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In search of cardinal virtues in Iraq

Political violence has ascended into a mode of governance in Iraq today, wherein religious identity reigns supreme.

Bullets on the ground in Mosul, Iraq, 01 June 2017. Picture by Noe Falk Nielsen/NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All right reserved. I arrived in Baghdad in November 2013. It was part of my doctoral research on the afterlives of the Iraqi Baʿth state’s al-Anfāl genocide (1987-1991). I wanted to record how the Iraqi federal government shows its responsibility for the past, present, and future of Iraq. I saw the future of Iraq to be entirely wrapped in women survivors’ persistent demands for legal and ethical justice, for tracing, exhuming, identifying and returning the remains of their loved ones scattered in unknown mass graves in the country. In Iraq women survivors remain the voice that translates into the ethical urgency for building a more responsible and virtuous Iraq.

With modern bureaucracy the Iraqi Baʿth regime pulled religion and the constitution together to justify and to make legitimate genocidal violence. The state’s decree no. 4008, dated June 20, 1987, declares the Kurdish rural areas and village as outlawed, and that they “shall be regarded as operational zones strictly out of bound to all persons and animals […] in which the troops can open fire at will […] The Corps shall carry out random bombardment, using artillery, helicopter and aircraft […] in order to kill the largest number of persons in the outlawed areas.” Jointly with thousands of other al-Anfāl documents, the decree became a key legal evidence during the al-Anfāl trials (2006-2007) and was used against Ali Hassan al-Majid, the Secretary General of the Northern Bureau from 1987-1989. Al-Majid was the one who had signed the decree. Following the trials, the verdict judged al-Anfāl as genocide.

“This is life in Baghdad. It is a biological duration”

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, it is now remembered to have resulted in the killing and disappearance of ‘182.000’ people, displacement of ‘1.5 million’ people, and complete destruction of ‘4.500’ villages.

At the time of my arrival, ten years after the United States turned “de-Baʿthification” of Iraq into law, Baghdad was still dotted with checkpoints. It was a city under siege as mobile military units and armored vehicles roamed the streets. Occupying the dangerous sidewalk of the road between the liberation monument in Tahrir Square and the “green zone,” where the Iraqi parliament, the Council of Representatives of Iraq, and the respective American and British embassies are located, vendors were forming a line and displayed their goods. As the driver saw me watching the vendors, he told me, “This is life in Baghdad. It is a biological duration.” He was telling me whose life is at stake.

I soon observed that al-Anfāl was not of concern to the Iraqi government in the green zone. What happened had disappeared into a past without trace. The dominant question in the pressroom of the Iraqi parliament was whether to maintain or decrease the monthly food rations (e.g. flour, rice, cooking oil etc.) to the Iraqi population. This public distribution food program became a policy when sanctions were imposed on Iraq. It was the punishment for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the beginning of August 1990. The United Nations’ “oil for food” program in 1996, and the Iraqi food program increasingly turned the Iraqi peoples into biological duration.

A specially trained Kurdish Peshmerga (lit. ‘before death’) force and a British Security company with employees from the Republic of Fiji were responsible for the security of the parliament. “I am surprised to see Peshmerga here,” I voiced my inquisitiveness to a Peshmerga who scanned my body at the entrance. “Shīʿītes and Sunnīs do not trust each other, but they both trust us. There were bloodbaths here before we came,” he responded. Yet, the then President Jalal Talabani had left the Presidential Palace to the city of Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region. I was told that he is in conflict with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister at the time. “He will come back. This is how politics is done in Iraq. People get angry at each other and they threaten to kill each other, and then suddenly they are back together as if nothing ever happened between them. It is the Iraqi civilians who suffer,” an Iraqi parliamentarian told me over dinner at a small restaurant outside of the green zone. Two boys, 17 years old and 18 years old respectively were running the restaurant. The restaurant was 16 square meters, and it was also where the two boys slept at night. “We are from the south of Iraq, and have nowhere else to go to at night,” said the 17 year old boy.

Politics as irresponsibility and unaccountability is at the heart of the modern political history of Iraq.

