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café clashes
baghdad conservatives try to close \'immoral\' coffee shops

Haider Najm
Recently conservatives in Baghdad closed several cafes by force, claiming they were fronts for immoral behaviour, prostitution and drugs. Liberals say it’s not so – and that this is just the latest…
25.07.2013  |  Baghdad
One of the signs posted by cafes in Karada, Baghdad.
One of the signs posted by cafes in Karada, Baghdad.

Recent raids on, and closures of, some of Baghdad’s more modern, youth-oriented coffee shops are a “sign of Iraq’s future,” writes Mushriq Abbas, a Baghdad journalist. “They show the country at a cross roads, looking down one road or another. The question of whether Iraq will become a carbon copy of Iran or Afghanistan, or whether it will be a modern civil state, remains.”

Abbas is just one of many locals angered by the apparently unofficial closure of a number of coffee shops in Baghdad\'s central Karrada neighbourhood. Among the reasons given for the closures were arguments that the coffee shops were employing under-age females, that they were fronts for brothels, that there was immoral contact between the sexes going on there as well as drug dealing and that the cafes were open at illegal hours.

In his recently published article, Abbas call the closures “religious raids on the personal freedoms of the Iraqi people” and criticises local security forces, who did nothing to prevent the closures which Abbas feels violate the Iraqi Constitution. Some of the cafes appear to have been forcibly shut down by local religious and tribal groups.

In fact, various reports indicate that the coffee shops were not actually closed because of any official violations or because they were contravening rules on when food can be served during the month-long Muslim festival of Ramadan. During Ramadan, when most practising Muslims fast during the day, only a handful of restaurants are usually given special permission to open. But this was not the case with these modern, some would call them “trendy”, cafes.

Apparently the real reason for the raids was because of a campaign by conservative local community leaders living in Karada, one of Baghdad’s most populous and thriving commercial areas. In their official complaints, submitted to the Masbah police station in Karada, the offended locals said that there was “drug trafficking in the cafes as well as illicit relationships of a sexual nature being conducted between males and females inside them”. Those complaining believe that any activities like this are a violation of religious teachings as well as generally accepted social norms.

Other complaints say the cafes were fronts for a brothel – a police source inside the station said that the complainants thought that although the young women working here appeared to be waitresses, they were in fact prostitutes. In Iraq, women who appear on stage, act and sing, or do other public work unacceptable to the religious, are often described as prostitutes so it’s hard to say if this was actually the case.

Those filing the complaints also said this, and other things happening in the cafes, tarnish the reputation of the families of high ranking government officials who live in this area.

Before the campaign to close the cafes down began, the locals involved hung signs up around the neighbourhood. The notices said things like: “having females working in these cafes is an infringement on public morality” and “this cafe is against religious teachings”. The notices were signed “the Karada Clan” and they said the cafes were being closed by popular demand.

There is also apparently a petition going around, allegedly signed by about 1,500 people from Karada, in which they call for an end to corrupt and immoral cafes in their neighbourhood. The language is very similar to that used in the posted notices.

In a story Middle Eastern news aggregator, Al Monitor, reports that the conservative groups involved with the cafe closures may also have links to The League of the Righteous, or Asaib Ahl al-Haqin Arabic, a violent, conservative religious militia that consists mainly of Shiite Muslim members and has links to Iran.

“The movement [continued to] target those groups they considered to be in violation of Islamic law,” Al-Monitor wrote. “Muhannad al-Gazi, an Iraqi social activist, told Al-Monitor on July 16 in Baghdad that groups affiliated with Asaib Ahl al-Haq have targeted cafes in the Karada district of Baghdad since the start of Ramadan this year. According to Gazi, one of the attackers was killed during clashes with cafe owners. Gazi said that when one of the group\'s members dies, they typically put up posters announcing the fighter was ‘martyred while carrying out his sacred duty’.”

This is just the latest in what appears to be a campaign by religious conservatives against what some might describe as modern entertainment. In May ten women and seven men were killed by unknown assailants in a house in Baghdad that preliminary police investigations suggest was a brothel that the attackers came to because prostitution is in violation of their Islamic principles. Previously there were also a number of attacks on stores selling alcohol, that saw the proprietors murdered. Many believe there’s a connection between incidents like that and these kinds of cafe closures.

In the Karada incidents eye witnesses say a large group tried to close the cafes themselves. They say it looked like the group was supported by local police; apparently the group has the backing of certain influential, local politicians. The group said the cafes had to be closed for the sake of the sanctity of Ramadan.

During the forced closures of the cafes, things became violent, guns were fired and one youth was killed and several others injured. Some reports say the youth was an innocent passer-by, others suggest he was part of the protest group.

Baghdadis are upset and alarmed by these kinds of incidents and many of the clashes and closures are being blamed on Baghdad’s brand new governor, Ali al-Tamimi, who is a member of the mainly Shiite Muslim, and generally conservative, Sadrist movement. This movement is led by the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. However al-Tamimi, whose bloc has said it will defend civil society and the rule of law despite its own religious nature, denied having anything to do with the cafe closures. In fact, local authorities then said that the closures of the cafes were illegal.

Al-Tamimi, who’s only been in the job for a month, also announced the creation of an advisory board for urban and cultural development and stressed that he wants to put an end to sectarian conflict as well as militias in the city. Reports from local authorities seem to back him up on that: even though critics said they were complicit, local security forces say they had nothing to do with the closures and that it was all down to the “clans” in Karada.

Meanwhile others say the incident could actually be a result of the growing rivalry between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and al-Sadr, who is a strong rival for the affections of Shiite Muslim voters in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. Al-Maliki’s party was not particularly successful in Baghdad in recent provincial elections and has lost key positions in the local government to rivals like the Sadrists. Perhaps unsurprisingly al-Maliki has already made disparaging comments about Baghdad’s new governor’s ability to control the city.

Meanwhile elsewhere in Baghdad there still seem to be plenty of similar coffee shops doing business as usual; customers are still patronising these venues and nobody seems particularly worried. That may well be because conservative factions such as the “Karada clan” have far less influence in these areas. Whether that will change in the future, is the factor that continues to worries those who oppose Baghdad’s religious conservatives.