Iraq′s liquor merchants left high and dry | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 24.10.2016
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Middle East

Iraq's liquor merchants left high and dry

In a surprise move, the Iraqi parliament has banned the sale, import and production of alcohol. Secular and Christian Iraqis have criticized the ban, which is stricter than in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iraq's parliament passed a law under cover of darkness that banned all manner of alcoholic beverages in a surprise move that angered many in the country's Christian community who rely on the business.

The bill, passed late Saturday night and attached to a seemingly innocuous municipal law, imposes a fine of up to 25 million Iraqi dinars (more than 19,000 euros or $21,000) for anyone violating the ban.

Mahmoud al-Hassan, a judge and lawmaker from the State of Law coalition, the largest bloc in parliament. He insisted it was in keeping with an article of the constitution, which prohibits any law that violates the core teachings of Islam.

"The constitution preserves democracy and the rights of non-Muslim groups, but these rights must not violate the religion of Islam," he said. "Some of the lawmakers' vote was religiously motivated, but many others voted to avoid anything unconstitutional."

Liquor merchants cry foul as minorities vow court challenge

Yet the law change now leaves thousands of Iraqi Christians who operate the country's liquor stores without a livelihood. "We don't have another job -- our families will lose their income," Maytham, who owns a shop selling all kinds of locally produced and imported beers, wines and spirits in Baghdad's central Karrada district, told the AFP news agency.

Most shops had already been closed due to the Islamic holy month of Muharram. Now it's unclear whether they'll be allowed to reopen or what will become of the stocks locked inside.

"We don't know if they will allow us to open our shops. How will these families live?" he asked, standing next to his small store's sealed metal door. 

Iraqi MP Joseph Slaiwa, a Christian, said the "unjust" ban was slipped into a draft law regulating the income of municipal authorities without most lawmakers being notified. The original article only called for imposing taxes on liquor stores and restaurants serving liquor, he said.

"This ban is unconstitutional, as the constitution acknowledges the rights of non-Muslim minorities and ethnic groups who live alongside Muslims in Iraq," Slaiwa  told The Associated Press. "To those Muslim lawmakers I say: Take care of your religion and leave ours for us, we know how to deal with it."

Critical Iraqis seized on the irony that the alcohol ban comes amidst Baghdad's massive military assault on the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) that occupies the second largest city Mosul. IS brutally enforces a ban on alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs in the territory under its control.

A cartoon circulated online showing men with their backs turned on the IS-occupied city of Mosul, shooting at a liquor bottle:

The autonomous Kurdish region in the north is unlikely to be affected. That region remains mixed between Sunnis, Christians and Yazidi, but the government there has long attempted to straddle a relatively liberal course that allows liquor stores to flourish in main cities.

The executive branch could move to have the law overturned on procedural or other grounds, and an appeal to Iraq's Supreme Court is expected.

Other Muslim-majority countries have laws restricting alcohol, but only a few, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, enforce a complete ban. In neighboring Iran, a nominally Islamic Republic, alcohol production is still allowed among the country's small Christian minority.

jar/kl (AFP, AP)