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'Iraq is not an Islamic country': Minorities protest Baghdad's alcohol ban as unconstitutional

The Iraqi government's renewed effort to prohibit alcohol is not only worrisome for Christian and Yazidi minorities, but also raises constitutionality questions.
A man walks inside a liquor shop in Baghdad on February 23, 2023.  (Photo by MURTAJA LATEEF/AFP via Getty Images)

Iraq officially banned the import, production and sale of alcoholic beverages of all kinds on March 4, in a repeat of a ban that was passed in 2016, but its implementation was paused  due to strong objections from secularists and minorities at the time.

The new law imposes fines for violations of between 10 million and 25 million dinars ($7,700-$19,000).

Last month, the law instituting the ban was published in Iraq's official gazette, paving the way for implementation. The coalition of new Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who took office last October, is dominated by Shiite Islamist parties and militias in the so-called Coordination Framework who support the ban. 

Now, with the law going into effect, liquor stores are still open in Baghdad, Erbil and other parts of the country. But some Iraqis, especially those from the Yazidi and Christian communities, are raising concerns.  

'Not an Islamic country'

Iraq has great religious diversity. The majority of the population is Shiite and Sunni Muslims, but there are also sizable communities of Christians, Yazidis, Zorastrians, Mandaeans and others. Some analysts believe the law is a step toward turning Iraq into an Islamic country.

"This is ethnic discrimination," Diya Butros, an activist in the predominantly Chaldean Catholic town of Ankawa, told Al-Monitor. "It's a violation of the rights of non-Muslim religions that do not forbid alcohol."

Ali Saheb, an Iraqi political analyst, told Independent Arabia on March 6 that Iraq is not an Islamic country, and "Some religions allow drinking alcohol, and the government cannot impose a certain opinion or ideology on others."

Unlike Islam, the Yazidi and Christian faiths do not forbid alcohol consumption. Some even use it in their religious rituals. 

Others argue the law violates the Iraqi constitution, which guarantees personal, religious and cultural freedom. Mirza Dinnayi is a Yazidi activist and chairman of Luftbrucke Irak, a non-governmental organization that helps victims of conflict in Iraq. He told Al-Monitor, "The law is contrary to the constitution because Iraq is a multi-ethnic, -religious and -cultural country, and drinking alcohol is not prohibited for many." 

Dinnayi also argued that if alcohol drinkers turn to other alternatives, the ban could provide an opportunity for the spread of drug use

“The majority of Muslim countries do not ban alcohol, but rather regulate it. Why doesn’t the Iraqi government do something similar, instead of banning it totally?” 

The law is especially troublesome for Yazidis and Christians, who manage the overwhelming majority of alcohol shops in the country. Many Christians and Yazidis have been attacked in recent years for working in this sector, and some fear this law could lead to an increase in violence against them.

It is therefore unsurprising that Iraqi civil society groups have come out strongly against the law. More than 1,000 prominent Iraqi researchers, academics, journalists and activists drafted an open letter to the secretary general of the United Nations earlier this month criticizing the ban. 

In addition to the objections on constitutional grounds, the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq may reject the law. The Kurdistan Region is home to much of Iraq's Christian and foreign population, particularly in Ankawa and the nearby regional capital Erbil. A KRG customs official told the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw earlier this month that they reserve the right to make their own decision on the ban. 

Religious authorities' views

The law is religiously motivated by the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, but Shiite religious authorities did not play a role in it. The highest religious authority for Iraq's Shiite majority, in the holy city of Najaf, is headed by Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Throughout the 21st century, Sistani has vocally supported a civil state and rejected the imposition of religion. 

Sistani has not commented on the law, but a prominent cleric told Al-Monitor that the religious authority in Najaf is against this legislation or any similar action.

“The religious authority in Najaf has been always calling for a ‘civil state’ in Iraq, rejecting any kind of imposition of religiosity in the state institution,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.   

The source referred to stances taken by Sistani in the past, such as when he rejected the Personal Status Law in 2013 due to its imposition of Sharia, as well as the leader's rejection of displaying religious symbols in state offices. 

When asked about Sistani's current silence, the cleric said, “Sistani had made it very clear for a long time that he is against such a law, and there is no need to repeat the same thing.”

With corruption and militia control rampant in Iraq, however, many worry that the ban will drive Iraqis to the black market to purchase alcohol. In this context, the ban may increase drug smuggling into the country, as well as encourage other forms of substance abuse. 

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