Interpreting itikaaf

On numerous occasions since 2003 the figurehead of the Sadrist Line, Muqtada al-Sadr, has removed himself from the public eye for periods of itikaaf, or “seclusion”. The practice provides insights into the role of his leadership in the wider movement. When he enters seclusion, al-Sadr undertakes a private spiritual retreat to an undisclosed location for weeks or months. Seclusion features prominently in activist discourse and its meaning is constructed in several ways.

Frequently, the publicly stated purpose of seclusion is to distance the cleric from worldly politics as a means of expressing his profound disappointment or frustration – perhaps even disgust – with the state of affairs in Iraq. Several activists have informed me that they interpret seclusion in this way, or as a contemplative practice that allows al-Sadr to plan his approach to difficult issues. By contrast, some commentary has characterised seclusion as evidence of poor temperament and unpredictability, cowardice, subservience to external actors (usually Tehran), a need to invest time in a sub-par religious education, and even immaturity, all of which are consistent with the generally negative international framing of al-Sadr.

An alternative perspective is provided by an activist who told me that Sadrists consider the seclusion practice to be a necessary part of self-reflective, considered leadership that balances religious and political life. On each occasion that al-Sadr enters seclusion, activists look forward to a significant message or action upon his return to public life, presumably the product of quiet contemplation and careful consideration of weighty matters. In this view, it’s leadership with mystery and drama. Seclusion may also serve more practical purposes. As the critical observers suggest, it may be a means of hiding from enemies (including foreign occupation forces).

My activist contact also suggested to me that seclusion is instrumental in the sense that it provides space for activists, participants, and leaders within the wider social movement to make decisions for themselves. During seclusion there are no public statements, no responses to questions from the faithful – and no directions to the organisers of protest actions.

Muqtada al-Sadr announced a period of seclusion in the days following the 30 April 2016 infiltration of the Green Zone, an event in which he had played a significant symbolic role. The activist explained to me that this was a deliberate move designed to create space, both for the government (to act on the demands of the pro-reform protesters) and for the activists (to make their own decisions and organise their next actions). The purpose of seclusion, I was informed, is “preparing the people to lead themselves”. Furthermore, al-Sadr frequently urges participants in the wider social movement to self-organise by asking, “What will you do when I will be killed by the enemies?” Not if, but when.

In this interpretation of the practice of seclusion, al-Sadr provides moral guidance to protest actions – including, in the case of the Green Zone infiltration, through symbolic personal participation – and then steps back to create space for others to discuss, organise, decide, and act. To engage, that is, in praxis. For at least some Sadrist activists, the practice of seclusion represents self-reflective, considered, and even empowering leadership.

Bad apples

Bad apples

One of the main criticisms made of the Sadrist Line by other political groups in Iraq is that its campaign against government corruption is hypocritical and insincere. Critics point out that the Sadrists oppose a government that their political wing, the al-Ahrar Bloc, is a part of, and they question the commitment of the Sadrists to stamping out corruption on the grounds that the movement itself contains corrupt members. As with other criticisms levelled against it, the Sadrist Line is taking measures in response.

In July 2016 the Sadrists announced the establishment of a commission against corruption to root out the undesirable elements within their own movement. It is headed by Dhiaa al-Asadi who also leads the al-Ahrar Bloc and is respected within the Sadrist Line as a principled man able to make tough decisions. Tip boxes were placed at the location of Friday prayers so that people could provide information about unethical behaviour of their fellow Sadrists in confidence.


The work of the commission is underway. From time to time it makes a decision and publishes a statement that names the guilty party and the activities they have perpetrated. Recent announcements have, for example, expelled an individual from the Sadrist Line because their corrupt activities have brought the wider movement into disrepute. These statements are shared widely on social media; it is a very public ostracism.

The Sadrists have long acknowledged the presence of criminals within their movement. Muqtada al-Sadr frequently stated that he was not responsible for the activities of criminals who committed violence in the name of the movement’s armed wing, the Mahdi Army, during the height of the insurgency against US occupation. Steps were taken to address this problem, although not before a lot of harm was done. Activists that I speak with today with are likewise aware that there are bad apples within the movement – naturally, they say, given its size and diversity – and believe that action must be taken to be rid of them.

Opponents and critics of the Sadrist Line will remain skeptical – and will be justified in raising questions about the rigour with which a political movement can investigate itself – but people within the movement seem to view the commission positively. Its establishment and ongoing work also demonstrates that the Sadrist leadership is intent on proving its reformist credentials and showing its critics that it is willing to look inwards and examine its own failings. Above all, it suggests that the Sadrist Line cares how other Iraqis perceive it and wishes to be seen as a legitimate and trustworthy actor on the nation’s political stage.

