Iraq: Iraqi barbers in the firing line as fanatics target Western symbols

The Independent
In Iraq a barber works in a dangerous trade. Many have been murdered, beaten or forced to close their businesses by Islamic fanatics who accuse them of shaving off beards or giving Western-style haircuts.
"I did not take them seriously when they warned me against shaving off beards," lamented Mohammed Hassan al-Jebabi, once the owner of a barber's shop in a Sunni town on the outskirts of Baghdad. One day six men arrived in a pick-up truck. They shot into the air and took me away. After 12 days they dumped me back in front of my shop with my arms and legs broken. They said next time they would cut off my hands."
The fundamentalists, generally called Salafi or Wahabi in Iraq, believe it is un-Islamic for men to shave or for barbers to employ an ancient method of hair removal using a thread. Even trimming beards is seen as a crime against religion.

Most barber's shops in Sunni or mixed Shia and Sunni districts of Baghdad now carry a notice in the window saying: "We apologise to our customers but we are not shaving beards." It became common a month ago and ended a fortnight in which barber shops were shut after the murder of Abbas, a hairdresser in the Sha'ab district. Three men arrived outside his shop in a car. One went in and said: "We told you to stop." He then shot Abbas.

The killing persuaded Abdullah Farhan not to shave any more beards. He said: "Abbas was a friend of mine. They told me that Islam rejected the shaving off of beards, though I doubt it. Now our business is down 50 per cent." Many barbers have closed.

The dangerous decision on wearing or not wearing a beard underlines the chronic insecurity of life in Iraq today. Dangerous though it may be to shave off a beard it is by no means safe to wear one. While fundamentalists persecute the clean shaven, government forces are highly suspicious of excessive facial hair as a sign of extreme Islamic and insurgent sympathies. At an entrance to the Green Zone in Baghdad yesterday a woman was complaining vehemently to some soldiers about the arrest of her son. She said: "He was not religious or anything. He did not go the mosque and he did not have a beard."

It is not only barbers who are frightened. Zeidoun Kamal Abdullah in Haifa Street in central Baghdad says he has not been threatened. But a friend of his called Khalid from the same district was shot dead because he shaved beards and gave short-back-and-sides haircuts which in Iraq is know as 'the marine haircut'. Mr Abdullah now has the appropriate notice in his window but even before he put it up he said: "Customers reacted strongly if I offered to shave their beards asking if I wanted to get them killed."

Many barbers have closed down and others complain that business is bad. "Customers won't come because they are frightened of being murdered," says Mr Abdullah. "We are offering to shave them in their homes." Ali Saheb, another barber in the same shop, said he owned his own business until a few months ago but two men on motorcycles threw grenades into it. He works part time as a taxi driver because he makes very little money cutting men's hair.

It is strange that barbers' shops should have become a symbol of secularism and Western cultural norms for fundamentalist Sunnis. Shops selling alcohol have long been closed in Sunni or poor Shia districts. They are now concentrated in better-off areas. Iraqis used to drink alcohol in public until the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein banned its sale in restaurants.

Violence continued across Iraq yesterday. A car bomb, one of four in the capital, in a market killed 17 people and wounded 65. An angry crowd attacked police and journalists at the scene. Another suicide bomber attacked an American convoy on a highway in western Baghdad. Two other car bombs blew up in the oil city of Kirkuk.

Insurgents are focussing on assassinating senior officials. Yesterday they shot and killed Brig Gen Iyad Imad Mahdi as he drove to work at the Ministry of Defence and Col Fadhil Mohammed Mobarak as he went to the Interior Ministry where he headed the police control room. In the west of the country the US Marines have reportedly lost seven killed in an offensive against insurgents in towns and villages on the Euphrates close to the Syrian border.