Beer Is Depraved

Iraq in FragmentsI caught a free showing tonight of “Iraq in Fragments” at the National Archives, where it was playing as part of their week-long series of Oscar-nominated documentaries.

The film presents three stories. One is of a young boy in Baghdad whose father “disappeared” in jail under Saddam’s regime. Now he struggles between school and working in a machine shop and doesn’t do so well at either endeavor. His future seems hopeless as the city descends further and further into chaos around him. The consensus among the boy’s community is that things were bad under Saddam, but they are worse now. In particular, they complain that Saddam stole all the oil wealth and now America is stealing it while letting the country spin into uncontrolled violence.

The third story is about a Kurdish boy growing up on a sheep farm and working in brick-making kilns. His family is of the general opinion that the Kurds must be independent and they are thankful for the Americans freeing them from Saddam’s oppression.

But it’s the second story of a young man in an unnamed southern town that struck a chord with me as a beer drinker. The man’s Shiite religious practices were banned during Saddam’s regime. But his discontent with the American occupation and his commitment to anti-Western religious zealotry drive him to join Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army.

In one of the film’s scariest sequences, a group of these militant fundamentalists declare religious vigilante war on the sale of alcohol in the town’s marketplace. Armed with automatic weapons, the militiamen storm the marketplace, round up suspects, beat them on the spot, and haul them into captivity. The suspects plead innocence as their wives beg the captors to spare their husbands lives (it’s surprising how the film-maker was able to get all this on film). The Mehdi vigilantes denounce alcohol as a “depravity” brought to Iraq by America.Diabolique

The irony, of course, is that Iraq is where the earliest known beer-based urban civilization emerged almost 10,000 years ago. A further irony, a far crueler one, is that this misguided attempt to blame everything on alcohol is not only doomed to failure, but it is a distraction from Iraq’s real problems, just as our own Prohibition movement in this country failed to address the real problems brought on by industrialization and the breakdown of community. Anti-alcohol vigilante-ism will never help the Shia gain control of their destiny. It will only serve to isolate them by convincing the world that they are avowed terrorists.

As I type this, I am drinking a glass of “Diabolique,” an abbey-style ale brewed by De Proefbrouwerij in Belgium, a country where religious monks make the beer. The rocky white head crowning my chalice looks like altocumulus clouds up in the heavens.


6 Responses to Beer Is Depraved

  1. Travis says:

    Alcohol in all forms is verboten in Islam. Not just the Shia but the Sunni and the various permutations thereof. Alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia and the punishment for smuggling alcohol in, even if for personal consumption is severe. Imprisonment from a few weeks for consumption to several yeas for smuggling, lashes, fines and very stiff penalties for making alcohol or being in posession equipment for the makig of alcohol.

    I completely disagree with, “Anti-alcohol vigilante-ism will never help the Shia gain control of their destiny. it will only serve to isolate them by convincing the world they are avowed terrorists.”

    Enforcing social structures and traditions that are 1400 years old and the mandates of their religion is not terrorism. It does not fit with the Western ideals and culture. The manner that they are enforcing these customs and traditions is outside of what I consider civilized but it isn’t my place to tell them how to run their own neighborhood. Terrorism is something completely different.

    I don’t think they are blaming “everything” on alcohol. In spite of any irony, we have already lost in Iraq mainly because Americans can’t get past the idea that Iraqi’s are Iraqui’s not Americans in training.

  2. Dave Bonta says:

    I disagree. Based on what Chris describes here and what I’ve read, it does seem as if the militias are scapegoating to increase their power and terrorizing local populations in the process. It seems more than a little patronizing to describe violent intolerance as part of Muslim “customs and traditions.” Many Muslim societies of the past were famously tolerant — a tradition that continues in places like Senegal, Mali, and Indonesia.

  3. Travis says:

    Based from friends of mine that are actually in Iraq… It is a lot more complex than what Chris is writing.

    Stating that attacking alleged alcohol purveyers is scapegoating for the instability in the country or as a pretext for violence against dissenters is simply false. Alcohol use is forbidden by Islam, full stop. Muhammed recieved three different verses in regards to this and there has since been a 1300 year ban on alcohol in Islam. What many westerners do not understand about Islamic society is that there is no seperation between home life, work life and religion- the form that life takes is that which is dictated by the Sharia. When a person defies the Sharia they are going to be punished. That’s how it is. It may be barbaric and counterproductive by OUR standards but makes perfect sense by theirs. This is what I mean by trying to understand what is going on by applying our cultural standards as the basis.

    It is possible and perhaps likely that this is a pretext as a means to consolidate power in the area. People rationalize their actions all the time. The idea that the Mehdi Army is simply a group of, “avowed terrorists,” is an incorrect label to place on them. Terrorist operate in a much different way. These guys are a militia headed by a Shia scholar who has a very strongly documented and uprecedented direct lineage to The Prophet. This is very important to recognize. He holds popular political power not only through violent action but is respected by many in the Shia world due to his status as a sayyidd. So when his followers are acting as a sort of religious police force they are acting (in the eyes of many) as enforcers of the faith.

  4. Dave Bonta says:

    I’m not disputing the fact that Islam bans alcohol. I’m disputing your contention that strict enforcement of sharia is traditional in all Muslim areas. Further, as I understand it, there are different versions of sharia depending on the sect and the school. In the post-Saddam era, Saudi Salafists are trying to change and subvert the traditionally more moderate or Sufic Sunnis in Iraq even as Iran strengthens its hold over the Shiites. One example of the growing intolerance from both sects is the increasing persecution of Jews and Christians, who have had thriving communities in Iraq for centuries — and who have been allowed to buy and sell alcohol, too, until recently.

  5. beeractivist says:


    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your concerns and critiques.

    I am, of course, aware of the Koran’s statements about alcohol consumption, the first of which is that “concerning wine and gambling, in them is great sin and some profit for people, but the sin is greater than the profit.”

    In this translation the word wine is used, not beer, which is actually what was confiscated in the clip shown in the film. I’m not splitting hairs here. I actually wonder if the Koran’s prohibitions were aimed primarily against strong drinks, rather than beer, which was a staple in the diet of people living in the fertile crescent during the time Islam emerged.

    More importantly though, I should clarify my comments about vigilante-ism and terrorism. I didn’t mean to label anyone terrorists and I’m sorry that’s the way you read it. I said that anti-alcohol vigilante-ism (religiously sanctioned or otherwise) will turn public opinion against the Mahdi Army by convincing people that they are terrorists. I called them vigilantes, not terrorists. Armed groups, unsanctioned by any state authority, meting out justice based on personal beliefs, is by definition vigilante-ism. This behavior certainly contributes to the perception (especially in the West but elsewhere too) of this group’s members as terrorists.

    All that said, I will now go further and say that bombing people praying in mosques, because you disagree with their religious beliefs, is terrorism. The Mahdi Army has done just that.

    By the way, I’ve lived and traveled in lots of Muslim countries. In most of them, religious mob rule is not tolerated and furthermore alcohol is sold openly.

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