Baghdad’s literary elite took to the streets on Friday to protest a government order shutting one of the city’s few places where people can drink liquor freely, striking a blow to the alcohol-inspired conviviality poets and artists so value. But drinkers face a much more fundamental threat to their freedom to imbibe, as the city’s Christians free.
The government ordered the social club located near the Iraqi Writers Union closed by enforcing a Saddam-era ban prohibiting the serving of alcohol in hotels and restaurants. The ban had fallen into abeyance as the U.S. troop surge put Muslim extremists on the defensive. Now, with the U.S. presence much smaller, Islamists are back in the saddle.
Their ascendancy has not only led to a crackdown on drinking but has
frightened Baghdad’s Christians, who aren’t subject to the Islamic ban
on alcohol and thus are the city’s main purveyors of liquor. Since
Baghdad’s Syrian Catholic Cathedral was attacked at a cost of 53 lives
in October, Christians have been leaving the city for Kurdish-controlled
areas in the northern Iraq.
"We’re worried about more decisions against personal freedoms," Ali
Hussein, political editor of the Al-Mada newspaper, who organized the
protest, told The Media Line. "This decision doesn't only harm
Christians, but all Iraqi citizens. We are hoping to collect one million
protest signatures to send the government."
In Islam, alcohol —or any intoxicant—is generally forbidden, but in Iraq
the status of liquor has veered from permitted to punished over the
years. During the 1990s, the nominal secularist dictator, Saddam
Hussein, restricted sales of alcohol while shutting down nightclubs and
casinos, to win support of conservatives.
In 2005, two years after the U.S. and its allies toppled the Saddam
regime, Iraq’s Interior Ministry rescinded the ban. But a year later
Islamic militants began targeting liquor stores and trucks transporting
booze. As security improved in 2008 and militants lost sway, the liquor
trade revived. only to meet a renewed Islam-inspired prohibition
campaign this year.
Protestors last week gathered outside the Iraqi Writers Union building
in al-Wattanabi in the city center, carrying signs that read "Freedom
first" and "Baghdad won’t be Kandahar," a reference to the stronghold of
Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan. Demonstrators accused the
government of implementing repressive policies that restrict individual
For the protestors, the demonstration was about more than just alcohol.
In a statement sent to the Iraqi leaders, protesters urged the
government to defend pluralism in Iraq. Hussein added that people on the
street expressed sympathy with his organization's protest.
"We hope you boldly stand up and defend democratic values side by side
with the forces that seek a democratic, pluralistic and multi-cultural
Iraq," the statement read. "This is a battle against the forces of
darkness and extremism that wish to turn the provinces under their
control into new Kandahars."
Christians and Yazidi-Kurds, the latter members of a religion with
ancient Indo-Iranian roots, are the only religious groups legally
allowed to sell alcohol in Iraq. But as their numbers dwindle in the
wake of anti-Christian violence, secular Iraqis – Muslim and non-Muslim
alike -- fear that a full-blown prohibition will soon be in place as
social clubs close down and liquor store owners flee.
William Wardeh, an Iraqi Christian and president of the Hammurabi Human
Rights Organization, contends that the alcohol ban was part of an
organized campaign against Iraq's Christians. Prior to the attack in
October, six churches were attacked in July 2009 and a wave of killings
that targeted the Christian community occurred in February 2010.
"There are close-minded people who are trying to bring Iraq back to dark
days in the past," Wardeh told The Media Line. "They attack everything
that portrays Iraq in a cultural or progressive light."
Citing religious leaders, the U.S. State Department report
“International Religious Freedom” published in November estimated that
Iraq’s Christian population in 2003 ranged somewhere 800,000 to 1.4
million but has fallen to day to between 400,000 to 600,000.
The Christian community lays claim to a heritage in Iraq that dates back
thousands of years, and many religious and community leaders have
expressed fear that the community could soon disappear entirely.
Christian leaders estimate that as much as half the country's Christian
population lives in Baghdad, and 30% to 40% lives in the north, with the
largest Christian communities located in and around Mosul, Erbil,
Dohuk, and Kirkuk.
“There is a fear that they will lose the Christians, just like they lost
the Jewish community,” Middle East analyst Ali Al-Saffar told The Media
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, although Christians
represent only 3% of Iraq’s population, they make up half of the
refugees leaving the country.