million worth of goods – alcohol produced at his factory. It is not yet clear if and when the ban on alcohol sales will be enforced, but Isso said it will not send its trucks from its Mosul factory to Baghdad, fearing they will be stopped.
For Isso, the ban is a blow to Iraq’s multi-confessional social fabric. They believe this will prompt more non-Muslims to emigrate.
Alcohol is generally prohibited in Islam – the religion of the vast majority of Iraqis – but is permitted and used in religious rituals by Christians, who make up 1% of Iraq’s population of around 40 million.
“The law is a narrowing of freedom,” Isso said, adding the ban “will lead to bribery and blackmail, as alcohol will be sold in the same way as illegal drugs.”
Joseph Sliva, a former Christian lawmaker, blamed the decision to enforce the law on extremists within Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities. He said that liquor shop owners and manufacturers would be vulnerable, as those in power or armed groups trying to squeeze them for bribes.
Like Isso, Sliva was also concerned that the ban on alcohol could increase the use of illegal drugs.
Mahmoud al-Hassan, a judge and former parliamentarian, defended the ban as constitutional, arguing that it was in line with the beliefs of most Iraqis and therefore would not affect personal liberties.
“Quite the contrary, the majority of Iraqis are Muslim and their freedom must be respected,” he said. “They make up 97% of the country.”
He downplayed fears that making alcohol illegal would lead to increased smuggling of other drugs. “Drugs already exist, with or without this law,” he said. “Alcohol also causes addiction and social problems.”
The liquor ban comes on the heels of a controversial campaign of police social media content.
In January, the Ministry of Home Affairs set up a committee to investigate reports of obscene posts and set up a website for public complaints. The site received thousands of reports.
A month later, judicial officials announced that the courts had charged 14 people with posting material labeled obscene or immoral; Six were sentenced to prison.
Among those targeted were people who posted videos of music, comedy skits and satirical social commentary. Some showed provocative dance moves, used obscene language or raised sensitive social issues such as gender relations in Iraq’s predominantly conservative society.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as local and regional rights groups, said the ban on expression violates fundamental rights.
“Iraqis should be free to express themselves … whether it be to joke or satirize, criticize or hold officials accountable, discuss politics or religious topics, dance joyfully or sensitively or have a public conversation on controversial issues,” the groups said in a joint statement.
Amer Hassan, judge of the Baghdad court dealing with issues of publication and media, defended the arrest in an interview with the state Iraqi news agency.
There is a confusion between “freedom of expression, which is protected by the Constitution” and what he called objectionable content.
Hamzeh Haddad, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, said the measures could be part of an effort to deflect attention from Iraq’s volatile currency and boost a base of conservative Shia clerics and political leaders. leader Muqtada al-Sadr, a rival of al-Sudani’s bloc.
Haddad said the alcohol ban could disproportionately affect Christians and other non-Muslim religious minorities – a dwindling population in Iraq, especially in the years following the formation of the extremist Islamic State group, which at one time controlled vast swathes of the country. areas were controlled.
However, Haddad said that there were also “powerful actors with financial interests in alcohol” who could legally challenge or break the ban.
Religious minorities are not the only ones pushing back against the measures.
“I am personally a Muslim and not at odds with the law,” said Mohammed Jasim, 27, of Baghdad, who drinks alcohol regularly. Now he and others like him will be forced to buy liquor “under the table from those who dare to sell it illegally,” he said.
Many Christians see the ban as an attempt to marginalize their community.
In the northern Christian town of Karakosh, a wine shop owner said on condition of anonymity that his business could be targeted, the government’s move said, especially in the wake of deadly attacks on Christians by IS militants .
“They’re telling us to get out, we don’t want you in this country anymore,” he said.
Sewell reported from Beirut. The Associated Press writer Farid Abdulwahid in Iraq’s prison contributed reporting.
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