The 2005 Iraqi state’s constitution that hosts rights and freedoms neither had a place at the restaurant nor in the everyday life of the two boys and their families. “Our families can put bread on the table because we send them money every month,” said the 18 year old boy. The money had to be given to their respective mothers who in turn would use it to take care of other children. If one doesn’t immediately acknowledge that love, ethics, responsibility, accountability, care and justice are always at work at this level of the current Iraqi society then one denies the history and the future of Iraq.

The green zone is at work creating another Iraq, taking a different stance in relation to the past, present, and future. Politics as irresponsibility and unaccountability is at the heart of the modern political history of Iraq. Because of his titanic depravity, Nouri al-Maliki was replaced with Haider al-Abadi. Yet, he remains a powerful figure in the Iraqi government. An electric engineer, al-Abadi is now doing apoplectic politics in continuity with a particular reading of religion. While claiming to be a strict constitutional leader and reader, he continues to militarize Iraq to be prepared to carry out constitutional and religious wars against the Iraqi Kurdish citizens at any time. Al-Abadi’s matter of concern is not the living conditions, national infrastructure, and promotion of national education in all fields, health care, and cultural life, but the politics of violence that has brought him closer to Iran and Turkey.

Violence is entrenched in the evolvement of what is now Iraq. Apart from the violence of the Ottomans, the British and the Americans that are yet to be accounted for, certain interpretations of religion are a constitutive part of six separate genocidal violence in Iraq in the twentieth and twenty-first century. The Summayl massacre against the Assyrians, an Iraqi Christian minority, on August 11, 1933; Al-Farūd became the name for public hangings, massacre, and violent dispossession of the Iraqi Jews in early 1941; The Dujail massacre targeting the Iraqi Shīʿītes between 1982-1985; Al-Anfāl operations targeting mainly the Kurds but also absorbing Êzîdîs and Christians between 1987-1991; Shīʿīte religious cleansing of the Sunnīs in 2006-2007; the Sinjar operations of the “Islamic state” against Êzîdîs, and its exterminatory violence against Christians, Kāka’ees, and Shabak between 2014-2017.

Political violence has ascended into a mode of governance in Iraq today

Political violence has ascended into a mode of governance in Iraq today, wherein religious identity reigns supreme. The arrival and settlement of the “popular mobilization forces” (Al-Hashd al-shaʿbī) in the city of Kirkuk on October 16, 2017, attests to how freedoms and rights break down and the control over the oil reserves takes precedence. In its visible form, it is a Shīʿīte army acting rather in the name of God, and making public the growing solidarity between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Haider al-Abadi. A shared religious identity, Shīʿīsm is subjected to a political translation that shapes a new but asymmetric relationship between Baghdad and Tehran. The Iranian state is only at work foisting its own reading of Shīʿīte identity on the entire region. This particular mode of existence is the Islamic Republic’s only contribution to the modern history of the Middle East, and it remains its only option of survival. Its survival and its acts of violence both within Iran and in the region are inseparable. An identity that makes invisible all other identities, as Amartya Sen writes, “can kill – and kill with abandon.”

Dichotomized religious identities have advanced into an Iraqi ordinance. Together with other friends, I had the privilege of visiting a renowned Iraqi artist while in Bagdad. Lamenting the loss of cultural life in Baghdad, the artist reflected on how the politicization of Islam is gradually cleaning all traces of art and aesthetics in the memory of the city. Later on, one of the hosts invited me to an art exhibition and while walking he whispered to me how the Iraqi Sunnīs were transformed into a measurable enemy and identified on the basis of their names or their location inscribed on their national identification cards. “Many Sunnīs were exterminated and their bodies were thrown into the Tigris River,” he told me. He continued saying how this policy precipitously turned neighbors and communities into historical religious enemies and brought the everyday living together to an ultimate end.

The very exclusive religious mission of Al-Hashd al-shaʿbī brings it closer to the Islamic states’ phantasmagoria, informing the Iraqis that they are exclusively Shīʿīte. This comes to life during the holy Day of Ashura, when some organized groups occupy the streets with swords and chains, cutting and whipping their own bodies. Physical pain and bleeding become evidence of religious duty and identity, remembering the killing of ḥussein Ibn ʿAli at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. The politics of viscerality is an act that sanctifies the self and the land where ʿAli, Prophet Mohammed’s first cousin and son-in-law, and ḥussein, ʿAli’s son, and other martyrs of the Battle of Karbala are buried. Located at the heart of Iraq, Karbala and the city of Najaf fall within the area where Sunnīs and Shīʿītes sacrificed lives and spilled blood in their battles over who would become the ultimate face of Islam on earth, following the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 CE.

