Iraq's 'witches and wizards' crowd out doctors and psychiatrists

Iraq's 'witches and wizards' crowd out doctors and psychiatrists
3 min read
31 August, 2016
The traditional practice of faith healing is on the rise in Iraq, despite a government crackdown to eliminate "black magic" from the country.
Police say there are 3,000 "sorcerers" operating mainly in southern Iraq [Getty]

Three thousand faith healers are operating on the streets of Iraq offering cures for a wide range of ailments using methods such as prayers, ablutions and herbal potions - however authorities are not convinced of their efficacy.

"The number of spiritual healers in Baghdad is larger than the number of doctors, which shows the scale of public ignorance," police officer Ahmad al-Musawi told The New Arab.

"This includes the throngs of people who line up outside homes and offices every day offering their skills in faith healing, fortune telling and marriage brokering - in what can be considered deception of the simple-minded and ignorant."

Musawi said that last week, a 15-year-old bride-to-be was killed when a spiritual healer beat her to death during an exorcism ritual aimed at extracting a jinn that was preventing her from marriage.

In working-class districts of Iraq, spiritual healers are often relied on for health issues such as depression, insomnia, impotency and even "possessions by jinns", mythical demons many in the Arab world believe are real.

Earlier this year, the Iraqi government launched an awareness campaign against "witchcraft" and faith healing.

The Interior Ministry said it would clamp down on "charlatans dealing in dark magic" and accused them of "exploiting" the uneducated.

A 15-year-old bride-to-be was killed when a spiritual healer beat her to death during an exorcism ritual
      An Iraqi faith healer's advertisement [Facebook]

Despite the crackdown, police said there were 3,000 people working as "sorcerers" some of whom charge exuberant prices for their services.

Laith Taha, a campaigner against faith healers, told The New Arab that the practice has proven hard to stamp out as it is deeply engrained in Iraqi folk culture.

"All over Baghdad there are posters advertising healing services that allegedly remove jinn possessions, wed unmarried women, bring back husbands to divorcees, cure infertility and even ensure the birth of male children," Taha said.

"The only thing they don't advertise is resurrecting the dead, thank God."

In conservative Iraqi society, seeking help from psychiatrists for mental health problems can carry severe social stigma, leaving traditional healers to fill the void.

According to a 2009 World Health Organisation report, mental health disorders were the fourth leading cause of ill health in Iraqis over the age of five.

Psychiatrist Khalid al-Ali said that his health centre was virtually empty compared to the makeshift home clinics of faith healers.

"This is only natural for a country that has gone through 13 years of war as well as corruption and backwardness on all levels," Ali said.

"The solution is to lock up these charlatans who have become worshipped by many people, who will not utter their names in their absence."