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More Barberic Behavior

Yesterday, I posted about the dangers of being a barber in both Iran and the palestinian controlled territories. Now you can add Iraq to the list (hat tip: David).

The cleric’s young men fanned out across the neighborhood, moving from shop to shop, posting the new religious decrees.

Printed neatly on white-and-green fliers, the edicts banned vices like “music-filled parties and all kinds of singing.” They proscribed celebratory gunfire at weddings and “the gathering of young men” in front of markets and girls’ schools. Also forbidden were the “selling of liquor and narcotic drugs” and “wearing improper Western clothes.”

But at the bottom of the list of prohibitions was a single command. Scrawled in green ink, it read simply: “Cut hair.”

“I feel powerless,” lamented Moataz Hussein, 22, a wiry, soft-voiced teacher seated in a hair salon on the main road of the Tobji neighborhood on Sunday. His long, stylish black hair was now a recent memory. “They are controlling my life.”

Amid the sectarian strife plaguing Baghdad, a wave of religious fundamentalism is curbing personal freedoms and reshaping the daily lives of Iraqis who have long enjoyed one of the most liberal lifestyles in the Arab world. The measures speak to a central question dangling over the future of Iraq: Can it remain a secular nation at a time when religion is exerting a powerful influence on every aspect of life, from politics to the mundane elements of society?

Sectarian rules for cutting hair
Consider the barbers of Baghdad. Sunni Muslim insurgents and Shiite Muslim extremists have imposed their own sets of rules for the cutting of hair. In recent months, barbers have been killed, threatened or forced to close their shops after being accused of giving haircuts that were considered un-Islamic or too Western.

The new decrees in Tobji, posted last week, came from a little-known council created by the local office of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It is called the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a title derived from a verse in the Koran.

Inside the hair salon, the flier was posted on a cream-colored wall next to a mirror, visible to every customer. The image of Sadr’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered ayatollah, who was assassinated in 1999, is emblazoned on the flier, giving it the force of law.

It was signed “The Sadr Martyrs Office” and ended with a warning: “Those who do not comply with these rules will be held accountable.”

Amjad Sabah knows what that means. In the past week, he said, he has lopped off the hair of 20 young customers at his salon, including Hussein. He fears a visit from members of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia linked to Sadr that many Sunni Muslims say runs death squads under the cloak of Islam.

“This is civilization gone backwards,” said Sabah, 20, wearing an orange T-shirt, his hair short and his face cleanshaven. “You can’t have, in 2006, haircuts that are similar to the 1970s. But if I don’t cooperate, they will take me to their office and beat me up.”

The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 ended decades of religious repression by the government of Saddam Hussein. Among Iraq’s Shiite majority, the clerical hierarchy regained prominence, giving Sadr and others greater religious and political stature. But the new freedoms also ushered in a fervent fundamentalism — exacerbated by competing Sunni and Shiite interpretations of Islam — that has become more pronounced in the fourth year of war.

Women have been assailed for not wearing a veil or head scarf. Athletes have been killed for wearing shorts, because some consider it un-Islamic to reveal thighs. Liquor stores have been attacked, and male doctors have been killed for treating female patients. In Sadr’s stronghold of Sadr City and other Shiite-dominated areas, Islamic courts deliver strict, homegrown justice.

Barbers threatened, slain
In early August, a group of armed men walked into Abu Ahmed Jassim’s barbershop in southeast Baghdad. They shot dead his 23-year-old brother and another barber, as well as two customers. Before they left, they set a bomb. Jassim arrived an hour later to find the charred carcass of his shop.

On Monday, Jassim, a short man with a ruddy face, was still visibly distraught. He had just returned from placing a framed picture of his brother at his grave in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

In a low voice, he spoke of the handwritten note a child delivered to a barber in his neighborhood last year. It listed the names of eight barbers from five hair salons. It included Jassim and his brother. “Your destiny is very near,” the note said.

Jassim said he knows why they were targeted. Shiite barbers like him practice khite, an ancient way of removing hair from cheeks and eyebrows with twists of a cotton thread. Radical Sunnis consider this ritual, as well as trimming or removing beards, to be prohibited under Islam.

“This is because of the Takfiri interpretation,” said Jassim, referring to Islamic extremists who adhere to codes of conduct dating to the earliest days of Islam. “We are targeted 100 percent because we are Shiite.”

In the past year, he said, he knew 13 barbers and two customers who were killed in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Adil, Shaab and Mashtal. Dozens more quit the business. “Many of the barbers have closed their shops, and the ones who haven’t closed keep a gun in their shops,” Jassim said.

He said he is making plans to seek asylum in Lebanon: “I’ve lost my spirit to work.”

Taking precautions
In a hair salon in the upscale Karrada neighborhood last week, Sameer Youssef, 32, a Christian, was snipping away at the coal-black hair of Walid Abdul Zahra, 27, a Shiite from the Dora district. He is among dozens of customers who drive through a tangle of checkpoints and barricaded roads to better neighborhoods to get a haircut because there’s a shortage of barbers in their own volatile areas.

