Iraq’s parliament has passed a law forbidding the import, production or selling of alcoholic beverages in a surprise move that angered many in the country’s Christian community who rely on the business.
The law, passed late Saturday night, imposes a fine of up to 25 million Iraqi dinars, or $21,000, for anyone violating the ban. But it’s unclear how strictly the law would be enforced, and it could be struck down by the supreme court.
Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol, but it has always been available in Iraq’s larger cities, mainly from shops run by Christians. Those shops are currently closed because of the Shiite holy month of Muharram.
Iraq’s parliament is dominated by Shiite Islamist parties. The assembly announced the ban on its website but did not say how many lawmakers voted for or against it.
Christian lawmaker Joseph Slaiwa said the “unjust” ban was slipped into a draft law regulating the income of municipal authorities without lawmakers being notified. The original article only called for imposing taxes on liquor stores and restaurants serving liquor, he said.
“This ban is unconstitutional, as the constitution acknowledges the rights of non-Muslim minorities and ethnic groups who live alongside Muslims in Iraq,” he said. “To those Muslim lawmakers I say: Take care of your religion and leave ours for us, we know how to deal with it.”
He said some lawmakers will submit an appeal at the High Federal Court.
The bill was proposed by Mahmoud al-Hassan, a judge and lawmaker from the State of Law coalition, the largest bloc in parliament. He insisted it was in keeping with Article 2 in the constitution, which prohibits any legislation that goes against Islam.
“The constitution preserves democracy and the rights of non-Muslim groups, but these rights must not violate the religion of Islam,” he said. “Some of the lawmakers’ vote was religiously-motivated, but many others voted to avoid anything unconstitutional.”
Kirk Sowell, the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics, said the bill was clearly supported by Shiite Islamists but came “as a bit of a surprise because it has not been a subject of major debate or discussion.”
He said the executive branch could move to have the law overturned on procedural or other grounds, and the supreme court could strike it down.
Other Muslim-majority countries have laws restricting alcohol, but only a few, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, enforce a complete ban. The Iraqi law was unlikely to be enforced in the largely autonomous Kurdish region, which is home to a sizeable Christian community.
The bill comes as Iraq is waging a massive military operation to retake the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State group. IS brutally enforces a ban on alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs in the territory under its control.
Iraqis debated the alcohol ban on social media, with many criticizing lawmakers for ignoring more pressing concerns, like the war against IS, an economic crisis brought on by low oil prices, and the government’s own corruption and paralysis. A cartoon circulated online showing men with their backs turned on Mosul, shooting a bottle of liquor.
Others expressed support for the ban and praised parliament for aligning the country’s laws with Islamic teachings.