Conservatives in Iraq's Najaf want to legislate religiosity

Following the recent arrest of a young cafe owner for allegedly insulting the late Imam Musa al-Kadhim, some Najaf residents are demanding a special law to "protect the sanctity" of the holy city.

al-monitor Shiite worshippers place copies of the Koran on their heads during Ramadan at the Imam Ali Shrine, Najaf, Iraq, July 10, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani.

Topics covered

shrines, music, freedom, secularists, najaf, shiites, imam ali

Apr 24, 2019

Hundreds of residents in Iraq's Najaf province rallied and called for a new law that would "strengthen the sanctity" of the city of Najaf, where the Imam Ali Shrine, Shiite seminaries and authorities — most notably top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — are based.

The heavy presence of clerics’ black and white turbans made it obvious the city’s conservatives were spearheading the April 7 demonstration. The protesters' anger was evident by their expressions and the slogans they chanted.

The demonstration was held after the young owner of a small cafe in the city caused "verbal offense" to Imam Musa al-Kadhim, the seventh imam in Twelver Shiism, whose death is commemorated every year by thousands of Muslims at his shrine in Baghdad. The cafe owner was addressing his followers in an Instagram post, while music played in the background. One listener denounced the music being played at a time when Kadhim’s death was being commemorated. The youth allegedly cursed the imam and was arrested a few days later on April 4.

The incident has outraged conservatives and some clerics in the city where millions of Shiites arrive annually requesting the blessing and intercession of Imam Ali. The visitors, even the diplomats, do respect Najaf's religious significance. Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN special representative for Iraq, covered her head with a scarf Feb. 6 during her visit. 

There have been altercations in the past few years between the city’s conservatives and secular youths who are inclined toward a modern lifestyle guaranteeing their personal freedom.

For example, as liberals went to celebrate Valentine's Day in downtown Najaf, they were surprised to find processions commemorating the death of Fatima Az-Zahra, the prophet's daughter. Some of the celebrants were attacked by participants in the processions and chased by security forces.

As a city, Najaf tends to espouse radical religious discourse. The youth who cursed Imam al-Kadhim has been accused, along with other youths, of being affiliated with a new group allegedly funded by the Islamic State (IS). In a joint statement, police and provincial authorities accused the group of “seeking to target religious values ​​and ethics and to destroy the youth mentality.”

A number of youths denounced the joint statement on social media, given that the accused will be tried for a terrorism-related crime and so could face harsh prison sentences. There are also fears that a law on the sanctity of the city of Najaf would pave the way for authorities to arrest anyone who doesn't embrace conservative ideas.

“The law that some members of the Najaf provincial council are discussing doesn't include a clear perception of what's prohibited and what's permitted in the province,” said Fadel Jaber Abdul Shnein, a member of parliament representing Najaf.

The provincial council is discussing the potential law relating to the sanctity of the city of Najaf. So far, it's unclear whether the province wants the federal parliament to pass a law in this regard.

Abdul Shnein said there is "no such law in parliament.” He added, “Once in parliament, [such a] law wouldn't be easily approved. It would be thoroughly discussed and deliberations would be held on its provisions.”

Najaf is not the first province seeking to regulate a city's status as a holy place. Karbala province, which houses two significant Shiite shrines — those of Imam Hussein ibn Ali and Imam Abbas ibn Ali, the sons of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib — approved in 2012 a law relating to that province's sanctity; the law continues to be controversial.

Head of the Najaf provincial council Khudair al-Jabouri told Al-Monitor, “The approval of the Karbala sanctity law is what's pressuring Najaf province to enact a similar law.”

He added, "The Najaf sanctity law was discussed twice in the provincial council, [yet] its provisions have yet to be drafted.

Both Abdul Shnein and Jabouri said there's no need to rush the law's approval, as Najaf's sanctity is clearly being respected. That doesn't mean, however, that a law promoting such sanctity won't be adopted.

The law's objectives are still unclear. Najaf Gov. Louay al-Yasiri told Al-Monitor, "The law seeks to prevent women from working in men-only cafes, ban porn and alcohol, and force women to wear the hijab.” He added, “No law provides for these matters, and this is why they require the enactment of the Najaf sanctity law.”

Civil activists like Yasser Makki of Najaf worry the law could include ambiguous expressions that would infringe on their personal freedoms. "The city’s [religious] particularity is being respected by all. Yet as male and female activists, for instance, we meet in a cafe to discuss the activities that we are willing to conduct. The law could criminalize the gathering," he told Al-Monitor, adding, “The youth in Najaf organize music events that the law could also criminalize.”

Makki added, "Authorities could interpret the law's provisions to their liking and thus violate the freedom of expression.” Jabouri predicts, however, that the proposed law would "neither violate the freedom of expression nor the personal freedoms.” Abdul Shnein added, "The youth gatherings and cultural events are taking place in the city, and no one can [disturb them.]"

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