It would certainly not be an exaggeration to say that the month of Ramadhan, at least here in Baghdad, is holy only for the few. Wherever I go, from friends to family to those further away, I see more people not fasting than fasting. Baghdad, at least in the recent past, has never really been a religious city. It is neither Mecca nor Najaf, or for that matter Qom, and will probably never be, particularly as long as its people live in a generalised malaise and frustration of politics and religion or more lethally the mixture of both as it has been the case from 2003.
After years of war and conflict the people of Iraq want to live a simple, normal and calm life; for most Ramdhan is just another month of suffering on top of existing pain and anguish so why fast, at least this is what most people have told me or used to justify their non-fasting.
When things fall apart as much as they have organised religious practices such as prayer and fasting become a luxury for those able to afford it – for those living comfortably. When life is as tough as it is in Iraq prayer and fasting become second to everyday survival, and this is probably one of the reasons why Baghdad’s mosques are often empty buildings. Even prayer and fasting needs a semblance of peace and quiet, something hardly available in today’s Iraq. Others, however, depending on their belief system will pray and fast even against the great odds of everyday survival – prayer and religion becomes a coping tool to deal with and understand the changes and stresses happening around them.
Ramadhan is a key moment in the religious calendar to impose taxes on the unfaithful. In post 2003 Iraq religion has become intimately connected to politics, poisoning the faithful’s trust in today’s Islam.
To remain open during this month during the fast (from morning to sunset) restaurants are required to apply for a license from the Baghdad City Council, otherwise their owners are fined and restaurants shuttered by concrete boulders. This is the case for restaurants and food establishments in both Christian and Muslim areas of Baghdad and there are no exceptions, at least officially. The idea that Baghdad is a diverse, multi-religious city, is qualified by such practices. Licenses to open during this one month cost anything from $3,000 to many more thousands, depending on the location of the restaurant. Where this money goes that Baghdad City Council receives is probably in the pockets of religious political parties that hugely benefit from those rents. There is next to zero accountability over the money the Council receives, as it is the case for its overall annual budget.
Religion in Iraq is used for political purposes to govern and subjugate people in specific ways as well as to tax the unfaithful for the benefit of the corrupt few. The attempt to intervene in society, with a view to govern or tax, is never the same as the intended outcome. In this simple case, some restaurants, with links to militia groups or political parties, especially those connected to the local police, need not apply for an opening license from the government. Opening during the day merely means paying a ‘tax’ to the local police for their silence. Like most things in Iraq, they can be remedied, at least temporarily, with money.
Most alcohol shops are shuttered during Ramadhan. But as most things are corrupt and corruptible here some, hidden out of sight, remain open. To remain open, again such shops pay a daily ‘tax’ to the local police. Luckily for those shops the police are deeply corrupt. Such taxes are transferred in higher prices for customers – thirsty customers, however, are more than willing to pay the higher costs. This is the case for those open in ‘Bataweein’ in central Baghdad, just a mile away from the Green Zone, where such shops remain open during the day and a concomitant bustle for whiskey, beer and ‘araq is witnessed. The meze shops nearby, selling alcohol accompaniments bagila (beans) and lablabey (chickpeas), as well as the watermelon stalls, also make good money during this month. It’s mostly the young, sometimes the older, that visit these shops to buy alcohol; others come from the provinces, where alcohol is expensive and more difficult to access and even often treated as a illegal bad and at times subject to death by militia groups.
The common generalisation amongst so many people, including in academia, that most if not all Muslims are devout, abiding to strict religious practices, works to obfuscate us from the real issues affecting countries like Iraq. From my experience, an analysis of a simple everyday practice provides more meaning of wider dynamics than alternative methods. Perhaps one day think-tanks like Chatham House will understand this, though I know they will dismiss it as academia-speak and rely on their own strict definitions and self-serving conceptual lenses.
Further, understanding everyday practices in Iraq can and has often given me more meaningful explanations of politics and whats happening in state and society than conventional International Relations ‘big block’ analyses, which come with their own prior assumptions and misunderstandings.