Iraq’s crackdown on alcohol and social media posts sparks alarm

People buy alcohol at a liquor store in Baghdad on Thursday. Hadi Mizban/Associated Press

BAGHDAD – Just months into office, the Iraqi government is suddenly enforcing a long-dormant law banning alcohol imports and arresting people for morally objectionable content on social media. The crackdown has raised alarms among religious minorities and human rights activists.

Some see the measures as an attempt by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to deflect potential political challenges from religious conservatives and economic problems such as soaring prices and wild currency fluctuations.

The ban on the import, sale and manufacture of alcohol was enacted in 2016 but only published in the Official Gazette last month, making it enforceable. On Saturday, the Iraqi customs authorities ordered the ban to be imposed at all border crossings.

Although many liquor stores across Iraq continued operating as usual – presumably running out of supplies – border crossings remained dry overnight, with the exception of the northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which has not enforced the ban. The price of alcohol, meanwhile, rose due to the tighter 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-made alcohol in 15 shops in Baghdad.

“There are tens of millions of dollars worth of imported goods at the borders that cannot be brought in,” he said.

Isso said he’s also stuck in storage with $3 million worth of goods — liquor made at his factory. It is not yet clear if and when the alcohol sales ban will also be enforced, but Isso said he will not send his trucks from his Mosul factory to Baghdad for fear they could be stopped.

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For Isso, the ban is a blow to Iraq’s multi-denominational structure. He believes it will encourage more non-Muslims to emigrate.

Alcohol is generally forbidden 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 approximately 40 million people.

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

Joseph Sliwa, a former Christian lawmaker, blamed the decision to begin enforcing the law against extremists in Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Muslim communities. He said alcohol store owners and producers would become vulnerable as those in power or armed groups would likely try to extort them for bribes.

Like Isso, Sliwa feared that the alcohol ban could increase the use of illegal drugs.

A judge and former lawmaker, Mahmoud al-Hassan, defended the ban as constitutional, arguing that it is consistent with the beliefs of most Iraqis and therefore would not interfere with personal liberties.

“On the contrary, the majority of people in Iraq are Muslims and their freedoms should be respected,” he said. “They make up 97% of the country.”

He downplayed fears that banning alcohol would increase trafficking in other drugs. “Drugs already exist, with or without this law,” he said. “Alcohol also causes addiction and social problems.”

The alcohol ban follows the controversial campaign to monitor social media content.

In January, the Home Office formed a committee to investigate reports of so-called indecent posts and set up a public complaints website. The site received tens of thousands of reports.

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

Targeted individuals included people posting music videos, comedy skits, and sarcastic social comments. Some featured dance moves deemed provocative, used obscene language, or addressed 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 human rights groups, said the crackdown on expression violated fundamental rights.

“Iraqis should be free to express themselves…whether it’s joking or engaging in satire, criticizing or holding authorities to account, discussing political or religious issues, sharing happy dances, or engaging in public conversations about sensitive or controversial issues,” the groups said in a joint statement.

Amer Hassan, a judge at the Baghdad court responsible for publishing and media matters, defended the arrests in an interview with the Iraqi state news agency.

“There is a confusion between the freedom of expression protected by the Constitution” and what he called objectionable content.

Hamzeh Hadad, adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, said the measures could be part of an attempt to distract from Iraq’s unstable currency and serve the base of conservative Shia cleric and politician leader Muqtada al -Sadr, a rival of al-Sudani’s bloc.

Hadad said the alcohol ban could disproportionately hit Christians and other non-Muslim religious minorities — a shrinking population in Iraq, especially in the years since the founding of the extremist group Islamic State, which once controlled large parts of the country.

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

Religious minorities are not the only ones opposing the measures.

“Personally, I’m a Muslim and not for the law,” said Mohammed Jassim, a 27-year-old from Baghdad who says he drinks 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 city of Qaraqosh, a liquor store owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of attacks on his business, said the government’s move stings, especially after years of deadly attacks by IS fighters on Christians.

“They tell us to get out, we don’t want you in this country anymore,” he said.

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