Dichotomized religious identities have advanced into an Iraqi ordinance.

Al-Hashd al-shaʿbī cannot, therefore, be confined to what the name proposes. Al-shaʿbī is a euphemism for al-Shīʿīte, just as al-Anfāl was a euphemism for genocide. Born from a religious declaration (fatwā) of Al-Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shīʿa authority in Iraq, on 15 June 2014 Al-Hashd al-shaʿbī is the manifestation of divine punishment. Its mission was to descend into war with the “Islamic state.” It has now advanced into a force that can suspend law and ethics and make and unmake the humanity of its target group with impunity. Its reputation as a merciless armed force renders it foreign to the principle that each and every person has civil and political rights that she/he should be able to express and realize freely and without any fear of death. It makes infinitely public al-Abadi’s religious reading of the Iraqi constitution, in the name of which he claims to order and command military operations. The operations target Iraqi citizens (Kurds) whose rights and freedoms are also guaranteed by the same constitution. The constitution was written under the US-UK rule. In his book, Constitution Making Under Occupation, Andrew Arato writes that a “short time period was provided for the making of the permanent constitution (seven months), some of this was eaten up by the problems of government formation and the formation of the Constitutional Committee itself (three and a half months in all), and it took another two months to include Sunni representatives.”

The paradox embedded in the relation of religion to the constitution continues to be integral to the justification of violence or the right of the state to kill. While Article 2 insists, “Islam is the official religion of the State and is a foundation source of legislation,” Section Two: Rights and Freedoms of the constitution encapsulates the rights and freedoms of all persons, that are taken to be independent of “gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, origin, color, religion, sect, belief or opinion, or economic or social status” (Article 14). These rights are enshrined in the Universal Declarations of Human Rights of which Iraq is a signatory state. In this respect, as it is also inscribed in Article 8, the Iraqi state is made nationally and internationally accountable for any violations of fundamental rights and freedoms.

It is characteristic of neoliberal democracy that one sings democracy at “home” and participates in annihilatory violence elsewhere – that one is at once a democrat and a monster. 

The terrorizing invasion of Tuz Khurmatu, Kirkuk, Khanaqin, and Sinjar and the forced displacement of the Kurdish civilians from what Article 140 of the constitution gathers together under the name “disputed territories” are rather trends toward violation of all rights and freedoms. The name also turns the inhabitants into “disputed populations.” Sinjar is yet to get free of the genocidal violence of the “Islamic state,” and its inhabitants, Êzîdîs, continue to live in the shadow of that violence in camps for “internally displaced persons” in the Kurdistan Region. The Shīʿīte dominated Iraqi government’s unwillingness to break free of terror and violence and the active deferral of the constitution, has securely turned the no longer valid Article 140 into annihilatory violence. Paragraph 2 of Article 140, insists that the “Iraqi Transitional Government stipulated in Article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law,” shall through “a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories … determine the will of their citizens … by a date not to exceed the 31st of December 2007.” Noticing the date (31st of December 2007), Article 140 must be a thing of the past.

What Article 140 archives is now actualized violence. The arrival and presence of Al-Hashd al-shaʿbī with sophisticated weapons, turning the disputed territories into a war zone, cannot display protection of “The will of [Iraqi] citizens.” Fundamental to the annihilatory force of Al-Hashd al-shaʿbī is the modernity’s technics of extermination. This is what connects it to the global arms trade for which no one is held accountable. This dimension reveals how weapons produced in democracies, e.g. the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, and traded with Iraq, inevitably makes them complicit. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook 2017, these democracies are among the main exporters of weapons and Iraq is among the main importers of these weapons. It is characteristic of neoliberal democracy that one sings democracy at “home” and participates in annihilatory violence elsewhere – that one is at once a democrat and a monster. In politics,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “obedience and support are the same.”

