If I had to sum up my PhD project in a sentence it would be, “Making sense of the Sadrist social-religious-political movement in Iraq by understanding the worldview of its participants.” I’m trying to achieve this by looking at texts and reading about history, but most importantly by speaking with Iraqis who identify themselves as Sadrists. This is the best part of the project. At times it’s also quite difficult, logistically and emotionally.
Australian universities are rightly risk averse when it comes to permitting researchers to travel to places like Iraq, so for now I speak with Iraqis via various social media apps, usually in text but sometimes by voice. Mornings before work is the best time to catch them, owing to the time zone difference. So a lot of insights are gleaned while sitting in a Canberra café with a strong coffee, plugging away with my phone.
Some mornings this is a great start to the day: intellectual stimulation, perhaps a gem of knowledge, or sometimes a few good laughs – and a dose of Arabic music. Lately, though, the tone of my conversations has been dark indeed.
For a side project I was discussing militias with a contact in a southern Iraqi city. He painted a very bleak picture of numerous armed groups causing serious problems for local communities, either by pursuing narrow criminal objectives or acting as local proxies for state or non-state actors, Iraqi or foreign. Extortion, violence, impunity.
“Do you think this will change in the future?” I asked.
A simple answer: “No.”
Conversations this week have been equally troubling, occurring in the context of the Kurdish referendum which many Iraqis seem to consider divisive and badly timed. One contact, referring to the danger that regional states will respond to the referendum with military action, despaired that “Turkey and Iran will destroy everything with their militias”. Another wrote frankly of feeling depressed: “I don’t know when all these wars will end.”
This is what “understanding the worldview of participants” means. It’s not simply about whether Sadrists who take part in mass demonstrations and other political actions are motivated by nationalism or religion or a desire for social justice – or something else again. It’s about the social and political context that informs that motivation. My project challenges me daily to understand this context as deeply as I possibly can. And then to step back and apply academic rigour to the things I’ve learned. In the process I am reminded of my position of wealth and security, all the way over here in sunny Canberra.