BASRA, Iraq, Celia Garabet thought students were roughhousing. Sinan Saeed was sure a fight had erupted. Within a few minutes, on a sunny day at a riverside park, they realized something different was afoot. A group of Shiite Muslim militiamen with rifles, pistols, thick wire cables and sticks had charged into crowds of hundreds at a college picnic. They fired shots, beat students and hauled some of them away in pickup trucks. The transgressions: men dancing and singing, music playing and couples mixing.
That melee on March 15 and its fallout have redrawn the debate that has shadowed Iraq’s second-largest city since the U.S. invasion in 2003: What is the role of Islam in daily life? In once-libertine Basra, a battered port in southern Iraq near the Persian Gulf, the question dominates everything these days, from the political parties in power to the style of dress in the streets.
In the days that followed the melee, hundreds of students, angry about the injuries and arrests, marched on the school administration building and then the governor’s office, demanding an apology and, more important, the dissolution of the dreaded campus morality police. The militiamen who attacked the picnickers at first boasted of stamping out debauchery, even distributing videos of the event. But, gauging the popular revulsion, they later admitted to what they termed mistakes. The governor, himself an Islamic activist, urged dialogue to calm a roiled city and deemed the case closed, even as students insisted they remained unsatisfied.
To many in Basra the students managed what no local party or politician had yet done: They interrupted, if briefly, a tide of religious conservatism that has shuttered liquor stores in a city that once had dozens, meted out arbitrary justice and encouraged women to wear a veil and dress in a way considered modest.
“The students broke through the barriers of fear,” said Ali Abbas Khafif, a 55-year-old writer and union organizer jailed for 23 years under former president Saddam Hussein. “This was the first mass response to religious power.”
The victory may be fleeting in a city where Islamic activism and guns often go hand in hand. Even in their moment of triumph, many secular students acknowledge they are fighting a losing battle; some suggest it is already lost.
“We have felt both our weakness and our strength,” said Saif Emad,
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