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Is free Iraq becoming a more Islamic state?

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A group of men recently ordered Siham al-Zubaidi to close down her Baghdad hair salon for two months for Shi’ite religious festivities. She had no idea who they were but complied because she feared for her life.

A student draws on a board as she is watched by her teacher during an English lecture at the Institute for Preparatory School Teachers in Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, October 17, 2010. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen/Files

“Can you just tell me who will pay the rent of my shop for these two months? What shall I do to support my family? What is the relation between hair dressing and religious events?” Zubaidi, 40, asked furiously.

“This is a new dictatorship. They want Iraq to be an Islamic state. But this is not right. Iraq includes a variety of religious factions ... These are alien ideas, not Iraqi.”

Recent efforts by authorities, clergy and unknown bands of neighbourhood enforcers to police morals by shutting nightclubs, bars and other establishments has heightened concerns among academics and intellectuals that Iraq, now emerging from war, is displaying the tendencies of a hard-line Islamic state.

Baghdad’s local government this month re-activated a federal order from last year to close down the capital’s nightclubs and liquor shops due to concern the venues were undermining morals.

Last week, anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a strongly worded statement calling for Iraqis to take a stand against “corruption, intoxication and addiction.”

The crackdown in Baghdad was preceded by similar actions in some Shi’ite-majority provinces in the south.

“What is going on are normal consequences when religious parties take over power. They start with such practices, and end the way the Taliban in Afghanistan ended, or other parties in Iran,” Baghdad political analyst Hazim al-Nuaimi said.

In September, local authorities in Babil province prevented an arts festival that has been held yearly since before 2003. Security forces told organizers a day after the festival started to end it because it included dance shows.

In the southern city of Basra, the government shut down a foreign circus a few days after it opened last month. It was the first circus the province had hosted in decades LDE6A413Q].

Basra authorities said the government department of Shi’ite endowments held that the land on which the circus was set up could not be used in a way that violated Islamic Sharia law.

The new measures sparked protests by some Iraqis who said the government is trying to kill freedom more than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and paved the way for majority Shi’ites to take power.

RADICAL CONCEPTS

“What is going on, in fact, is an attempt to impose the radical concepts of the Islamic fundamentalist parties who dominate the political scene in Iraq...that’s what we are afraid of,” said Qasim Mohammed, a journalist who protested with dozens of others in Baghdad’s main square on Sunday.

Kamel al-Zaidi, head of the Baghdad provincial council, described the protesters in televised comments as “paid people who want to turn Iraq into a community of atheists.”

But the crackdown, alongside a series of attacks on Iraq’s minority Christian community, raised questions about freedom of religion and expression in mainly Muslim Iraq.

In the worst of the attacks, dozens died after Sunni insurgents took hostages at a Baghdad cathedral on Oct. 31. Hundreds of Christian families have since fled for the relative safety of the Kurdish north, and abroad.

During Friday prayers last week, many Shi’ite clerics supported the Baghdad provincial council and called on the government to show more determination.

“The decision of the government and the provincial council is right,” said Sadr al Din al Qubanchi, a prominent cleric in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a Shi’ite political bloc.

“Those who condemn it must realize that the Iraqi identity is Islamic, and the government is responsible for practicing this identity,” said Qubanchi in a speech in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf.

Sabbar al-Saeidi, the head of the legal committee of the Baghdad provincial council, defended the new measures.

“The measures are aimed at fighting anything against moral and public discipline, whether it is a circus or not,” Saeidi said.

Overt and illegal acts of religious intimidation may have been worse three years ago, when Shi’ite militias and Sunni insurgents roamed Iraq freely.

Now, bands of loosely organised, unknown men are carrying out threats quietly against liquor shops, schools and other establishments, and with groups like Sadr’s movement claiming a share of political power, critics say the government is closing its eyes to the intimidation.

NAKED STATUES

Residents of Baghdad’s mainly Shi’ite Shaab district say many alcohol shops have been attacked in recent weeks.

At a government-run fine arts institute in Baghdad, unknown men showed up this week and ordered the removal of all statues from the yard, an official of the facility said.

They said “it is not good to show such statues. Some of them are naked,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he feared for his safety.

The music program at the school was shut down. Students are not allowed to wear short skirts, short sleeve shirts or makeup, according to a female student.

“(A school official) told us it is Haram (forbidden). Some teachers consider any girl who does this as absent,” she said. “A top official once put an X on my classmate’s leg as she was wearing a short skirt.”

Protesters on both sides have taken to the streets. On Friday hundreds responded to Sadr’s call.

“Stand against those who want to disseminate corruption, intoxication, and addiction (to alcohol), to make Iraq drift towards ignorance, degeneration, lewdness, to make our society rot like the West,” Sadr said in his statement.

Political analysts said the coming era could see an escalation of intimidation as Sadr’s fundamentalist religious movement plays a larger role in government.

Sadr won 39 seats in a March parliamentary election and then pledged support for incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a key step in an agreement between political blocs that end a months-long political impasse.

“What is going on is a new tendency of a new culture that wants to take us backward,” said Haider Munaathar, a well-known actor and head of Iraq’s theatre union. “We must not keep silent towards those who want Iraq to wear a robe of their choosing.”

Editing by Jim Loney and Samia Nakhoul

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