In fear of terrorization and death, more than a hundred thousand Kurdish civilians in Sinjar, Tuz Khurmatu, and Kirkuk left their homes already on October 16-17, 2017. Homelessness and statelessness are again turning families, many of whom are survivors of al-Anfāl, into depoliticized bodies. The homes that have been set on fire and worldly possessions looted in Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk must testify to how the state materialized in Al-Hashd al-shaʿbī displays its will to erase human plurality while miniaturizing Iraq, as Amartya Sen would say. This is already an appalling marker of how the state forgets the constitution. Apart from “public morality,” and the “right to individual privacy,” Article 17 of the Iraqi constitution states: “The sanctity of the homes shall be protected. Homes may not be entered, searched, or violated, except by a judicial decision in accordance with the law.”

The unprecedented rapprochement between Iran, Turkey and Haider al-Abadi is a political reversal – friends becoming enemies and enemies becoming friends.

The referendum [The will of Iraqi citizens] for independence in the Kurdistan Region is made responsible for terrorization and threat of annihilation, forced displacement and the burning of homes. Al-Abadi describes the referendum as “a thing of the past” that is both “unconstitutional” and a threat to state “sovereignty.” The constitution and sovereignty are thus taken as sufficient source for the forgetfulness of the past and the legitimization of Al-Hashd al-shaʿbī as a fearful armed force. State sovereignty is not seen to be applicable to the dominant military presence and participation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, operating through Qasem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s “Quds Force” with a commitment to extraterritorial wars. It is also the Islamic Republic of Iran that has divided and controls the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as a Kafkaian gatekeeper and shapes its politics of withdrawal at any moment. Like the Kurdistan Democratic Party, it, too, remains to be held accountable for its history of political violence. What link together these Kurdish political parties with the the Islamic Dawa party in Baghdad, are their political translation of “Kurdish and Shīʿīte victimhood” and their unaccountable abuse of national wealth.

The unprecedented rapprochement between Iran, Turkey and Haider al-Abadi is a political reversal – friends becoming enemies and enemies becoming friends. They are now suddenly each other’s only hope. Iran and Turkey were “friends” of the two most powerful Kurdish political parties before the referendum. Together with al-Abadi they are now at work drawing a cartographic control of the Iraqi Kurdish citizens. Politics and religious identity are made indivisible. The conquest of the disputed territories is a viscerally arresting testimony. This shows how humiliation and symbolic violence – taking off, throwing away, trampling on, and burning the Kurdish flag and homes – embody a politics of religious identity that feed on hatred between different human collectives in Iraq. As acts of genocide throughout the world can plainly demonstrate, hatred is intrinsically genocidal. If the future of Al-Hashd al-shaʿbī in the disputed territories cannot be fully calculated, their right to render rightless continues to create Iraq as the legitimate domain of the Shīʿīte. It produces radical identitarianism that points at a monstrous future.

Al-Anfāl operations, too, produced the Kurdish rural civilians and political demand an internal threat to the Iraqi state sovereignty and national security. Saddam Hussein, then the president of Iraq, also claimed to be an adherent to the Interim Constitution of July 1970, which it had at its disposal. While during the reign of the Baʿth party the constitution was due mainly to political violence, today for the Islamic Dawa party it is due to violence founded on religious identity beyond the national borders of Iraq. The carryover of centralization of political power and monopolization of violence clearly marks how the overthrow of the genocidal Baʿth party has not guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms of all Iraqis.

Contrary to the politics that has given birth to hatred and mass murder again and again in Iraq, what I physically encountered and heard in Baghdad and in villages and cities in the Kurdistan Region is an urgent call for what W. E. B. Du Bois called cardinal virtues: “individual prudence, courage, temperance, and justice, and the more modern faith, hope and love.” These virtues as a complete opening up of the Iraqi political configuration places the future in Iraq, if not in the rest of the world, on the side of the urgent political and ethical demands of all Iraqis outside of the green zone.

About the author

Fazil Moradi is a sociologist and anthropologist, and wrote a doctoral dissertation in social anthropology, on the memories of al-Anfāl/genocide and the pursuit of justice in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Moradi is a member of the Research Network Law, Organization, Science and Technology at the University of Halle and an associate at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany.


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