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Iraq's Salahuddin province launches war on alcohol

The ban on alcohol shops in Salahuddin, which was recently liberated from IS control, shows the growing influence of clerics and tribal leaders.

On July 10, the governor of Salahuddin province decided to close all liquor stores in the province, after having received requests from the local council of al-Shirqat district calling to close the liquor shops in the district.

The Islamic State (IS) controlled Al-Shirqat and neighboring areas from 2014 to 2017. When these areas were liberated, they witnessed a social liberation.

On July 2, Hermez al-Ashoury, a Christian, opened the first liquor store with a Yazidi partner after obtaining the consent of the government. Non-Muslim Iraqis work in liquor trade across the country.

Writer and media figure Ali al-Baidar told Al-Monitor, “The decision to ban the sell of liquor in al-Shirqat and Salahuddin province in general is due to pressure exerted by clerics, who believe trading in liquors is contrary to Islam. Meanwhile, prominent social figures believe banning this trade is necessary to preserve the conservative identity of al-Shirqat and Salahuddin and to prevent social disintegration due to excessive openness to Western customs and traditions.”

He continued, “It is true that IS gave the death penalty to those who sold alcoholic beverages, but even before IS took over al-Shirqat and large areas of Salahuddin, social customs and traditions did not allow public dealing with alcoholic drinks.”

While under IS control, the populations of Salahuddin, Mosul and Ramadi were prohibited from consuming alcohol and listening to music. Anyone who dared to breach this ban was punished by flogging or death.

“During the dark period when IS ruled the city, prominent clerics who are influential today in al-Shirqat supported IS’ prohibition of alcohol,” a young man from al-Shirqat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Nothing has changed after the expulsion of IS, because whoever sells alcoholic beverages will go to prison.”

A preacher in an al-Shirqat mosque talked about this “sensitive issue” to Al-Monitor, also on condition of anonymity. He refused all calls for social openness by allowing alcohol consumption and trade.

“Liquor stores are suspicious and dangerous commercial projects that are not accepted by our social culture. They promote the use of narcotics and intoxicating substances,” he said. “The decision to close liquor stores is a bold step that meets the residents’ demands.”

In turn, Sheikh Ismail al-Ankud, an adviser to the governor of Salahuddin for tribal affairs and the head of a tribal council in al-Shirqat, supports the decision to ban the sale of alcohol. “After the defeat of IS, some entities sought to fragment the homogenous social fabric in Salahuddin by introducing openness and modernity, using socially unacceptable means such as opening liquor stores.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, he added, “All Salahuddin tribes support the ban because of the problems caused by alcoholism, such as car accidents, family problems and youth drug addiction problems.”

He went on asserting that liquor trade and consumption is collectively proscribed in al-Shirqat, pointing out that liquor stores are managed by outsiders.

What is happening in Salahuddin applies to several cities that were liberated from IS. In Ramadi, young people engaged in the trade and abuse of alcohol.

In his Friday sermon on July 13, the imam of Rahman Mosque in Kirkuk called on the governor to close the liquor stores spreading across the province.

Scores of liquor stores opened across Mosul after its liberation from IS. This triggered a slew of demands to shut down these stores, claiming they threaten the city's youth and weaken their religious and ethical sense of self-restraint.

Meanwhile, civilian authorities argued that closing liquor stores threatens public freedoms.

The campaign against alcoholic beverages spread to areas that were not controlled by IS, including Baghdad. The capital’s security authorities announced on July 7 that they seized a truck carrying alcoholic beverages. The Federal Ministry of Interior launched a major campaign aimed to prohibit alcohol consumption on the side of the roads in Baghdad.

On Oct. 22, 2017, the Iraqi parliament voted to ban the sale and import of alcoholic beverages in Iraq, except for the Kurdistan region. Activists saw this move as a violation of the personal liberties guaranteed by the country's constitution. But the ban has yet to be applied and so far remains a mere written decision amid widespread objections.

For liquor stores in Baghdad, business continued as usual. But the situation is different in other provinces, such as Salahuddin, where conservative Sunni clerics enjoy extensive social and tribal influence.

Legal expert and former judge Tariq Harb told Al-Monitor that the ban voted on by parliamentarians failed to take into account legislation enacted in 1931 allowing alcoholic drinks. “Iraq was a pioneer in producing alcoholic beverages among its neighboring countries. The first local factories of alcoholic beverages were established in the royal era. Then in the 1960s, the government started opening these factories.”

Ali al-Bayati, the commissioner of the Iraq High Commission for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor, “Prohibiting alcohol consumption is contrary to personal freedoms. In another context, this ban deprives the economy of financial resources.” Bayati added, “The ban on alcoholic drinks will push alcoholics to drug addiction, according to reports received by our commission.”

Meanwhile, the administrator of Samarra district in Salahuddin province told Al-Monitor, “Legalizing and regulating liquor trade would have been a more appropriate solution rather than imposing a moratorium that would not be very efficient in light of the spread of unregulated liquor stores.”

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