BAGHDAD—Ali Naji had a very bad day last month in Iraq’s Wasit province, but it could have been much worse. To avert what might have developed into a blood feud, he had to pay 10 million Iraqi dinars, or roughly U.S. $8,400, as part of a settlement.
But this was not your run of the mill case of tribal justice—say, where a fight results in injury and the member of one tribe pays another a penalty. Naji had to pony up because his teenage son had written a comment on Facebook, one that was deemed “socially unacceptable,” and which harmed the reputation of one of the families in his neighborhood.
“May God bless our college days and the stories from the good old days,” Naji’s son, Sajid, had written on one of his Facebook friend’s posts. The other young man had stated his intention to get engaged to a girl in the neighborhood where the two boys used to live. The statement was passed on to the girl’s parents who felt it was maligning their daughter’s reputation, the implication being that during those “good old days” the girl had had many lovers.
Naji, a civil servant, agreed that the statement was inappropriate and he was forced to sell his car to pay the fine agreed upon by the two families’ tribal leaders, in order to settle the defamation case.
The monetary settlement was so high because of a previous agreement among various tribes in southern Iraq about “socially unacceptable” activities on Facebook. The agreement says that if a Facebook user clicks on the “Like” symbol for any problematic post, they can also be fined. The agreement covers all sorts of things, including online harassment, identity theft, breaching individuals’ privacy, and making unjust accusations.
For example, in the province of Basra recently, a young man was fined 20 million Iraqi dinars (about $16,800) because he was harassing a local woman on Facebook.
The agreement was drafted because in the recent past, inappropriate posts have led to conflicts in real life, some of which have spiralled out of control, resulting in injuries and even deaths.
Ali Yasser tells the story of how he was caught out by the tribal agreement. One of his Facebook friends, a well-known Iraqi blogger, made a comment about a local government official whom he accused of corruption. Yasser clicked on the Like button underneath the post.
“Just a day later I got a knock at my door,” the 45-year-old told us. “A number of people were there and I did not know any of them. But they told me that I was wanted by the tribe of the government official, who had been accused of financial corruption. They told me I was invited to a meeting where there would be a discussion and a settlement would be arranged.”
Together with members of his own family and senior members of his tribe, Yasser went to the meeting at the home of one of the government official’s fellow tribesmen.
“After the issue was discussed, they found me guilty and I was asked to pay them 5 million Iraqi dinars [$4,200],” Yasser complains. “Just because I clicked the Like button when the topic of corruption was being discussed.”
Yasser likens the punishment to a form of blackmail, saying that the various tribal leaders are extorting money under the guise of making peace between locals holding opposing points of view.
In general, opinions appear to be divided about the new tribal tactics regarding Facebook posts. On the one hand, it seems intervention by tribal leaders and the threat of a large fine stops the online arguments in their tracks. In turn that prevents the fight from moving into real life. On the other hand, the same arguments that are always made about tribal law in Iraq also arise.
“The fact that this is happening just shows the absence of a state of law,” says Hasnain Sadoum, a local civil society activist. If people thought they could get justice going through the official court system, then the tribes wouldn’t have to be involved, he says.
This article was adapted from one by Mohammed al-Zaidi originally published by Niqash.org.