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all quiet in karbala

Abbas Sarhan
20 year-old Maher Abed is annoyed. The Karbala resident can no longer listen to loud music in his car or celebrate occasions in public with singing and dancing, after the law to curb ‘scandalous behaviour’ in the city.
27.07.2010  |  Karbala

Maher tries to respect the law. He keeps the volume down while driving but believes the law violates his personal freedoms.

“It was a surprise to us that such a law was issued by an administrative authority,” he said.

Law 114, issued on 22 June, imposes penalties on those in breach, as well as those watching inappropriate video clips in public and shops displaying women’s lingerie.

Nassif Jassem al-Khatabi, Karbala provincial council's Vice President, does not believe the new law violates people’s personal freedoms.

"People are free to have parties, listen to music and watch any movies they want inside their own homes or in hotels. Shops too can display their products in a respectful way,” he said. “Until recently, things were done improperly and were doing harm to the society's values. The law aims to curb practices which violate the sanctity of Karbala."

Influential clergy men and mosques' preachers warned repeatedly against such ‘violations’ in recent months and years. They blame the government for not putting an end to them and clergy like Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaei believe that the government has a duty to act because such ‘violations’ “contradict the teachings of Islam”.

Karbala is the world’s holiest Shia city. Millions of pilgrims visit the city every year. This makes it generally a very conservative city and many local residents support the clergy in their quest and welcome the new law.

47 year-old Ridha Abdul-Hussein, an employee of a local communication company, thinks loud music, dancing and singing should be kept from Karbala’s public spaces.

"Conservative families in the city are unable to enjoy their time when they visit public places, such as parks. Young people hang around there, watching scandalous video clips of singers. It violates our beliefs and the tradtions of the city. He said.

Ridha can certainly count on support for his stance from the clergy. Ahmad al-Safi, a spokesperson for Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, praised the new law and called upon Karbala people to respect it.

Under the new law, violators can be jailed for up to six months, though they are more likely to receive a fine of 100 Iraqi Dinars.

Lawyer, Ahmad Abdul-Hasan al-Nasrawi, said the fine is ridiculous. Based on a law of 1969, it failes to take into account changes in the value of the Iraqi Dinar. He fears that the actual fine will be left completely to the discretion of judges.

"Before 2003, nobody would ever care what music people listened to in their cars, in hotels or in coffee shops," he said. Many other Karbala residents echoed his views.

Things now have radically changed with the religious authorities becoming dominant. Between 2003-8, citizens were targeted by armed militia groups on the pretext of their listening to music in cars, cafes or shops.

"Nobody ever dared to show any sign of joy during weddings,” said Muhamad Jalal, a retired army office from the city.

“Instead of songs, Mawled ceremonies were held, with only religious songs, even when those getting married were not religious.

“People feared the armed groups because they could enter people’s houses whenever they liked and start firing their guns at the residents, all under the pretext that they could hear sings coming from the house.”

Jalal believes the new law is sure to impact upon personal freedoms and he opposes it.

“No one can predict how the law will be applied and whether the executive authorities will be neutral in enforcing it or not. It’s very possible that the law could create a climate in which certain people are able to act maliciously.”

Ali Kamounah, UNAMI's coordinator in Karbala, expressed fears that the law would be misused and could easily lead to unfair restrictions on people’s freedom.

“Any person should have the right to do what he wants but should also respect the rights and freedoms of others.

"The law enforcement mechanism is still not clear and raises concerns," he said.

Karbala’s local government has spoken to UNAMI and assured them that the law is not designed to limit public freedom. So that’s that then. What were we ever worried about?