Minority Iraqi Lawmakers Protest Parliament’s Constraints on Liquor

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Law banning the sale, import and production of liquor will most affect Christians and others who drink alcohol
An Iraqi man walks past a locked liquor store in Baghdad on Oct. 23, 2016, a day after parliament voted to ban the sale, import and production of alcohol. Photo: sabah arar/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
By Ghassan Adnan in Baghdad and Ben Kesling in Erbil, Iraq
Minority Iraqi lawmakers vowed on Sunday to fight a law passed by the Shiite Muslim-majority parliament to ban the sale, import and production of liquor, an effective prohibition.

The vote Saturday will most affect Christians and other minorities who drink alcohol, as well as moderate Muslims, and could shutter hundreds of liquor stores across the country including the large number run by Christians in Baghdad. Conservative Muslims don’t imbibe.

It could also force the closure of venerated Iraqi liquor brands with names like Ishtar gin and Mr. Louis whiskey. The law establishes a penalty of $8,500 to $21,000 for violations of the law. There will be no impact on Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, which has its own parliament and laws.

Shiite parliamentarian Monadhel al-Mosawi said the law had been passed for “ethical” rather than religious reasons.

“If you check crimes committed in Iraq, you would find that most of them were committed because of drugs and liquor, so we are trying to stop this as much as we can,” he said. “Not only Christians drink liquor in Iraq—many Muslims do it. This is evidence that the law does not target Christians or others.”

But opposition lawmakers said the law violated personal freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, which is also founded in Shariah law.

“Parliament approving this liquor ban is completely unconstitutional,” said Christian parliamentarian Emad Yokhanna.

Its passage was triggered by Muslim lawmakers wanting to move the country further toward a conservative rule of law, he added.

It also stood to have an economic impact, he said, encouraging alcohol smuggling and cutting into state tax revenues from alcohol sales and exports.

“Extremist party members caused this mess,” he said. “We are not against Islamic law at all, but we say that the law of majority cannot be applied on all Iraqis.”

Another Muslim lawmaker, Hakem Saman, said he didn’t support the law but that it was legal based on the Muslim principles that form the basis of Iraqi law.

The vote comes as a coalition of U.S.-backed Iraqi forces has begun an offensive to drive Islamic State from Mosul, the terror group’s last remaining stronghold in Iraq. The timing of the vote wasn’t related to the offensive, Mr. Mosawi said.

Many of the country’s liquor stores are in Baghdad. A handful of its restaurants and clubs serve liquor, and it isn’t unusual to see people buying beer, wine and liquor at roadside shops.

“We respect all Islamic occasions and we shut down our shops as a sign of that respect on such occasions, so why do Islamic lawmakers not respect us?” said Yousif, a Baghdad liquor store owner who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution by the government. “Islamic State uses bombs to fight against the government, but what about us, the liquor community, what do we do to protect ourselves and our living. Do we attack the government with bottles of wine?”

The law won’t go into effect for several days, until it has been published in a federal register.

“I’m a Muslim, I drink liquor and I’m not ashamed of saying so,” said Khalid Tariq, 55, a lawyer from Baghdad. “With the incredible stress people suffer on a daily basis, something is needed to ease such stress. And now these idiots in the parliament banned it.”

For Mr. Tariq, morality had nothing to do with imbibing.

“Being a decent person in this country is more important than not drinking liquor,” he said.