By Ela Khaled and Inna Rudolf
After nearly three months of backroom deal attempts and horse-trading, Iraq’s newly appointed legislators convened for their first session on 9 January 2022. Signalling their willingness to fight to the death, representatives of Muqtada al-Sadr’s winning bloc marched into the parliamentary halls, wrapped in white cloaks reminiscent of traditional Muslim burial shrouds. In an equally symbolic gesture, independent candidates and members of the reform-oriented party Imtidad (Reach/Extension) made their way to the parliament building riding Tuk Tuks, the three-wheeled icon of Iraq’s Tishreen protest movement that began in 2019.
A month before the opening session, supporters of al-Fatah, a Shiite political coalition associated with Iraq’s paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – also known in Arabic as al-hashd al-sha‘bi or simply hashd – were mourning their own brand of martyrs, who were killed protesting the very election results responsible for the current composition of the house of representatives. The mourners evoked collective memories of injustice by establishing parallels between their fallen heroes and the martyrdom of the third Shia Imam Husseyn, whose killing in the historic battle of Karbala has scarred the memory of Iraq’s Shiite believers.
What all of these groups has in common is invoking the wrongs afflicted onto their respective communities to gain leverage over the dominant narrative of Iraq’s turbulent history. This has turned the collective memory of the country’s violent past into an array of contested interpretations, with each side clinging to its own version of the truth. As long as this prevails, Iraq’s fragile democracy is bound to remain hostage constantly to resurrecting and competing victimhoods.
In particular, the lack of a consensus on the culpability of power-hungry elites for the brutal suppression of the 2019 anti-establishment protests has exacerbated the level of polarisation between different conflict-affected communities. Moreover, having captured large segments of the state architecture, these very same elites have destroyed citizens’ trust in the ability of formal institutions to deliver justice or act as impartial mediators. Therefore, the state in its current make-up faces great difficulties in generating social glue and reconciling actors on opposing sides.
Since the outburst of the civil unrest in October 2019, established Shiite parties with strong leverage over state institutions have purposefully deployed the tactic of scaremongering to delegitimise their opponents from the Tishreen movement as jawkara (“jokers”), portraying them as a foreign-sponsored threat to Iraq’s stability. As a consequence, many Tishreen supporters have grown disillusioned with the state, feeling alienated by the failure of its institutions to take a stance or at least provide protection for those on the partisan militias’ target lists. To make matters worse, the so-called defenders of the state have sought to relativise systematically the Tishreen protesters’ legitimate demands for accountability, thereby obstructing their right to a transparent investigation and effective remedy.
Acknowledging the country’s need for a fresh start, the representatives of the Tishreen movement were those who pushed the hardest against the politically motivated exploitation of Iraq’s communal conflicts and the memories of sectarian strife. Since October 2019, these ordinary Iraqi citizens, tired of the routine weaponisation of ethnic and sect-coded identities, have demanded a total dismantling of the status quo. Though unwilling to part with their privileged position as self-proclaimed guardians of the state and to lose power over the dominant narrative, ruling elites have jointly met the demonstrators’ calls for change with indiscriminate violence. Instead of investigating the violators hiding behind the chain of command, they opted to put the blame on a mysterious perpetrator referred to as the taraf thalith (“third side”). Additionally, protesters were regularly accused of committing crimes of vandalism and provoking security forces to resort to harsher measures. This rhetoric was meant not just to absolve decision-makers of their complicity but also to influence the public perception of the protest movement as a destructive force and thus to shape, if not erase the memory of the authorities’ moral failure to protect citizens’ rights.
Already by the end of 2020 more than six hundred civilians had been killed on Iraqi streets; according to activists and human rights advocates, the extra-judicial killings continue and justice still has not been served. A systematic campaign of intimidation sought to suppress dissent and prevent the collapse of the Iraqi power equation, yet the Tishreenis did not give up their cause. Using social media, art and even pop culture, they kept the memory of the revolution alive and sought to channel their victimhood into political activism. After a hard battle, a reform in the election law enabled a slight reshuffle. Nonetheless, despite the resulting electoral gains for independent candidates, some of the more established parties are still resurrecting historical fears and violent memories in order to prevent the dismantling of their power enclaves.
Accused of championing foreign agendas, many of Iraq’s Iran-aligned parties suffered a staggering defeat in the 2021 elections. The al-Fatah coalition led by veteran resistance politician Hadi al-Ameri saw its seats shrinking from 48 to just 17. In addition to misinterpreting the logic of the new electoral law, the coalition had seemingly failed to adapt its campaigning strategy to the changed political context. During the elections of 2018, following the announced territorial defeat of IS, promoting the deeds of the PMF on the battlefield against terrorism had indeed helped al-Fatah translate the fears and sympathies of patriotic Iraqis into parliamentary seats. Nevertheless, the most recent elections demonstrated that being tied to a paramilitary force with a controversial footprint no longer provided good optics. The memory of the PMF as brave volunteers and national heroes had started to fade and give way to people’s frustration with the various rogue armed units hiding behind the ambiguous hashd brand. Indeed, while being recognised by the state as a formal security agency, the PMF has offered an institutional roof for an array of Iran-backed Islamic resistance factions using their affiliation with the paramilitary as a cover. Despite this controversy, al-Fatah and its numerous protégés have still been able to get a significant number of votes in their favour, allowing them to remain important brokers with sufficient veto power to sabotage or at least block the government formation process. From al-Fatah’s perspective, no means are considered off limits while the priority remains the same: the collapse of Shiite clout has to be prevented at all costs. Accordingly, any force challenging al-Fatah’s narrative and questioning its historical role in Iraq’s statehood project has to be discredited.
