Iraq’s Shia militias borrow a page from radical Salafists
BAGHDAD - Street posters assert that the Islamic headscarf, known as hijab, is a must for all women — including Christians — in Iraq. Some clergy warn men against shaking hands with a woman, saying it brings God’s wrath. Others caution against singing, calling it a sin.
Such demands are not only made in areas controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS), but also in districts of Baghdad run by the pro-Iranian Shia militias. Residents said they worry Shia religious groups are adopting hard-line policies and could impose an uncompromising interpretation of the Quran and sharia law.
Some posters address Christian women outright, urging them to wear the hijab, following the footsteps of the Virgin Mary, whom tradition has it wore a head cover.
“The hijab is ordered by God, so you should obey Him,” read a placard on a wall of a Baghdad church.
Fatin Yalda, a Christian Iraqi housewife in Baghdad, said the “message of the radical Shia groups to religious minorities and secular people is either you follow our rules or there is no place for you with us here”.
Iraqis said the poster campaign was organised by religious or armed groups that want to impose an Iran-like theocratic state, ruled by clergy claiming divine right.
Iraq’s long-sidelined and ostracised Shias assumed power after the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Shia religious parties and groups have since dominated political life in the country.
However, their politicians opted largely for moderate policies, hesitating to impose strict sharia law and shying away from radical religious interpretations if only to appeal to a population long exposed to Sunni rule.
The turning point came after the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to ISIS in June 2014 when the Shia-dominated Iraqi Army units capitulated when the jihadists attacked.
At the time, an anxious Shia government and population saw the only hope left to confront the growing threat of Sunni militants was the well-organised Shia militias and their allies among heavily armed Shia groups that had informally assisted the feeble Iraqi security system since its inception in 2004.
Days after Mosul fell, top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa declaring the fight against ISIS was part of jihad, fulfilling one of Islam’s sacred duties in war. He instructed Shia volunteers to support domestic security forces and to be loyal to the Iraqi government.
The fatwa led to the emergence of a Shia force with strong alliance to Iran, Iraq’s arch foe under Saddam, which worked its way to control Iraq’s Interior Ministry, including the police, and other vital security offices.
Iraqi lawmaker Raad al-Dahlaki said the emergence of stricter Shia groups violates the Iraqi constitution, which safeguards personal and religious liberties. He urged the Iraqi government to stop all those trying to impose doctrines alien to Iraq’s largely secular society.
“Nobody can impose the Iranian style of Wilayat al-Faqih (rule of jurist) on Iraq’s secular and diverse society. We refuse the guardianship of clerics,” Dahlaki said.
A poster in Baghdad read: “Allah’s wrath will befall upon any man who shakes hands with a strange woman.”
Another banner quotes a revered late Shia imam as saying: “Singing is hypocrisy and it will lead only to poverty.” Such ideas are almost identical to the interpretations of Islam held by ISIS, which controls large sections of land in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS recently repeated its call for banning alcohol, saying it would punish traders and consumers who are found with liquor in their possession. Local governments in many Shia provinces have also made trade and consumption of liquor a crime.
Shia gunmen frequently attack liquor stores in Baghdad, sometimes near checkpoints manned by police, who in turn ignore the attacks.
Baghdad-based human rights activist Ziyad al-Ajeely said the posters promoting strict interpretations of Islam were a sign of the weakness of the state and pointed to Shia Muslims being radicalised, just as Sunnis were.
“These posters send a frightening message to minorities and average people that the state is helpless in the face of the extremists,” said Ajeely, who also heads the Baghdad-based Journalism Freedom Observatory. “These banners are no different from some raised in ISIS-held territories,” he said, explaining that proved the “foes have similar mentalities”.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Saad Maan said an investigation showed that the posters were the outcome of “individual acts”, vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Human rights activist Kamil Amin said the people behind the posters belonged to religious groups and parties that are part of the government. “Part of the government is violating the constitution that safeguards personal freedom and the rights of the minorities,” he said.