In Mosul, Islamic Fundamentalists Cracking Down on Secular and Religious Celebrations

Extremists in Mosul are stepping up threats to harm anyone who takes part in public celebrations of both secular and religious occasions.

The most recent threat came last month, when the extremist Sunni group the Islamic State of Iraq distributed leaflets on the outskirts of the northwestern city warning people not to celebrate or hold ceremonies marking Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.

Fearing the insurgents would carry out their threats, Mosul residents refrained from staging customary banquets and even exchanging sweets with their neighbors. Only a few children were seen passing around treats and juice.

“Mosul residents used to celebrate many Islamic occasions, but this has been on the decline for several years,” said Nashwan Abdulla, a Mosul-based writer.

Although the Islamic State of Iraq is active in several Iraqi provinces, it has established its tightest grip in Mosul, where it has fought to control the province and impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Iraqi and United States security officials blame the insurgent group, which emerged in 2006, for destabilising the city – which, prior to becoming a Ba’athist stronghold under Saddam, was regarded as an intellectual centre.

The group’s name alone strikes fear into the hearts of Mosul residents, who say they have been subjected to its campaign of intimidation for some time.

In the past, muted celebrations were held on graduations, Islamic holidays and birthdays. But this year, even that has become risky, as the number of threats has increased markedly, say locals.

The restrictions on celebrations are not justified under Islamic law, said one Mosul-based cleric who preferred not to be named.

He said the Prophet’s birthday, in particular, should be honored as it “reminds Muslims of their messenger, and his deeds”.

“The extremists have turned people away from the tolerant religion of Islam,” he added.

The Islamic State of Iraq has been blamed for targeting non-Sunnis throughout the country, threatening religious leaders in Mosul, and forcing Christians out of a Baghdad neighborhood.

In Mosul, the insurgents mostly communicate through leaflets, which are stamped with the group’s name and distributed throughout the city. They often use threatening phone calls and text messages, too.

In recent years, scores of religious figures in Mosul have been targeted and killed by the extremists.

One Sufi leader said that he and his co-religionists, who practice a mystical branch of Islam, used to hold traditional chants in mosques and public squares in Mosul – but no more.

“These activities have come to a standstill after we received death threats [through our mobile phones] from extremists who label us as heretical,” he said.

Fundamentalists have also threatened Muslims who celebrate Sha’ban – the month before Ramadan. During this time, families typically prepare food for one another and light candles.

Meanwhile, Mosul residents say that secular celebrations are also being suppressed.

“We always hear of threats over [planned celebrations],” said Laith Mohammad, a 26-year-old college graduate who works at a mobile phone maintenance shop.

“For example, we wanted to hold a graduation party. Then, suddenly, some colleagues told us they had received warnings on their mobile phones.”

The students were told they could be hurt or killed for having the party, to which both men and women had been invited.

Muhammad said the students instead opted for a small low-key gathering on campus without music.

Rumors – even unsubstantiated ones – are an effective means of stopping celebrations, say security officials.

Nineveh police colonel Abdulla Khalaf says extremists want to bring city life under their control by sowing fear.

But he said that there is no way of knowing if the intimidating leaflets, which are often posted and distributed near mosques and marketplaces, are genuine.

"There is no tangible evidence about [their authenticity],” said Khalaf.

“We always encourage people through the media and pamphlets to go about their normal lives, without feeling threatened.”

The reporter is an IWPR-trained journalist whose identity cannot be revealed because of security concerns.

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