Iraq’s booze crackdown, social media posts raise alarm

Just a few months into her term, the Iraqi government suddenly imposes a law banning alcohol imports and arrests people for social media content deemed morally offensive. The crackdown has raised alarm among religious minorities and rights activists.

Some see the measures as an attempt by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to fend off potential political challenges from religious conservatives and distract from economic woes such as rising prices and wild currency fluctuations.

The ban on the import, sale and production of alcohol was approved in 2016, but was only published in the Official Gazette last month, making it enforceable. On Saturday, Iraq’s customs authority ordered all border crossings to enforce the ban.

Although many liquor stores across Iraq continued to operate as normal – apparently running out of stock – border crossings dried up overnight, with the exception of the northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region which has not imposed the ban. The price of alcohol, meanwhile, has soared due to limited supply.

Ghazwan Isso makes arak, a popular anise-flavored spirit, at his factory in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. He sells it, along with imported, foreign-produced alcohol, in 15 stores in Baghdad.

“There are tens of millions of dollars worth of imported goods at the border that are not allowed to enter,” he said.

Isso said he is also stuck with $3 million worth of goods in warehouses – liquor produced at his factory. It is not yet clear if and when the ban on alcohol sales will also be implemented, but Isso said he will not send his trucks from his factory in Mosul to Baghdad for fear they will be stopped.

For Isso, the ban is a blow to Iraq’s multi-confessional social fabric. He believes it will prompt more non-Muslims to immigrate.

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 about 40 million.

“The law is a restriction of freedoms,” Isso said, adding that the ban would encourage “bribery and extortion because alcohol will be sold in the same way as illegal drugs.”

Joseph Sliwa, a former Christian MP, blamed the decision to start law enforcement on extremists in Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities. He said liquor store owners and producers would become vulnerable, with those in power or armed groups likely to try to squeeze them for bribes.

Like Isso, Sliwa also worried that banning alcohol could increase the use of illegal drugs.

A judge and former MP, Mahmoud al-Hassan, defended the ban as constitutional and argued that it was in line with the beliefs of most Iraqis and therefore would not affect personal liberties.

“Quite the opposite, the majority of the people of Iraq are Muslims and their freedoms must be respected,” he said. “They make up 97% of the country.”

He played down fears that the illegal use of alcohol would increase the trafficking of other drugs. “Drugs already exist, with or without this law,” he said. “Alcohol also causes addiction and social problems.”

The alcohol ban comes after a controversial campaign to police social media content.

In January, the Home Office set up a commission to investigate reports of what it called indecent posts and set up a website for public complaints. The site received tens of thousands of references.

A month later, judicial authorities announced that courts had indicted 14 people for posting content labeled indecent or immoral. six were sentenced to prison.

Among those targeted were people who posted music videos, comedy sketches and sarcastic social commentary. Some showed dance moves deemed provocative, used foul language or raised sensitive social issues such as gender relations in Iraq’s largely conservative society.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as local and regional rights groups, have said the suppression of expression violates fundamental rights.

“Iraqis should be free to express themselves … whether it’s joking or satirizing, criticizing or holding authorities accountable, discussing political or religious issues, having fun dancing, or public discussions on sensitive or controversial issues. the groups said in a joint statement.

Amer Hassan, a Baghdad court judge dealing with publishing and media issues, defended the arrests in an interview with the state-run Iraqi News Agency.

“There is confusion between freedom of expression, which is protected by the constitution” and what he called offensive content.

Hamzeh Hadad, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, said the measures could be part of an effort to distract from Iraq’s volatile currency and shore up the conservative Shiite base. clerical and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr, an opponent of al-Sudani’s bloc.

Haddad said the alcohol ban could disproportionately affect Christians and other non-Muslim religious minorities – a population that has been shrinking in Iraq, particularly in the years since the rise of the Islamic State group, which once controlled large swaths of the country.

However, Hadad noted that there were also “powerful actors with financial interests in alcohol” who could legally challenge or simply violate the ban.

Religious minorities are not the only ones pushing for the measures.

“Personally, I’m a Muslim and I’m not with the law,” said Mohammed Jassim, a 27-year-old from Baghdad who says he drinks alcohol regularly. Now he and others like him “will be forced to buy alcohol 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 Qaraqosh, a liquor shop owner who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear his business could be targeted said the government’s move stung, particularly after years of deadly attacks on Christians by IS militants.

“They are telling us to leave, we don’t want you in this country anymore,” he said.


Sewell reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Farid Abdulwahed in Qaraqosh, Iraq, contributed reporting.

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