Islamist Fundamentalists in Iraq Enforce Practices

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In parts of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, Islamist fundamentalists are enforcing strict practices. Pamphlets are circulating on university campuses warning girls to cover up; the owners of liquor stores and music shops have been told to shut down. Iraqis worry their social freedoms are disappearing.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Iraqi government today released a most-wanted list of 41 people, including Saddam Hussein's wife and daughter, and the man who replaced Abu Masab al-Zarqawi as leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Zarqawi was killed in an American air strike early in June. His death has done little, if anything, to stem the insurgency in Iraq. Yesterday, at least 66 people were killed in a car bombing outside a busy marketplace, and a female member of the national legislature was kidnapped.

The repressive nature of the war extends beyond the daily killings and kidnappings. In some parts of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, Islamic fundamentalists are enforcing strict religious practices. Leaflets are circulating on university campuses warning women to cover up. The owners of liquor stores and even some music shops have been told to shut down, and some vendors are told not to sell food stuffs bottled in pickle juice, since it can ferment into alcohol, which is forbidden under Islam.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report from Baghdad.

(Soundbite of barber shop)

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

One of the first targets for Islamic fundamentalists is usually the barbershop. Religious extremists oppose any kind of beard trimming and Western-style haircuts.

Positioning his clippers at a client's neck, barber Ahmed Hassan(ph) explains.

Mr. AHMED HASSAN (Barber): (Through translator) They oppose shaving facial hair, the beard. They don't like short haircuts, and they don't like anyone using hair gel. It's all banned now.

TARABAY: In their bid to Islamize Iraqis, Hassan says extremists are threatening the barbers as well as their clients.

Mr. HASSAN: (Through translator) Being a barber now in Iraq means that you are threatened. If you shave someone's face, you get killed. If you give a western-style haircut, you get killed. It's radicalism. They want to impose what they want on us.

TARABAY: Some Iraqis try to ignore the unofficial edict being spread by word of mouth, leaflet, or graffiti in their neighborhoods, only to give in because the pressure was too great.

Fidgeting with a pen in the hotel lobby is Haydo Jabher(ph), a 23-year-old art student who works as a hotel receptionist. He used to have long hair that touched his shoulders and swung as he played the ude, an oriental lute. Speaking at the reception desk, he said he'd been growing his hair for two years.

Mr. HAYDO JABHER (Student): (Through translator) I promised myself I wouldn't get it cut, even if it meant I'd get killed. But when I was on vacation, a friend in my neighborhood was shot at because he was wearing a baseball cap.

TARABAY: The gunmen belong to the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. One of them pulled the cap off his friend's head and warned him never to wear it again. For Jabher the message was all too clear, and he got a haircut.

Mr. JABHER: (Through translator) The militias are trying to shake this country, especially in troubled areas like mine. Later, I thought if something like that happens to me, I might die. I thought of my family, that they'd be hurt, so I decided to get it cut.

TARABAY: Jabher says he doesn't think the Iraqi government has any idea of what's happening in the streets of Baghdad. Ever since the end of the former regime more than three years ago, Islamist militants, both Shiite and Sunni, have tried to enforce strict Islamic rulings. In Basra, in the south, Sadr's group is accused of bombing liquor stores. In Fallujah, militants used to publicly whip men who sold alcohol and attack hairdressers for giving Western-style haircuts.

Sitting in his dimly lit office at Baghdad University, Professor Ahmed Saadoun calls the push for Islamization a form of mild terrorism, trying to force people to accept a new code of ethics.

Professor AHMED SAADOUN (Baghdad University): (Through translator) Sometimes, with all the terrorism outside, you still have the courage, or remnants of courage, to face it. But when they target everyone from the university professor down to the man who sells vegetables, it causes people to yield.

TARABAY: He says Iraqis submit because they feel threatened enough by the daily violence that it's easier to compromise rather than resist. But he doesn't think the extremists will ultimately win.

Prof. SAADOUN: (Through translator) Using force like this will fail. We face it with words, not weapons, and we will triumph. I'm sure of that. Although the price we're paying is dear.

TARABAY: It's more than just haircuts, closing liquor stores, and women being told to cover their hair. It's being told not to wear shorts or jeans or listen to Western music. Some Iraqis are resisting.

Standing at the counter of a stationary story in Baghdad's Karada District, Sonda Sophaim(ph) leans over, chewing gum. Her hair is streaked blonde. She's wearing jeans and makeup, and she's not apologizing to anyone about it.

Ms. SONDA SOPHAIM: (Through translator) I didn't change my dress because I'm not convinced that I should. I won't wear a veil just to satisfy some unknown group.

TARABAY: She said she's nervous when she travels to work each day, and says a silent prayer when she reaches her store unharmed. She remembers how she used to go to parties and restaurants with her friends at night, but that's all in the past now.

She rejects the extremists' use of Islam to crack down on social behavior.

Ms. SOPHAIM: (Through translator) Where is the Islam? I think it's become corrupted. They use religion to do their own thing. Islam is peaceful, not beheading and killing. Is this the Islam they want to bring us?

TARABAY: Islam Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sent a cable to the State Department in early June reporting that life for the embassy's Baghdad staff who live outside the fortressed compound was becoming increasingly difficult because of pressure from fundamentalists. The cable reads, in part: Iraqi staff have complained that Islamists or militia groups have been negatively affecting their daily routine. Harassment over proper dress and habits has become increasingly pervasive.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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