Infinite and stable

At first I referred to the Sadrist Movement. Later I settled on Sadrist Trend (after reading it somewhere that sounded authoritative) and I noted that some called it the Sadrist Current. Both of these are reasonably common ways of referring to a school of political thought. But if you ask a member of the social movement known as the Sadrists how they would prefer to be known, they will probably say al-Khatt al-Sadri, the Sadrist Line.

When this was explained to me I immediately thought of “family line”. The movement’s figurehead, Moqtada al-Sadr, is descended from a long line of respected religious scholars. His family includes the “vanished imam” Musa al-Sadr, the important Iraqi scholar and political activist, Baqir al-Sadr, and Muqtada’s father Sadeq al-Sadr, for whom Baghdad’s “Sadr City” is named. It would make sense to speak of the Sadr family as the Sadrist Line, but I couldn’t see how it would apply more generally to a movement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who identify with the movement.

I was missing the point.

The word “line” is not just about family history. It is used as a counterpoint to words like “trend” and especially “current”. These terms suggest impermanence and instability. A line, however, is infinite and stable. Like a line, the movement is stable and will continue on forever, even after its present day participants have passed on.

A million signatures

A million signatures

The third element of this month’s nonviolent protest by the Sadrist Trend – following its two-day public sector strike and Friday hunger strike – is a petition demanding anti-corruption reforms. The aim is to collect a million signatures of Iraqis who declare, “The corrupt in the government do not represent me”. The petition is a tactic that the movement has used in the past and provides insights into the Sadrist Trend’s political strategy.

First, it demonstrates the commitment to nonviolence I discussed in my previous note. Moreso, it shows that the movement’s leaders and organisers have a firm grasp of democratic processes – contrary to some disparaging views of Iraqi politics and the Arab world more broadly – and its members and supporters value these processes enough to line up in the summer heat and sign their names. This was likewise demonstrated more than a decade ago when, in 2005, the movement set out to obtain a million signatures to express opposition to the US occupation of Iraq.

Second, it suggests that the movement seeks international recognition and legitimacy. Sadrists have made remarks suggesting that international observers are overseeing the collection of signatures and that a submission will be made to the United Nations. I haven’t been able to dig into this yet, however it’s consistent with the movement’s recent approach to international engagement. In May, for instance, following the violent repression of a Green Zone protest, Sadrists and other protestors provided witness statements to international human rights bodies and called for international action. Alongside civil activists, they also met with representatives of UN bodies to explain the broader demands of the reform movement and seek support.

The stated aim of the strike action was to demonstrate through symbolic sacrifice the Sadrists’ honesty and commitment to the pro-reform struggle, as a means of appealing to other Iraqis. If indeed the petition is aimed at the UN, this shows that this month’s protests form a well-rounded strategy that is designed to deliver political messages to both domestic and international audiences. Finally, the petition demonstrates once again the ability of the Sadrist Trend to engage large numbers of people and coordinate activities nationally. This in itself is a powerful message.

(Photo courtesy of @AlFayth.)

Hungry for reform

Hungry for reform

Public sector employees across Iraq this week staged a two day strike under the slogan, “The corrupt do not represent me”. On Sunday and Monday, the striking workers staged sit-ins and pickets outside their workplaces, ensuring they were available should urgent matters arise, despite official warnings they could be penalised. The call to strike came from Muqtada al-Sadr. Some strikers displayed posters of al-Sadr or his father, Sadeq al-Sadr. This weekend a hunger strike is taking place in designated mosques, Hussainiyas, and churches, in order to symbolically demonstrate the commitment and honesty of the pro-reform protestors.

Since early this year – as regular Friday protests morphed into mass rallies, sit-ins, and then the momentous Green Zone infiltration – activists within the Sadrist Trend have talked about the need to escalate their protest activities – shala’ qala’ – until the government is compelled to take action on reform. The infiltration of the Green Zone was a remarkable means of escalation. However, after a second attempt was met with repression reminiscent of past government responses, activists changed tack. Sit-ins occurred outside political offices and other sites, notably in Najaf, but this approach was abandoned as counterproductive when it seemed likely to provoke violence.

Activists said that the escalation would culminate if necessary in a general strike. Indeed, Iraq has a history of strike action, particularly in the oil and transport sectors. The current action is far short of a general strike, yet it serves to demonstrate a commitment to nonviolent escalation. This commitment was clearly articulated in the “peaceful, peaceful” chants of the Green Zone action in April 2016. It also represents a clear statement that the Sadrist Trend’s repertoire of contention – that is, the set of protest tactics and actions that it is capable of and prepared to use – is resolutely nonviolent. This is important for the Sadrists’ legitimacy, its relationship with other civil society groups, and al-Sadr’s continuing effort to transform the image of his movement.

