iraq’s ‘authoritarian’ alcohol ban a boost to black market and blow to minorities
Former Iraqi vice president Saddam Hussein regularly provided foreign journalists with glasses filled with Johnny Walker Black Label, which he called his country’s “national drink” in the 1970s.
A number of pictures of Saddam enjoying a glass of whisky, often with a rifle in his other hand, show him enjoying the beverage.
At the end of his rule, he is alleged to have imported thousands of bottles of whisky a week for himself and his inner circle using international aid programs.
Nevertheless, times have changed since last month, when the Iraqi government passed legislation banning imports of alcoholic beverages, including Saddam’s beloved Johnny Walker Black Label. The General Customs Authority in a statement said it had “given orders to all customs centers to ban the entry of all types of alcoholic beverages”. According to the new legislation, it is now illegal to sell or manufacture alcohol in Iraq.
It is unlikely to affect the autonomous Kurdistan region, which controls its own border crossings, since the legislation was originally passed in 2016 but became law after it was published in the official gazette on 20 February.
The move is a blow to those who enjoy drinking alcohol, use it in religious ceremonies, or produce and sell it.
Non-drinking Iraqis have called the restriction a violation of civil liberties and a distraction from the government’s failures.
Additionally, it comes on the heels of another new law that criminalizes the publication of material that “violates public integrity or decency,” which is being used to crack down on social media influencers, comedians, and musicians.
The former head of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR), Ali al-Bayati, agreed that the legislation was unconstitutional.
As a result of comments he made on a television channel about the torture of detainees by an anti-corruption body, Bayati himself fled the country last year.
The black market and smuggling
According to regularly released assessments, Iraq is one of the world’s most corrupt countries.
In the wake of Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, the ascendant political parties and their allied militias control large swathes of the economy, including the grey and black markets.
The control of trade routes and border crossings is a source of income for many of these groups, and the prohibition of legitimate alcohol imports means more opportunities for organised crime.
Moreover, he noted that the alcohol ban was implemented shortly after a law was passed raising taxes on imported alcohol by 200 percent.
This creates a larger tax pile up for grabs, and the existence of an idle law that bans alcohol on the books created an opportunity for malign actors that have much de-facto control over official ports of entry and smuggling routes alike to displace the government and present traders with an option: pay us the equivalent of the tax, which the government has made hefty, or you will be out of business,” he said.
Most of Iraq’s bars, clubs, and liquor stores are located in cosmopolitan Baghdad, outside of Kurdistan.
Many of the establishments in the city that sell alcohol, especially around Abu Nuwwas Street and Bataween, are either owned by or pay protection money to militias that publically adhere to pious and sober Shia Islamist principles. This is an open secret for many years.
In his view, historic prohibition demonstrated that acquiring and drinking alcohol would become more dangerous but not necessarily less widespread – and it was often accompanied by an increase in deaths from homemade alcohol, whether in the US or in other Muslim-majority countries.
Drug smuggling is another area that could benefit.
Many Iraq is have turned to narcotics to cope with the instability and lack of prospects they have faced in recent years.
Crystal meth and other unregulated drugs fill the gap left by alcohol in much of southern Iraq.
Nadawi argued that banning alcohol would make it even more expensive, thereby increasing the attraction of relatively cheap drugs smuggled by the same militias from Iran or Syria.
Minorities lose out on religious freedom
Religious minorities are likely to suffer the most from the new legislation.
Since non-Muslims have been granted licenses to sell alcohol in Iraq for many years, Christians and Yazidis have effectively cornered the market.
Thus, the alcohol ban is likely to be a further blow to two groups whose numbers have dwindled in Iraq since the 2003 invasion due to sectarian violence.
The new law “contradicts the foundations of the Iraqi Constitution,” according to Farrouk Hanna Ato, an independent Christian MP who brought the lawsuit against it to the federal courts. He said last week in a statement that the Iraqi Constitution emphasizes individual freedoms.
Despite the new law, anecdotal evidence suggests that Baghdad’s liquor stores have not shut down yet.
But even if they survive, Haddad said, it won’t make their lives any easier.
“They’ll find a way around it, but as I said, this cannot be good for business overall, which is why, again, I emphasize that socially conservative measures have authoritarian overtones and negative outcomes,” he said.
History is complicated
Since Iraq is widely believed to have invented beer, its relationship with alcohol has been long and complicated.
In the country’s history, restrictions have been introduced and relaxed at various times, usually during periods of political turmoil.
Iraq’s political establishment was overthrown in a protest movement that began in 2019.
Despite the suppression of that movement, anger over corruption, foreign influence, and lack of opportunity persists.
Iranian influence has been a major source of contention for many Iraqis, who claim that their eastern neighbor exerts disproportionate influence over them through energy and trade deals, as well as funding ideologically aligned political parties and militias.
In Iraq, efforts to shut down alcohol sales are seen as modeled after Iran’s own strict alcohol ban, and many fear further emulation.
In the end, Bayati said the legislation was intended to distract the public from the real issues facing the country.
“The priority for the parliament, for the government, for all the state institutions should be focusing on the priorities of Iraqis, such as combating poverty, combating corruption, eliminating non-state weapons and arms in the country, and many other priorities,” he added.
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