Last week in the Middle East and North Africa, state authorities targeted freedom of expression, prosecuted citizens on morality-based charges, and desecrated religious sites. In Iraq, Kurdish authorities targeted an imam for his criticism of Newrouz — the first day of spring and beginning of the Kurdish new year — festivities and federal authorities arrested citizens over accusations of sorcery. In Yemen, Houthi forces killed a Zaydi religious leader for refusing to give pro-Houthi speeches and sermons. In Egypt, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld a decision banning all Shiite TV channels and websites, and police forces arrested individuals on fraud charges for their alleged practice of sorcery.
State authorities targeted freedom of expression in Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt last week. In Iraq, Kurdish authorities issued an arrest warrant for an imam in Erbil after he described Newrouz as a “feast of infidels and fire-worshippers” (Baghdad Today, 20 March 2022). In Yemen, Houthi forces attacked and killed a Zaydi preacher in Al Matammah district in Al Jawf governorate after he refused to give pro-Houthi speeches and sermons depicting the Yemeni conflict as a war of the Houthis against the “infidels” (Bawabatii, 19 March 2022). ACLED-Religion records an uptick in attacks targeting Zaydi religious leaders since the start of 2022, with at least seven abduction or attack events recorded. This increase comes after a prominent Zaydi scholar issued a fatwa in early January prohibiting fighting with the Houthis. In Egypt, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the State Council Administrative Court’s decision to shut down all religious Shiite TV channels and websites in Egypt, refusing an appeal presented by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA). Notably, in their ruling, the court also called on the NTRA to impose more control over the Internet under the pretext of “monitoring the sources of danger” (The New Arab, 23 March 2022). However the NTRA had submitted the appeal, citing that there were not any laws that assign the NTRA as the body responsible for monitoring websites.
In Egypt and Iraq, state authorities also prosecuted citizens for morality-related charges last week. In Egypt, security forces arrested a man over accusations of fraud, for allegedly advertising and practicing sorcery services (Al Masry Al Youm, 19 March 2022). Egyptian law does not criminalize sorcery; however, people who practice witchcraft, mysticism, and charlatanism are prosecuted under fraud charges. Meanwhile, in Iraq, police forces arrested a man and woman accused of practicing sorcery in Mosul. In contrast to Egypt, Iraqi authorities criminalize certain acts associated with sorcery and folk Islam, such as exorcising Jinns1 Jinns are mythological creatures found in Islam that originate from pre-Islamic Arabian beliefs. Some Muslims believe that they are capable of possessing human beings (Britannica, 2022). and making lucky charms and curses. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior introduced a ban on businesses offering ‘magical’ services, such as exorcisms, in Baghdad and southern Iraq in 2017, and Kurdish authorities conducted a security campaign against such businesses in July 2021 (Shafaaq News, 11 July 2021).
In Palestine, state and non-state actors desecrated mosques last week, stoking tensions ahead of Ramadan, which begins on 2 April. In Hebron city, Israeli military forces continued excavation and building activities at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs to construct a Jewish tourist path and electric elevator on the shared religious site. This contentious project has led to repeated clashes between Israeli settlers and police and Muslim worshippers, who claim the project is illegal. Israeli military forces also raided the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs and denied mosque management crews access to the site for unspecified reasons. In Nablus, Israeli settlers threw Molotov cocktails at the Jammain village mosque entrance, causing a fire and material damage to the carpets at the entrance. The perpetrators also wrote racist slogans on the nearby walls. Meanwhile, in Salfit city, a Palestinian worker removed a mezuzah from the door of a Jewish family and attempted to set it on fire, before posting a video of the incident on TikTok. This increase in provocations by both Palestinians and Israelis is only expected to escalate ahead of Ramadan, which will overlap this year with the Jewish Passover — beginning on 15 April.
Last week In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities announced an increase of the zakat — an obligatory form of almsgiving in Islam — from 500 YER (2 USD) to 750 YER (3 USD). Yemenis have decried the move because this amount accounts for half of their monthly salaries (Bawabatii, 21 March 2022). Also, with the Islamic month of Ramadan only a week away, the Houthis are expected to launch more measures targeting religious practice.
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