The first known brewers in the Middle East were Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians who lived in Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq. According to most historical accounts, the discovery of beer happened by accident, after liquid emerged from the fermentation process of making bread. It quickly became a sought-after drink among neighboring Egyptians as well, especially for special occasions, and was used as a symbol of social power.
The late secularist Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein took the ancient tradition of drinking alcohol to a higher level and became known as a whisky connoisseur. He served Johnnie Walker Black Label, which he called the country’s national drink, from his personal stash to people he wanted to impress. Once, when I traveled to Iraq when Hussein was in power, I met a few Iraqis who were close to him one evening at a Baghdad social club, where weddings and parties were held for the well-connected, and they offered me a drink. Saddam eventually banned alcohol in public places during the 1990s, but Iraqis still drank privately in their homes and other places.
Despite this history, the land that likely first discovered alcohol in the Middle East has banned it. As of March, when notification of a new law passed by Parliament was published in Iraq’s official gazette, anyone in possession of alcohol could be fined a sum of between 10 million and 25 million dinars (about $8,000 to $19,000). The level of the fines was clearly set to send a strong message; it is totally disproportionate to what any Iraqi — or many people anywhere — could possibly pay. The average monthly income for Iraqis ranges from $150 to $400, according to several agencies that track wages around the world. The blanket ban and hefty fines apply not only to the majority Shiite and Sunni Muslim population but to non-Muslims, including Christians and Yazidis, who up until now have owned most of the liquor stores and rely on the income to feed their families. For years, these shopkeepers have suffered from persistent violence to their properties and threats to themselves and their families from those opposed to alcohol. Fanning the flames, a senior official from Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite militia backed by Iran, condoned the attacks on social media in 2020.
Many Iraqis have expressed opposition to the new law. More than 1,000 prominent researchers, academics and journalists drafted an open letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations objecting to the ban, which is not entirely new. The Iraqi Parliament passed a measure in 2016 banning the manufacture of alcoholic beverages, but there was so much public outrage the government never signed it into law. Media accounts at the time said the bill was originally proposed by Mahmoud al-Hassan, then a judge and lawmaker from Iraq’s State of Law Coalition. He reportedly said the new law would be in keeping with Article 2 of Iraq’s 2005 constitution, which prohibits any practice that contradicts Islamic law.
Now, academics and political analysts say the law is unconstitutional because it violates Iraqis’ personal and religious freedoms. Why should non-Muslims be banned from drinking alcohol, they ask. The former head of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, Ali al-Bayati, declared the law unconstitutional. He fled the country last year because of his controversial opinions on a number of issues. The Kurds in the independent region in northern Iraq have declared that they will not follow the law. A group of Christians has filed a lawsuit. And some Muslims argue that Islam does not forbid the consumption of alcohol, despite modern interpretations of the doctrine. The battle over Iraqi prohibition raises an obvious and important question: Is Iraq becoming an Islamic state, something akin to neighboring Iran?
This complicated question has been hanging over Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which brought Shiite Islamist parties to power and has taken many twists and turns ever since. The alcohol ban is yet another development reminding Iraqis of religious influence creeping into politics and private life — one reason for the outrage. And why, they ask, is Parliament behaving like the morality police in Iran, when even the clerics in Najaf, including the esteemed Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have made clear that such laws are obstacles to Iraq remaining an officially secular state? Since the law was enacted, Sistani’s representatives have reiterated the ayatollah’s opposition to such laws, which blur the line between religion and the state.
There is no centralized authority in Iraq policing the religious message. In fact, the religious message, broadly speaking, is being contested among Shiite Islamist parties and their militias, Sunni political parties, religious minorities and a host of civil society actors. Unlike many countries in the Middle East, where religious practice and interpretation since the Arab uprisings have been taken hostage by the state, this is not the case in Iraq.
In Egypt, for example, the dictatorship of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has little tolerance for the freelancing of Islamic practice. His control over practice and interpretation far exceeds that of former President Hosni Mubarak, who successfully performed a balancing act between what he perceived as the requirements of a secular state and the religious commitments of society. Under Sisi, even Al-Azhar, the millennium-old mosque and university complex that has been the principal seat of religious learning for much of the region, has been sidelined and, as a result, struggles with Sisi’s government to maintain a modicum of religious independence in order to exercise its authority. For example, while some religious scholars at Al-Azhar believe alcohol is forbidden in Islam, Egyptians and foreigners have access to ample supplies, particularly in Cairo, where a chain of stores called “Drinkies” hangs large neon signs outside its shops in Zamalek, an area home to well-off Egyptians and expatriates, as well as in neighborhoods near the airport and throughout the capital. Drinkies is open until 2 a.m. and, if you cannot make it to the shop, they deliver.
