Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Islamization of Iraqi society?

The recent government effort to destroy Baghdad's traditional book market located in al-Mutanabbi Street, named after one of Iraq's most famous poets, is disturbing (see al-Hayat, Sept. 21).  The government wants to limit book sellers to sell books on Friday like other markets confined to Fridays which sell dogs and birds.  This attack is part of a growing effort to curtail the activities of Western oriented sectors of Iraqi society, particularly urban youth and women who choose not to wear traditional clothing.  Do they efforts indicate an effort by the state to Islamize Iraq?

Although few Iraqis want to return to Ba'thist rule, one of the few things that many miss from that era was the greater tolerance for personal lifestyles.  Under Saddam Husayn's regime, no one needed to worry if they drank alcohol.  Homosexuality was not suppressed.  Women and youth did not have to worry about wearing Western style clothing. Indeed the killing of 14 youth earlier this year for following "emo" styles of dress and music has never occurred during Iraq's entire history since it became an independent state in 1921 (see The New Middle East, March 13, 2012).

Following the overthrow of the Ba'thist regime in 2003, a new Islamist trend began to appear in Iraq. One of the first indicators of this new trend were signs on the walls of Baghdad University and other institutions of higher learning throughout Iraq which warned women not to come to campus in Western dress.

In 2004, a shadowy organization which called itself the Monotheistic Movement for Jihad, which many say included members of the newly formed Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr, began to threaten merchants who sold alcohol, invariably Christian or Yazidi, who traditionally have dominated this business.  These merchants were told that they would be killed if they did not end such sales.   These threats were followed by the bombing of liquor stores in Baghdad's largely Christian al-Ghabir district.

In 2010, the Sadrists successfully lobbied the Baghdad City Council to ban the sale of alcohol in restaurants and social clubs.  The ban led to a strong reaction by intellectuals and secular forces which fought the proposed ban.  Iraq's writers, artists, and filmmakers argued that this was really an attack on freedom of expression since all Iraq's social clubs where intellectuals meet serve alcohol.

The Iraqi newspaper, al-Mada, took the lead in posting billboards around Baghdad which said "Liberty first: Baghdad will not become Qandahar," referring to puritanical Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  The Baghdad City Council ban, which was supported by the federal government under Nuri al-Maliki, was so unpopular that it was withdrawn, although the Council said it might be reimposed in the future.

Now the focus at keeping Iraq a "traditional" society has been directed at the dress of Iraqi youth which often imitates Western clothing styles.  Members of the police department who support the views of conservative clerics, angered by Western clothing and music, have become known as the "fashion police."  Police officers have been reported as warning women in Karbala', al-Diwaniya and Baghdad's Kathimiya district, where Sadrists wield strong influence, that they need to wear a headscarf and even the traditional head to toe black abaya.  Advertisements showing women wearing trousers have had red crosses painted on them.

Iraqi youth comprise a large percentage of the population (65% of those under the age of 25).  Many youth are attracted to Western culture as is evident from even a superficial overview of YouTube videos on Iraqi youth.  The 2007 HBO film, Baghdad High, produced by four Baghdadi youth, one Shiite, one Sunni, one Kurd and one Christian, demonstrates very clearly this inclination, as does the 2006 CBS news video, Iraq's Youth Revolution.

Iraqi women argue that Iraq's male political elite cannot decide on any of the policies which the country desperately needs, such as improving employment opportunities for youth, building more housing, especially in large cities such as Baghdad, providing greater support for Iraq's farmers, expanding health care facilities, and providing more electricity to Iraqi homes.  However, these women point out, the one thing that Iraqi male politicians can agree upon is restricting women's rights.

The US appointed Iraqi Governing Council 's effort in December 2003 to rescind Iraq's Personal Status Law, passed under the rule of General 'Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1959, is just one of many recent efforts to place constraints on Iraqi women.  This law, which prevents women under the age of 15 from being forcibly married and assures women equal inheritance with men, is one of the most progressive personal status laws in terms of women's rights in the Middle East.

Most recently, Iraqi nightclubs have been invaded by the police and their patrons forced to leave, even beaten.  Many nightclubs have been told to no longer sell alcohol and others have been closed.   Because these nightclubs mostly cater to youth, young Iraqis view these actions by the police as another effort to restrict their freedoms.

The recent actions by the Iraqi state and police do not represent the proper manner in which to protect the country's traditions and heritage.  Iraq's citizens - youth and women in particular - should not be forced to wear clothing or behave in ways which are entirely personal but that contradict their individual values.  Any country which claims to be a democracy must respect individual rights, including the choice to dress as one pleases.

The Maliki government's efforts should be directed at delivering better social services to the Iraqi people and ending the extensive corruption and nepotism which characterize the government bureaucracy, rather than worrying about how young people dress and restricting women's rights.  Indeed, Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, who just returned to Iraq after three months of medical treatment in Germany, has called for a serious effort to end government corruption and provide Iraqis, both Arabs and Kurds, with the services they need (see al-Sharq al-Awsat, Sept. 22).  Attempts to protect "tradition," when it is really only an effort to cover up the state's failures, is not the type of governance the Iraqi people need or  deserve.