Hence, these actors have frequently reminded their constituencies of the oppression and crimes of the Ba’ath regime against the Shiite community and regularly warned of the resurgence of IS in the Iraqi hinterland. The politicisation of Iraq’s history has thus proven their most powerful weapon when it comes to distracting the public from their own governance failures.
As recent testimonies of Sunni voters from across Anbar province show, even the authoritarian legacy of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to have undergone a process of rewriting. When asked about his preferences, a resident declared: “I will vote for Maliki because he is capable of supporting us, even though other parties didn’t give him enough time to prove himself.” To understand the controversy, it is important to note that Maliki’s rule has been mainly associated with a number of repressive policies towards Iraq’s Sunni citizens. Against this background, the quote illustrates that memory is malleable and that the perception of reality by communities subjected to the horrors of oppression and deprivation is likely to reflect their want for security and protection. Thus, they seem likely to embrace or at least tolerate the narrative provided by whomever happens to provide them with those basic guarantees, regardless of his sect, ethnicity or humanitarian track record.
Moreover, the recounted episode vividly demonstrates Iraqi elites’ virtuosity in whitewashing their image through the help of fearmongering, patronage networks and spoils allocation. The question therefore remains whether the reform-oriented Tishreen movement is indeed equipped to prevent the culture of clientelism through influencing the memories and sentiments of those on the receiving end.
The majority of the Tishreen protest slogans have emphasised a vision of national unity, one transcending sectarian and ethnic differences. In contrast to establishment forces’ efforts to use history to sow division, the Tishreenis evoke history to promote a shared Iraqi identity. Instead of highlighting the existing divisions and intracommunal tensions, representatives of the protest movement have sought to nurture the idea of citizenry, a conscious polity ready to take charge of its fate. They have emphasised collectively experienced grievances such as the endemic corruption and the wilful negligence among those at the top of society, regardless of their ethnic origin or religious beliefs. Through the slogan b-ism-i d-din bagona al-haramiya (“in the name of religion, the thieves stole from us”), activists have rejected the weaponisation of religion and religiously derived victimhood for political and economic gains. In doing so, they have begun coining their own mythology and ethics of remembrance.
The end result was two different types of victimhood. On the one hand, the establishment Shiite forces bemoaned having been wronged by their sectarian other. On the other, the Tishreenis ended up being wronged by their co-religionists who turned against them under the pretext of protecting the common sect. The stalemate is thus once again threatening to prevent the transition towards the promised new era of positive change.
Against all odds, the avant-garde of the Tishreen movement still harbours hopes for reversing the evils of the dominant quota-based pie-sharing system known as Muhasasa. To underline the level of commitment, a Tishreen mural in Baghdad displayed the prophetic words by the Iraqi poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri: “From the depths of despair will emerge / A valiant, stubborn generation / Trading in what is for what is desired And changing what they want to what is real.” Meanwhile, the movement’s main opponents and proponents of business-as-usual have proven willing and able to mobilise deep-seated fears and collective memories of war and conflict to achieve a rally-round-the-flag effect. Competing trauma and internalised victimhood have since hardened both sides to the extent that reaching a viable compromise appears almost impossible.
Those who found themselves on the losing side are reluctant to step down without a proper fight. Despite the heightened societal pressure to punish the perpetrators of human rights violations against Iraqi civilians, these actors and their allies embedded in the halls of power have so far refused to take responsibility and address the victims’ appeals. As Iraq analyst Ruba al-Hassani argues, “the dismissal of collective emotion means willful disregard for people’s grievances and lived experiences”. For those complicit in the violence, admitting guilt would be equal to validating the narrative of Tishreenis and losing their grip on the dominant discourse, one that still allows them to meddle with the collective memory of Iraqis and to dilute the lines between victims and perpetrators. In their writing of history, the sacrifices of Iraq’s protest movement are being relativised as the collateral damage of their efforts to protect the state, or at least the version of statehood giving them the upper hand over the country’s post-2014 narrative.
A way forward would be to kickstart a dialogue bringing the different conflict parties to the table, with the aim of agreeing on a process to seek justice and digest past atrocities without stigmatisation and scapegoating. However, in order to secure the participation of disillusioned Tishreenis in such an open-ended initiative, decision-makers would have to provide some tangible guarantees that their victimhood would not be swept under the carpet. Such a process would succeed only if all the actors affected by the violence were offered a safe space to share their painful memories of loss, abuse and neglect. In order for them to heal from the trauma, they need to feel listened to and not just acknowledged for the sake of appearances or as part of electoral campaigning.
This publication was produced as part of the XCEPT programme, a programme funded by UK Aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.