BAGHDAD - A government decree banning soldiers and police from wearing beards on duty has sparked a heated debate in Iraq about religious freedoms after decades of authoritarian rule.
"When I saw the letter saying the ministry won't allow us to wear beards, I was resentful," police mechanic Abu Haider told Reuters in Basra.
"It is interference in the personal freedoms we started to taste after the toppling of the regime.
Iraq has long allowed police and soldiers to wear beards to a certain length while on duty.Islamic Ruling on Growing Beard
But in April, the Shiite-majority government banned soldiers and police from wearing beards on duty.
But the ban has triggered a heated debate on religious freedoms in a country where sectarian divisions between Shiites and Sunnis still fester close to the surface.
Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia once fought American troops but who now forms part of the coalition government, called the ban a "sin" and a religious offence.
One group of Iraqi armed forces officers are sending a written complaint to the government, arguing their personal freedoms have been violated by the order.
"Why such restrictions? Having a beard doesn't harm anyone," said Hadi Ghali Awad, a policeman.
"It is also a part of our individual freedoms and also part of Islamic teachings."
Wearing a beard is a Sunnah in Islam.
In Iraq, beards are sometimes associated with militias from both the Sunni and Shiite communities, which fought against each other, the security forces and foreign troops after the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein.
No Interest But officials argue that a well-dressed, cleanly shaven security force will show soldiers and police officers are free of any political and religious affiliation.
"Having a beard can give the impression that security forces are connected to a religious party, or have political leanings, and that we don't want for our security men," said Hamid Mutlaq, a member of parliament's security committee and a leader in the secularist but mainly Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.
In the aftermath of the US invasion, illegal armed Shiite and Sunni militias ruled many parts of Baghdad and enforced a strict religious conservatism.
Militia leaders and rebel chieftains from both sects were often seen wearing beards.
Women and Christians as well as Sunnis and Shiites were forced to wear the traditional head covering to ward off suspicion and barber shops and beauty salons were closed or threatened just for showing pictures of women without it.
The worst of the sectarian violence is now past, but many Iraqis are still hesitant to express themselves in ways that draw attention.
The beard debate, however, does not interest many Iraqis, who are more concerned with jobs and blackouts.
"Did we solve our country's problems like corruption, basic services, unemployment?" asked Haider Flaih, 29, a policeman and also a barber in the capital's poor Shiite district Sadr city."No. Instead we keep ourselves busy worrying about beards and scarves."
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net