Mustafa al-Obaidi writes on the anti-government protests in Iraq, arguing that it is the government that is behind the increase in sectarian tension.
On the 28th of April 2013 more than 200 Iraqi civilians were massacred and left wounded in the town of Hawijah, north of Baghdad, after peacefully protesting against the corrupt and sectarian government formed through the illegal American invasion of 2003. Nearly all those killed were from the main tribe in Hawijah. A large number of these protestors have now taken up arms against the government, with other cities and tribes also joining them in solidarity. The protests had been consistently peaceful for months, until the attacks of 23rd April 2013. Events have since escalated rapidly, as have the number of deaths and casualties on both sides. In addition to this, On Tuesday the 30th of April, the government blocked 10 Television channels (including Al-Jazeera) without prior warning and with no legal basis, sparking condemnation from the international media, alongside organisations such as Human Rights Watch.
Social media reactions from protest groups’ accounts and other observers have been wide and varied regarding what is actually happening, both for the protests and against it. Interestingly, it has also brought out profound responses from the Iraqi diaspora, some of which state that the only way to deal with the protesters is by actually wiping their whole towns out with bombs, or isolating them from the country. I can’t disclose sources for obvious reasons. Now, I am being purposely biased here, because these individuals also happen to be well educated, professionals and technocrats, residing in the splendour and comforts of the first world, taking it upon themselves to become what I can only call ‘pseudo Twitter political analysts’, who post articulated tweets filled with political jargon to impress and seek approval from western onlookers who are unable to differentiate between those Iraqis who have governmental ties and interests or links to religious parties, and who simply regurgitate translations of their angry parents’ views but in a manner that appeals to the public, online and offline. However, Iraqis in the protesting hotspots in Iraq (but outside of Baghdad) aren’t as fortunate in attaining such sought after highbrow limelight. Last week, tweets and Facebook statuses from Iraq began to indicate that the government has shut off internet services to certain protesting cities, including the populous city of Ramadi in Anbar. This coincides with the various battles that have been taking place continuously between tribes/armed groups against PM Maliki’s armed forces, as well as various psychological warfare tactics employed sporadically through the use of helicopters circling and intimidating protestors.
Now, for months, these protestors have been constantly labelled as ‘terrorists’, ‘Wahaabis’, ‘Bathists’ and other derogatory terms that amount to nothing but clearly pure anti-‘Sunni Arab’ bigotry. In reality, these are underprivileged Iraqis who refuse to accept a theocratic political system that is the bastard child of a semi-secretive love affair between an illegal American invasion and Khomeinism. Simply put, this is about the condition of human life in a country that has been through decades of tragic and horrific circumstances which large numbers of its inhabitants cannot tolerate any longer. However, that being said, there are also numerous groups who seem to be influencing, and to a larger extent, hijacking this recent turn of events in the protests with their own agenda. It doesn’t seem to be clear who is actually financing and directing them, but what is clear is that attention has been diverted away from the basic protestor demands, to portray efforts for peaceful demonstrations as being illegitimate. Yes, most of the protests are still peaceful, especially in Baghdad where the protestors after Friday prayers have been gathering under the call for ‘Tawheed’ (oneness of God), a message shared by all Muslims.
The latter example attempts to disprove the legitimacy of the sectarianism rhetoric the government has associated with the protests. Albeit, there are groups or elites who attempt to sway the protests towards a sectarian agenda, but protester related sectarianism is still merely superficial nonsense – as the average Abdullah is consumed by his struggle to get an education or get a job and provide for his family. This includes all the Iraqis, in the protests or outside it. So far, people from over eight cities in the south of Iraq have publicly voiced their criticism in the media for the attacks on Hawijah. No Iraqi should bare the crimes of their leaders, and most of all no real Iraqi wants to actually kill another Iraqi because of their sect or ethnicity. But poverty is dangerous – mental, spiritual, and physical poverty, are all equally dangerous. This is the dominating obstacle for Iraqis in my opinion. The outcome of this has been mere commodification (or attribution) of ethno-sectarian symbolism in society by these elites, which ultimately has made Iraqis more individually identifiable, ‘different’ from one another, and easier to discriminate against and marginalise. Iraqis that have lived in the country before the 2003 invasion will tell you this was never the case – Iraqis had a strong unified identity, with many territorial commonalities shared between them. Now, much of society is fragmented, putting more importance and hope in their sect’s leaders and, for some, on a government that has been dismissing its responsibility in atrocities such as that of Hawijah, and for any that may come in the near future because of it.
I want to also end with a message that somehow gives reassurance, if any, that the protesters’ grievances are purely related to the injustices that they are facing on a daily basis, the breaches of basic human rights, the corruption, the torture, the attacks on women, marginalisation and the lack of recognition for their existence as Iraqis – and that there are no sectarian aspirations for the average Abdullah. I have chosen the image of a banner raised above the entrance to the district of Al-A’thameeyah by its local council, an area which has been the centre for the protests in Baghdad, stating: No to sectarianism… Yes to unity in Iraq. I hope, this, gives hope.
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