“I used to get my hair cut in Dora, but now all the barbers have closed their shops or have been killed,” said Abdul Zahra, who has been coming to the salon for the past six months. “My barber was threatened and had to shut down.”

Abdul Zahra said he wanted only an ordinary haircut, nothing “fancy” that would draw the attention of the Sunni extremists in his neighborhood. “I don’t want to show too much skin,” he said.

Even though Karrada’s barbers have not been targeted, Youssef and colleagues on his corner have taken precautions. To prevent car bombings, they do not allow parking in front of their shops. Suspicious walk-in customers are politely turned away. And they keep their professions a secret.

“I told my neighbors I was making money as a taxi driver,” Youssef said, flashing a weak smile. “I don’t want to lose my life.”

Throughout the year, Tobji has been an arena of sectarian violence marked by reprisal attacks between Sunni extremists and Mahdi Army militiamen. These days, the militia appears to be in control. During two visits over the past week, young civilian men clutching AK-47 assault rifles manned checkpoints in full view of Iraqi policemen passing through.

Other young men stood on street corners, clutching expensive Motorola walkie-talkies. Moqtada Sadr’s face stared from billboards.

New edicts strictly enforced
This protection, and the new edicts, have given Ali Abdul Latif the confidence not to fear Sunni extremists. He used to keep a wooden sign on his counter next to his clippers, hair creams and blades that read: “We don’t do threads.” Now the sign is gone, and Abdul Latif offers the thread to customers again.

But he can’t carve sideburns or small goatees or gel floppy long hair. All that is considered Western, he and other barbers said. In the past week, Abdul Latif said, 15 youths have turned up at his shop, “all of them with hair down to the neck and shoulders.” They wanted their hair short.

“They were scared. They didn’t want to get noticed,” he said.

On the streets of Tobji, they would have been, for the Sadrists consider themselves defenders of their faith. Abu Ahmed, the head of the local Sadr office, said he had placed “one or two men everywhere” — at girls’ schools, at the market, on the main streets — to enforce the new edicts.

“Personal freedom is only in your house or property,” said Abu Ahmed, who asked that his full name not be used. “In the streets, it is no longer a personal freedom.”

Long hair, said Abu Ahmed, is banned because it makes men look feminine. Worse, he added, were haircuts that were long on the sides and short on top, because they were “Jewish haircuts.”

“It is rejected in Islam that you imitate the Jews,” Abu Ahmed said.

If someone is judged to have an improper hairstyle, he said, “we will take him to the barber and we’ll ask the barber to cut his hair according to our regulations. If he refuses, we would send for his father or elder brother and tell them, ‘Either you take this measure or we’ll take the measure for you.’ ”

In the past week, he said, his men had ordered “five or six” men to get haircuts. They didn’t object, he said.

Hussein was not one of them. He had cut his hair a few days before the Sadr office posted the fliers. He had seen people being beaten for having Western haircuts, he said.

“So I accepted readily to cut my hair, so I could be far away from any trouble for me and my family,” Hussein said with a pained look, as he ran his fingers through his short hair.

“Perhaps, I thought, this trouble could cost me my life later.”

Update: More hair-raising Islamic news: In Pakistan, barbers are  liable to get the Bob Woolmer treatment.

February 2001 – Suspected Islamic radicals have issued a warning to barbers in a Pakistani border town not to shave off or cut their customers’ beards, saying it offends Islam, residents said Monday.

Pamphlets with the warnings were found at several shops in Inayat Kalay in Pakistan’s Bajur tribal region near the Afghan border, said Bacha Khan, a barber in the market town.

“Barbers! Correct yourselves,” read the handwritten, Pashtu-language notes, one of which was obtained by The Associated Press.

“Any barber shop where acts against Shariah [Islamic law]–shaving or cutting of beards–are seen, are given a final warning to stop this anti-Shariah work and if they do not stop, they should take responsibility for whatever harm they come to,” it said.

The pamphlets were unsigned. However, Khan said he believed the warnings were from mujahedeen, or holy warriors, a term often used to describe Islamic militants.

He said two dozen barbers had responded by posting notices in their shops asking customers not to insist on getting a shave.

“We do not want to come to harm,” Khan said. “If this work is against Shariah, we will stop it.”

And in an older item (2001) from Afghanistan, the “Leo” look went down about as well as the Titanic:

Barbers in Afghanistan have been jailed for giving customers a haircut styled after Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Titanic.

Officers in the Taleban militia have arrested 28 barbers across the city of Kabul.

“The only reason is they say the barbers cut the youths’ hair in the Titanic style,” a barber at a shopping centre in the city said.

He added that the barbers were accused of popularising anti-Islamic western hairstyles.

The BBC’s Kate Clark in Kabul said barbers had been sent a letter from the Taleban religious police warning them not to give “foreign haircuts”.

About the author

Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
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