The strike actions have coincided with the hijra al-Sadreen ala tweeter or migration of Sadrists to Twitter (presumably from the preferred platform, Facebook). The government workers’ strike was supported by the hashtags “Strike up reform” and “The corrupt government does not represent me”. Photos and messages about the hunger strike are being shared using the hashtag “Iraqi hunger strike”. Churches were included in the list of designated hunger strike locations and activists have distributed photos of Christian Iraqis taking part, an important indicator that they wish their movement to be considered inclusive and pluralist.

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This messaging demonstrates how the movement continues to foster its nonviolent image. Similar messaging is evident in the activities of the Saraya al-Salam, the Sadrist Trend’s armed wing. The continued operation of an armed group in parallel with a resolutely nonviolent street protest movement requires careful management, real and perceived. At present at least, the distinction between the two entities is made clear by their purposes: pressuring the government for political reform, and defending holy sites against attack by the Islamic State terrorist group. There are challenges and contradictions, of course, and I’ll discuss some of these in a subsequent post.

The current strike actions, while symbolically important and gaining traction on social media, don’t seem to have had an effect on the government. What these multi-day activities allow for, however, is increasing social media interaction, including on a new platform, between protest participants and observers. Messaging is consistent, clear, and well coordinated. The audience seems to be other Iraqis, moreso than the government. Perhaps more importantly, these actions bring people together in places where they can discuss politics (and, no doubt, football) and perhaps engage in networking and protest organising. After all, the principle of shala’ qala’ means increasing the pressure on the corrupt political elite. There’s a good chance that the primary purpose of the current action is to prepare for the next step in the movement’s escalation.

Between corruption and terrorism

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.

Iraq between terrorism and corruption, Huriyaty News 16 July 2016.

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.

Hands for fighting corruption and hands for fighting terrorism.

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.

Two protests

On a Wednesday evening in Karbala, a city south of Baghdad, a large group of young men gathered under a bridge only a few hundred metres from my hotel. It was early April 2016, just weeks before symbolic Green Zone protests escalated Iraqi street politics to unprecedented levels. I was witnessing the sort of protest action that had been taking place in cities across the country for nearly twelve months as Iraqis demanded political reform to end the ethno-sectarian quota system and root out corruption.

A couple of the young men had loudspeakers and several carried banners and Iraqi flags. They sang. They chanted. They clapped their hands. A small group of very enthusiastic lads even danced. I was reminded of videos I’d been glued to during the Arab Spring protests five years ago. The police closed off the street, diverted traffic, and watched the event unfold without interfering. After an hour or so, the crowd reduced in size, the road was re-opened, and the police departed.

The scene was very different in Kufa on Friday morning. Having just visited the Great Mosque of Kufa, I sat in the shade at the nearby shrine, watching Iraqis do what they do at the mosque on Fridays. When prayers ended, thousands of people, many of them families, began a slow procession out of the mosque, past the shrine, and toward the city where they would stage a protest in the square. Some sang as they walked.

There must have been hundreds of Iraqi flags. Dotted amongst them where white flags featuring the green insignia of the Sarāyā al-Salām (Peace Companies), the Sadrist militia that current defends holy sites and contributes to the fighting against the Islamic State terrorist group. The flags were on sale at a Sadrist merchandise stand outside the mosque, just opposite the Sadrist bookshop.

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These two protest events represent two different faces of Iraqi street politics. Recently, observers have taken to describing Iraqi activists and protest participants as belonging to either “civic” or “Sadrist” movements. The first refers to civil society groups with a secular outlook and a vision of a new form of government free of the ethno-sectarian quotas in place since 2003. The second refers to Iraqis who, to varying degrees, identify with the religious leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, or the social and political movement he leads, which was built largely by his father during the 1990s.

These two trends form an uneasy alliance because of a common interest in political change in Iraq. There’s tension between the secular orientation of the civic trend and the Islamist outlook of the Sadrists. Important internal discussions are currently taking place in the context of this tension.

Naturally, there are more strident views, too, such as analysts who criticise the Sadrists for “hijacking” the civic protest movement for political gain and international media that refer to the Sadrists as a “Shi’a mob”. In turn, the Sadrists present themselves as the only movement able to mobilise Iraqis in the hundreds of thousands to pressure the government for reform. Some Sadrists criticise civic participants who are unwilling to work with them and suggest that civic activists distrust Sadrists because they’ve been influenced by anti-Sadrist propaganda.

Seeking to understand these and other actors in Iraqi politics and civil society – their motivations, relationships, and goals – is a fascinating and increasingly important task.