On June 15, at midday, Wasit local, Ali Naji was having a bad day. On that day he had to hand over IQD10 million (around US$8,400) as part of a settlement in a case of tribal justice. However this was not your average case of tribal justice – say, where a fight results in injury and the member of one tribe pays another a penalty. Naji had to pay the money because his teenaged son had written a comment on Facebook, one that was deemed “socially unacceptable” and which harmed the reputation of one of the families in his neighbourhood.
“May God bless our college days and the stories from the good old days,” Naji’s son, Sajid, had written on one of his Facebook friend’s post. The other young man had stated his intention to get engaged to a girl in the neighbourhood where the two boys used to live. The statement was passed on to the girl’s parents who felt it was maligning their daughter’s reputation, the implication being that during those “good old days” the girl had had many lovers.
Yasser clicked on the Like button underneath the post about corruption. A day later he got a knock at his door.
Naji, a civil servant, agreed that the statement was inappropriate and he was forced to sell his car to pay the fine agreed upon by the two families’ tribal leaders, in order to settle the defamation case.
The monetary settlement was so high because of a previous agreement that various tribes in southern Iraq have come to, with regard to so-called “socially unacceptable” activities on Facebook. The agreement also says that if a Facebook user clicks on the Like symbol for any post that is socially unacceptable, they can also be fined. The agreement covers all sorts of things in the more conservative areas, including online harassment, identity theft, breaching individuals’ privacy and making unjust accusations.
For example, in the province of Basra recently, a young man was fined IQD20 million because he was harassing a local woman online, on Facebook.
The agreement was drafted because in the recent past, inappropriate posts have led to conflicts in real life, some of which have spiralled out of control and caused injuries and even deaths.
Another Wasit local, Ali Yasser, tells the story of how he was caught out by the tribal agreement. One of his Facebook friends, a well-known Iraqi blogger, made a comment about a local government official who he accused of corruption. Yasser clicked on the Like button underneath the post.
“Just a day later I got a knock at my door,” the 45-year-old told NIQASH. “A number of people were there and I did not know any of them. But they told me that I was wanted by the tribe of the government official, who had been accused of financial corruption. They told me I was invited to a meeting where there would be a discussion and a settlement would be arranged.”
Together with members of his own family and senior members of his tribe, Yasser went to the meeting at the home of one of the government official’s tribe’s members.
“After the issue was discussed, they found me guilty and I was asked to pay them IQD5 million [around US$4,200],” Yasser complains. “Just because I clicked the Like button when the topic of corruption was being discussed.”
Yasser likens the punishment to a form of blackmail, saying that the various tribal leaders are extorting money under the guise of making peace between locals holding opposing points of view.
In general, opinions appear to be divided about the new tribal tactics regarding Facebook posts. On the one hand, it seems intervention by tribal leaders and the threat of a large fine stops the online arguments in their tracks. In turn that prevents the fight from moving into real life. On the other hand, the same arguments that are always made about tribal law in Iraq also arise.
“The fact that this is happening just shows the absence of a state of law,” says Hasnain Sadoum, a local civil society activist. If people thought they could get justice going through the official court system then the tribes wouldn’t have to be involved, Sadoum argues.