In what one official described as a “last minute move by conservatives”, the Iraqi parliament voted this week to ban the sale, production, and importation of alcohol in the country, to the shock and dismay of many who did not anticipate the decree.
The move’s backers have argued that the legal availability of alcohol in a Muslim state is at odds with the teachings of Islam and therefore unconstitutional.
The bill was put forward by Mahmoud al-Hassan, a lawmaker and judge from Iraq’s State of Law coalition, the largest political bloc in the Iraqi parliament. He argued that it was coherent with the Iraqi constitution’s second article, which prohibits any legislation that is in defiance of Islamic teachings.
Opponents, however, argue that the ban infringes on the basic liberties of Iraqi citizens, particularly for Iraqi Christians. who rely on alcohol for their businesses. Detractors have said they will appeal the decision in Iraq’s courts.
The law, passed Saturday night, created a fine of up to 25m Iraqi dinars (roughly $ 20,700 USD) for violators of the ban, although it is unclear how strictly the law will be unforced. It also has not yet passed the country’s supreme court, who could overturn it.
Alcohol has always been available to urban residents of Iraqi cities who can easily buy it in small shops and bars, if not in more upscale locations. Most of these shops are run by Christians whose faith does not forbid them from selling alcohol. They all close during the Shia holy month of Muharram, however, which is currently underway. Alcohol shops in Baghdad and elsewhere have been targeted by Muslims who believe they threaten the traditional code of Islam.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a new wave of religious conservatism has taken hold in the country.
The ban highlights the inherent tensions within Iraq’s constitution, which is based on the principle of Islamic democracy. It at once upholds the rights of individuals while maintaining a distinctly Muslim character. According to one MP who supported the ban, the Iraqi constitution states that “no law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established.”
Some have called foul on the move’s constitutionality, however, with Christian lawmaker Joseph Slaiwa saying that the ban was quietly slipped into a bill intended to regulate the income of municipal authorities. He says lawmakers were not notified of the ban’s inclusion in the draft law; they were only informed that it would impose a tax on liquor stores and liquor-serving restaurants.
“This ban is unconstitutional, as the constitution acknowledges the rights of non-Muslim minorities and ethnic groups who live alongside Muslims in Iraq,” Slaiwa said.
“To those Muslim lawmakers, I say: ‘Take care of your religion and leave ours for us, we know how to deal with it’.”
The ban is unlikely to be observed in Iraqi Kurdistan, a largely autonomous and Christian-majority region within Iran.