Najaf is considered a holy city for Shia Muslims because the first Shia imam and fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, is buried there. Because of the city’s special nature as a Shia holy city, the provincial council ruled unanimously that “drinking, selling or transporting alcohol of any kind in whatever quantity” was inappropriate since such activities are incompatible with Islam. Violators, even if they belong to another religion, face the possibility of being sued before a court. The ruling applies to the city of Najaf and its province and includes a ban on advertising.
It is a decision “against democracy, civil liberties and human rights,” said Mgr Louis Sako, Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk. “It will just encourage trade in bootleg alcohol because people will continue to drink, but in secret.”
More importantly, the new rule is a sign that Islamic law is creeping into some Iraqi cities, Mgr Sako warns.
Last August for example, the Basra Provincial Council, which rules over Iraq’s second largest city, banned the sale of alcoholic beverages following a request by Shia parties, which dominate this southern region.
Ahmad al Sulaiti, deputy governor of the province and a religious leader elected with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (previously known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq or SCIRI), motivated the ban on alcoholic beverages on the ground that Iraq’s constitution “bans everything that violates the principles of Islam.”
The problem lies with constitution itself. When the new charter was adopted, religious minorities, especially Christians, had pointed out its ambiguities.
“It guarantees respect for religious freedoms, but at the same time in Article 6 establishes that no law can be adopted that is contrary to the Muslim religion,” Mgr Sako said. “It was clear from the start that this would create serious problems for minorities.”
For historical reasons, the sale of alcoholic beverages is in the hands of the Christian community and represents an important source of income for Christians. However, terrorism and attacks by Muslim fundamentalists against stores selling alcoholic products have forced many businesses to close. Now, many of those who still sell such products expect the new bylaw to hit their already half-empty pockets even harder.
According to Mgr Sako, Iraq needs leaders who are “more realistic, open and truly willing to help people mature.” The constitution, for example, “does not envisage in any concrete way how to guarantee equality between men and women, regulate polygamy or the right to convert, something which is banned by Islam but which pertains to the realm of freedom of conscience.”
For the prelate, there is a risk that “Iraq will fall back a few centuries, when Sharia was imposed on the entire population.”