Arab states’ goal of taking over the religious sphere — for decades aspirational — became easier to formalize after the military coup in 2013 that ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood from government and brought Sisi to power in Egypt, long a regional bellwether for social, political and religious trends. This landmark event accelerated a trajectory of secularization in the Middle East, allowing state power to triumph over Islamic scholars and clerics. Before this time, each state had its own balancing act with Islamists and clerics, which allowed them to occupy public space as quasi-legal actors. The new rationale — or, more accurately, propaganda — is that allowing such actors independence could pave the way for another religious movement to take over the state, as was the case with the Brotherhood. Never mind that the Brotherhood, now declared a terrorist organization by many Middle Eastern governments, came to power in the first democratic election in the history of the Egyptian republic. Now, Islamists in most Middle Eastern countries have been either imprisoned, murdered or silenced.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared in 2017 that “moderate Islam” was effectively the state religion. No definition was given as to the meaning of the term, which many Muslims despise because it implies that there is another kind of Islam — that is, an inherently violent strand. Pragmatism (i.e., money) is being given priority over religious considerations in the kingdom. “MBS,” as the crown prince is widely known, silenced clerics who would likely protest such moves as legalizing alcohol, which was banned for decades. Unlike in some Arab countries, many Saudis generally welcomed the crown prince’s takeover of the religious sphere. It came at a time of strong anti-Islamist sentiment in the region, particularly among the younger generations. Soon, alcohol will be publicly available in certain regions of the kingdom, home of the two holiest mosques in Islam, to encourage tourism and please the foreign investors who visit with increasing frequency.
In the United Arab Emirates, laws lifting restrictions on alcohol went into effect in 2020. Although liquor and beer were already widely available in bars and clubs in ostentatious cities like Dubai, individuals used to need a government-issued license to buy alcohol or keep it in their homes. The new rules in 2020 allowed all individuals, even Muslims, to drink freely.
So, when taking into account the trend in Middle Eastern dictatorships, Iraq appears something of an outlier. That might be good news for religious conservatives, but it comes with a paradox: Iraq hosts the strongest religious institution in the region, in the form of the Shiite “hawza,” the collective term referring to the seminaries and religious institutions under Sistani’s guidance, yet it is not the hawza enforcing the alcohol ban. Exactly who is behind the new measure is a murky question. Many Iraqis believe the Shiite Islamist parties, their militias and their representatives in Parliament advocated for the ban.
While many parliamentarians may have supported the new law for religious reasons, Iraqis widely believe the militias have another motivation. These forces, many of which are backed by Iran, control Iraq’s borders. For years, they have been accused of profiting from smuggling operations between Iraq and Iran, including the transport of drugs and alcohol. Because alcohol in Iraq is now banned — the thinking goes — the militias could step up the drug trade from Iran, offering Iraqis an expensive alternative to alcohol. Something similar has been the case in officially Islamic Iran, where the Islamic Revolutionary Guards profit handsomely from smuggling operations, including alcohol.
No matter the extent of militia involvement, the ban’s bottom line is this: Iraq’s government is imposing a religiously based prohibition on a population that includes non-Muslims as well as secular Muslims who want to be free to drink alcohol — in other words, to practice Islam — as they see fit. The state’s intrusion into the matter is an invasion of Iraqis’ private lives and their interpretation of their faith. Putting aside the fact that the ban is out of step with the direction the Middle East is taking, it also runs against the growing secularization of Iraqi society, particularly among the very large youth population.
This secular sentiment was on full display during the protest movement in 2019-20. This was the greatest challenge since 2003 to the Islamist party system that allows religious-based parties to run for office and the clearest sign to date of a new Iraqi generation’s desire for a secular state, not only in words but in practice. Tens of thousands of young protesters, most of whom were Shiite, took to the streets in Baghdad and cities across the country to demand a new form of government, a functioning economy and basic services. The young Iraqi protesters were not united in their vision or even in a precise description of what such a state would look like, except to say it should be a “civil” state. Nonetheless, one of the protest movement’s primary demands was the separation of religion from the state.
In practical terms, that means Islamist parties — the very ones behind the alcohol ban — should not be allowed to hold seats in Parliament. The youths’ contempt stems from the fact that Islamists have been well represented in Parliament since elections were first held in 2005. In the last national elections in October 2021, Shiite parties won 127 seats of 329, and every prime minister from 2005 to 2018 was affiliated directly or indirectly with the Islamic Dawa Party.
Polling is another indicator of the movement toward secularization. In July 2022, the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center surveyed mostly educated Iraqis under the age of 40. The survey found that 47% of respondents said the system of government should be a secular democracy with a clear separation between religion and the state, while an additional 41% wanted a democratic state where religion is a source of legislation but religious parties are banned from government.
Although demographics appear to be on the side of the secular advocates — 40% of Iraq’s population is under the age of 15, according to the Planning Ministry — the gray areas of this conversation should not be minimized. In a survey of religious Iraqis in Sadr City, an impoverished area of Baghdad, 90% of respondents said they believed the government should enact legislation in accordance with Islamic law. The survey was published by the respected London-based think tank, Chatham House, in June 2022 and surveyed more than 1,000 Iraqis in the district. At the same time, the respondents said they had little faith in the Iraqi government — presumably a reference to the Islamist parties that have dominated for many years.
It appears unlikely the alcohol ban will be rescinded. Although most Iraqis have far more pressing concerns, including unemployment, lack of electricity in record-breaking heat waves, political violence and inadequate health care, the issue is another indication for the secular-minded youth of the difficult path ahead, and a stark reminder that the struggle over the proper role of religion in a modern state is far from resolved.
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