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holidays in iraq
too many national vacations dangerous, bad for business

Nagih al-Obaidi
Iraqis get around 100 public holidays a year. An Iraqi economist in Berlin talks about the financial damage this causes. But Iraqi religious holidays, with their political repercussions, also cause far worse problems.
22.12.2011  |  Berlin

During the Muslim religious festival of Eid al-Adha in November this year, the country shut down for nine days. The holiday, during which charity and close family relations are emphasised and presents are distributed, is supposedly only three days long but to avoid any conflict, the public holiday was extended to five days for everyone. And by everyone, that means both of the two major Islamic sects, Sunni and Shiite, in Iraq - sometimes they may celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday on different dates. Add the weekends on either side to this and Iraq was on holiday for nine days.

A long stoppage like this in the industrial world would send companies bankrupt and cause major economic disruption, including unemployment for thousands. And according to a new draft law on holidays in Iraq, there are not supposed to be more than 17 days of official public holidays a year.

However if one takes into account all the different types of holidays that Iraq does have – including religious and unofficial ones – some estimate the number of holidays Iraqis enjoy may be add up to more like 100 days. Yet somehow this number doesn’t seem to bother any public officials in Iraq.

In the developed world, the amount of annual leave to which workers are entitled is seen as something of a measure of social welfare. And this idea didn’t come from out of nowhere: it came about after a long struggle by the labour movement that sought to allow employees time for rest and recuperation, for their physical and mental well being.

One can compare the number of public holidays in the industrialized world: for instance, in Europe most nations have between 9 and 15 official public holidays. So it seems that again, Iraq is doing the opposite of the rest of the world.

The cradle of civilization and the home of human innovation has become the land of the “Tanabilat al-Sultan”, a term given to the people in an old Arab folk tale who preferred to live lazily off the Sultan’s welfare. In the story it was discovered that the lazy people had pretended to be crippled in order to receive the Sultan’s charity. They were discovered and to be punished by death, drowning in the river. On the way to the river, another rich man offered them employment on his farm in order to help them avoid punishment. But, as the story goes, the lazy people refused his offer, saying they preferred drowning to labour.

Of course, this description doesn’t apply to Iraq’s many craftspeople, it’s self employed, its young entrepreneurs or the peasants who live under trying conditions already. But it does apply to the new ruling elite.

And this situation was only exacerbated after the fall of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003. In his memoirs of the time he spent heading the US’ reconstruction effort in Iraq – 2006’s My Year in Iraq - American diplomat Paul Bremer described what he saw as the “laziness” of Cabinet politicians, who made a habit of napping after their hearty lunches while his own aides worked day and night.

Since the end of the Saddam Hussein era, it has become usual for MPs to stop holding parliamentary sessions during the Hajj season, during which Muslims go on pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which happens shortly before Eid al-Adha holiday. After their return from the Holy Land, the politicians allocate several days to receive well-wishers who come to congratulate them on their successful pilgrimage. The politicians may also enjoy an extended holiday outside of Iraq after their pilgrimage in Jordan, Syria or Iran for example. And during that time the Iraqi parliament has often been unable to achieve quorum – the minimum number of MPs present so official business can be conducted.

It seems that for these parliamentarians, voters’ interests are far less important than an occasion to seek mercy for their own sins – something most Iraqi MPs jump at the opportunity to do. And all the while they continue to receive salaries, bonuses and social benefits.

The Iraqi government has also become accustomed to adding extra days to existing holidays like Eid al-Adha and the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan – even though both of these holidays are already fairly long when compared to other religious holidays.

One of the major reasons for this is a distinctly Iraqi one: the religious holidays give the different political parties with a religious basis an opportunity to show off their power, as they mobilize their supporters at events around these holidays.

This practice – of demonstrating the strength of one’s following – began directly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime. Hussein, who was a Sunni Muslim, prevented Shiite Muslims from performing religious rituals peculiar to their sect, such as the Ashura ritual. The Ashura is considered by Shiite Muslims to be a day of mourning and remembrance for Hussein ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

After Hussein’s regime was ended by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, millions of people took part in the Ashura ritual – it was a way of expressing their happiness at the end of the former Iraqi leader’s sectarian-based oppression.

One might have thought that over time, things would get back to normal and religious events might lose the heavy political significance they had under Saddam Hussein and shortly afterwards. But in fact, this hasn’t happened.

Religious events like Ashura, which actually is only one day, are being extended and commemorated over a number of days. More and more religious holidays are being created and state authorities around Iraq, in the various provinces, seem to be competing to come up with new holidays.

The negative economic impact of all these holidays is not limited to direct costs and losses that result from the disruption of business and government. There is also a huge burden, borne by state authorities, of organizing events around the holidays as well as the security that’s necessary to hold them.

So many holidays also pose a challenge to foreign investors and they cast a dark shadow over Iraq’s education sector too.

One might well argue that there are costs and benefits to any holiday. After all, in Christian countries, businesses – especially retail businesses – wait impatiently for December to start. At Christmas people spend billions on gifts and special foods and drinks. And this does happen to a certain extent at Ramadan in Muslim countries when spending spikes as shoppers make purchases they require before a month of fasting.

However the way that the many holidays are celebrated in Iraq does not bring the local market much of an economic bonus. Reduced working hours and the significant decline in economic activity means the country is losing what must amount to a few percentage points off the gross domestic product.

There is no doubt that holidays are important – spiritually, culturally and politically; they’re part of our traditions and they’re essential for workers to renew their energies. Some sectors, such as tourism, rely almost exclusively on holidays. And nobody is saying that holidays in Iraq should be cancelled altogether.

But neither should holidays – their date, their length, their reason – be decided upon arbitrarily. A new national law is needed that rationalizes the number of holidays in Iraq and that puts an end to the prevailing vacation chaos. Certainly one imagines it might be possible to reduce the number of days allocated to the Ramadan and Eid al-Adha holidays without doing harm to the spiritual value of these occasions.

It is true that the whole subject of religious holidays is a sensitive one. But it is still worth debating openly and honestly. Yes, the economic aspect of this large number of public holidays needs to be considered. But there are also other things that should be discussed. Commemorating some occasions – especially those that relate to sad history or events – should focus on promoting tolerance and on learning from past experience, rather than stirring up hatred and division.