Clerics in Diyala have been warned they can go to jail for delivering sermons that incite violence, a move aimed at calming the troubled Iraqi province – although some fear it may heighten sectarian tensions.
The crackdown on rabble-rousing preachers has been initiated by the province’s government and is backed by mainstream religious and political leaders from both the main Muslim sects.
However, the new rules have been criticised by some Sunni Arabs, who say they fear their community will be targeted unfairly.
Despite improvements in security, Sunni insurgents and Shia militias remain active in Diyala, a province bordering Iran, north-east of Baghdad.
The new restrictions on sermons do not specifically state which phrases would be regarded as contentious. But the rules are widely believed to apply to any exhortations to violence or terrorism.
“A cleric breaks the law if he uses Islamic terms like jihad to incite attacks on American troops, Iraqi forces, the government, officials and the people,” said Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed al-Anbaki, a police commander in the province.
Jihad is the term given in Islam for a righteous struggle, which may or may not be waged with weapons.
Anbaki said sermons would be monitored by Iraqi security forces, including plainclothes intelligence officers. Clerics suspected of breaking the rules could be arrested and tried. Those found guilty may face up to six months in prison, Anbaki said.
Under the new rules, the authorities would also compile a database of clerics and mosques in Diyala.
Asaad al-Neimi, a member of Diyala’s provincial council, said mosques needed to be monitored more closely as their influence had grown.
“Recently, religion has become the biggest factor governing popular behaviour. People follow their clerics, regardless of whether or not they’re being told the truth,” he said.
“Clerics have the power to affect people’s thinking, and most of these clerics’ motives are unclear.”
Diyala has a mixed population of Arabs and Kurds, with both of the main Muslim sects represented.
Sunnis hold the majority of the seats in the provincial government, while the police force is dominated by Shia. Iraq’s central government, still in power after an inconclusive parliamentary election four months ago, is dominated by Shia religious parties.
The province has a history of clashes between security forces and civilians.
Sectarian jibes are also often broadcast from mosque loudspeakers in the province, particularly where rival sects congregate within range of each other’s loudspeakers.
Some in Baquba fear the new restrictions on sermons will lead to a fresh confrontation.
“The Shia [central] government will arrest our clerics on the pretext of inciting terrorism,” said Haitham Abdullah, a Sunni Arab taxi driver. “They will not stop there. They will then start arresting worshippers.”
Abu Abdullah, a government employee, said the new rules discriminated against Sunnis, “They are targeting our mosques, our clerics, and they will target us too if we accept this order.”
Mohammed Hussein al-Tamimi, a Shia Arab employee of the electricity directorate, said he felt the rules would apply mainly to Sunni Arab clerics, who were more likely to use terms such as jihad.
“I’m concerned that this order will incite sectarian tension,” he said. “When a Sunni cleric is arrested, the Sunnis will hate the Shia and this will make the situation more dangerous for us.”
Sheikh Muntasar al-Majmaei, a Sunni preacher at the Katoon mosque in Baquba, said Diyala’s government would face resistance if it enforced the restrictions on sermons.
“Jihad is a Muslim’s duty,” he said. “The local government is afraid of this word.
“A preacher cannot call himself a preacher if he does not condemn the occupation [by the American military] and describe jihad as a religious obligation.”
But most leaders in the province insist the new rules are fair and necessary.
“This resolution was issued in consultation with us,” said Sheikh Usama al-Jabury, one of seven men in charge of the Sunni Endowment, a body that oversees clerics and mosques in the province.
He added that the rules would provide a legal framework that would help prevent the arbitrary arrest of Sunni clerics on charges of inciting terrorism.
“These rules will be applied to both sects, and no one can be arrested without evidence,” he said.
Ziad al-Khayali, a Kurdish member of the provincial council, said Sunni Arab clerics would not be alone in facing scrutiny under the new measures.
“We know that [followers of anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr] have incited violence against US troops, so the same rules will be applied to their mosques,” he said.
Diyala is believed to be the first Iraqi province where restrictions of this kind have been introduced on sermons. So far, no clerics have been arrested under the new rules.
Neimi, the council member, said instability had prevented the curbs from being introduced sooner. According to Anbaki, the police commander, they will help to bolster recent gains in security.
“Sectarian tension among the citizens has eased. But some clerics from both sects are trying to stoke it again,” he said.
By. Ali Mohammed