“What do they want from us? We closed our shop in Ashoura (a holy day for Shiites) for the sanctity of the occasion. Where is the government and why aren’t we protected?” asked the store owner, a Christian who has a generally excellent relationship with his Shia neighbours.
“The government does nothing to compensate us for the losses we have suffered,” he continued. “Instead, when the shop license expired and the province’s council refused to renew it.”
In August last year, the Basra provincial council, dominated by the Islamic Dawa Party, decided to impose a fine of 5 million dinars (US$4,700) on anyone manufacturing, selling or drinking alcohol in public or importing alcohol to the province.
The ban was not strictly enforced on Christian vendors but when it came to renewing their licences, the council refused. Alcohol bans were also brought in in Najaf, Wasit and Baghdad and there they were enforced far more strictly there. Hotel and restaurant owners that flouted the rules were fined and punished with closure for disobedience. Liquor stores were also closed down.
Basra, compared to the rest of Iraq, has enjoyed greater social openness in recent years. Al-Watani Street was famous for its liquor stores, bars and clubs until the early 90s, when Saddam Hussein closed everything except liquor stores.
With the fall of Saddam, selling alcohol became even more difficult for the al-Takleef Christian community in Basra, as Islamic militias shut entertainment shops.
“After 2003, we were selling liquor in secret and only to trusted people because many of the liquor sellers were assassinated,” remembers one shop-owner from al-Watani street who prefered to remain nameless. “Liquor was filled in dark plastic boxes and was delivered to customers with lots of secrecy and caution.”
After the “Knights Assault” against Shia militias in the South in 2008, some liquor stores were able to re-open their doors to customers. In August last year, however, the brief return of alcohol ended. Shop doors hung signs hung signs reading “selling of liquor is banned by law,” in order to put an end to rumors that the council issued licenses for clubs and liquor stores.
“Trading in liquor was a profession associated with Christians before and after the fall of the former regime,” said Dr. Saad Butros, the representative of minorities on Basra Province Council. “It is well known that those who sell and buy liquors are Christians and I have met some of them and listened to what they want to say about the problems they suffer. The final decision lies with the tourism authority in Baghdad, not so much the Basra Provincial Council.The best solution is for the tourism authority to renew the licences and enable these people to continue their trade without being attacked.
“Having said that, liquor vendors should find means to protect themselves, even when they do obtain licences, otherwise they should find other trades.”
Liquor vendors hold little hope however. Those that spoke to Niqash believe the tourism authority is unable to make its own decisions, with hardliners dominating its ranks.
“We have had licenses since 2002. We’re expected only to renew these but instead we are threatened and our shops are attached and destroyed by grenades and bombs,” said one anonymous vendor.
Christians have gained little tangible support from politicians that represent the liberal and secular parties.
“It is not a popular issue. It does not affect a large segment but it is also very sensitive issue because it touches on people’s convictions and traditions,” said a member of the Communist party committee in Basra. “A big part of the problem lies in the absence of a clear law that guarantees the rights of all.” “In every province there is a special law regarding this issue, and I think that even if a central law is in place to guarantee the rights of liquor vendors to sell liquor, dominating religious political parties will find ways not to allow the law to be implemented.”
Despite this pessimism, many in the city believe rumours that oil and foreign investment due to arrive in the town will force liberalisation. Radical religious groups, however, have worked hard to quosh these rumours.
“Most of the former province council members visited the Emirates and tasted the flavor of this openness,” says Salem al-Khuzai, an investor. “Why don’t they just repeat the experience here in Basra? It would save money on trips away.
“If local governments took the necessary steps to attract loveal and international capital to Basra, this in itself would diminish the influence of fundamentalist movements.”
Sami Tuman, who represents the Human Rights Organisation in Basra said that it is not currently the right time to discuss these issues. Discussion should instead be introduced gradually in a way that prevents any harm coming to society.
“The issue of freedoms does not rely on security conditions but rather on the political and social environment,” he said. “Despite improved security conditions, human rights and personal freedoms in Basra are the biggest challenge to address.”
Although the Iraqi constitution guarantees personal freedoms, the local government did not see the alcohol ban as unconstitutional because the constitution also states that Islam is the official state religion and should be the main source for legislation.
Observers believe that the issue of liquor shops, licenses and clubs has been used for political reasons by the different religious parties, especially the Islamic Dawa party and the Supreme Islamic Council. In the run-up to the recent elections, both parties were looking for votes in the area by claiming great piety and adherence to Islam.