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Islamist Fundamentalists in Iraq Enforce Practices

LIANE HANSEN, Host:

NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report from Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARBER SHOP)

JAMIE TARABAY: Positioning his clippers at a client's neck, barber Ahmed Hassan(ph) explains.

AHMED HASSAN: (Through translator) They oppose shaving facial hair, the beard. They don't like short haircuts, and they don't like anyone using hair gel. It's all banned now.

TARABAY: In their bid to Islamize Iraqis, Hassan says extremists are threatening the barbers as well as their clients.

HASSAN: (Through translator) Being a barber now in Iraq means that you are threatened. If you shave someone's face, you get killed. If you give a western-style haircut, you get killed. It's radicalism. They want to impose what they want on us.

TARABAY: Fidgeting with a pen in the hotel lobby is Haydo Jabher(ph), a 23-year-old art student who works as a hotel receptionist. He used to have long hair that touched his shoulders and swung as he played the ude, an oriental lute. Speaking at the reception desk, he said he'd been growing his hair for two years.

HAYDO JABHER: (Through translator) I promised myself I wouldn't get it cut, even if it meant I'd get killed. But when I was on vacation, a friend in my neighborhood was shot at because he was wearing a baseball cap.

TARABAY: The gunmen belong to the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. One of them pulled the cap off his friend's head and warned him never to wear it again. For Jabher the message was all too clear, and he got a haircut.

JABHER: (Through translator) The militias are trying to shake this country, especially in troubled areas like mine. Later, I thought if something like that happens to me, I might die. I thought of my family, that they'd be hurt, so I decided to get it cut.

TARABAY: Sitting in his dimly lit office at Baghdad University, Professor Ahmed Saadoun calls the push for Islamization a form of mild terrorism, trying to force people to accept a new code of ethics.

AHMED SAADOUN: (Through translator) Sometimes, with all the terrorism outside, you still have the courage, or remnants of courage, to face it. But when they target everyone from the university professor down to the man who sells vegetables, it causes people to yield.

TARABAY: He says Iraqis submit because they feel threatened enough by the daily violence that it's easier to compromise rather than resist. But he doesn't think the extremists will ultimately win.

SAADOUN: (Through translator) Using force like this will fail. We face it with words, not weapons, and we will triumph. I'm sure of that. Although the price we're paying is dear.

TARABAY: Standing at the counter of a stationary story in Baghdad's Karada District, Sonda Sophaim(ph) leans over, chewing gum. Her hair is streaked blonde. She's wearing jeans and makeup, and she's not apologizing to anyone about it.

SONDA SOPHAIM: (Through translator) I didn't change my dress because I'm not convinced that I should. I won't wear a veil just to satisfy some unknown group.

TARABAY: She rejects the extremists' use of Islam to crack down on social behavior.

SOPHAIM: (Through translator) Where is the Islam? I think it's become corrupted. They use religion to do their own thing. Islam is peaceful, not beheading and killing. Is this the Islam they want to bring us?

TARABAY: Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.