Weekly pro-reform demonstrations in Iraq – whether “civil”, Sadrist, or both – have been criticised for undermining the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group. This criticism has been levelled by Iraqi politicians and government officials, the US and the UN, and external analysts (especially those with an axe to grind against the Sadrists). The argument is that protest action can prompt a political crisis that will take the focus away from the war. Mass demonstrations also drag security forces away from the fighting. Activists disagree.
The pro-reform movement advances a sophisticated critique of Iraqi politics that identifies a clear link between the issues of corruption and terrorism. Here’s the short version. Following the US invasion a new political system was imposed upon Iraq. This system is based on ethno-sectarian quotas that entrench corruption by enabling political, not meritorious, appointments. It also empowers an out-of-touch political elite, many of whom did not live in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein period. Analysts warned of this outcome back in 2003 . The resulting corruption erodes government capacity to deliver services, including security. This creates the conditions in which terrorism can thrive.
Conceptualising Iraq’s problems in this way, pro-reform activists see corruption and terrorism as two sides of the same coin. Activists that I speak with stress to me that the reform program is the first and most important step in longer term efforts to rebuild their country. In this view, demonstrating to demand political reform is not a distraction from the fight against terrorism but an essential element of that fight. This idea has been effectively illustrated by imagery shared on social media over the past few months .
This cartoon was first published by the independent online news agency, Huriyaty News, in July 2016. It depicts Iraq caught between corruption and terrorism. Activists shared it widely using Google Plus, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
This second image appears to have been produced by an activist. I haven’t been able to definitively identify its origins. It first appeared on Twitter in February 2016 and has been shared on various social media since then, especially during large demonstrations. Its message is powerful: Patriotism unites, we have hands for fighting corruption and hands for fighting terrorism. The images on the right are especially significant, symbolically linking nonviolence, victims of terrorism, and state repression.
These widely-shared images represent the pro-reformist analysis of Iraq’s crisis, articulate the link between corruption and terrorism, and refute the notion that protesting for reform is a distraction from fighting terrorism. Corruption and terrorism are part of the same problem, the activists say, and we can fight both of them at once.