Can socialists cheer al-Sadr?

Submitted by Janine on 5 September, 2004 - 9:05

By Clive Bradley

In the end, the crisis in Najaf ended peacefully — although many died along the way — and as a huge political victory for Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Sistani returned to Iraq from London via Basra, and marched north — joined by perhaps a million Iraqis — to end the siege of the shrine city, demanding the withdrawal of US troops from the city and of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army from the Mosque of Imam Ali. It was as if Sistani — who at the beginning of the year called huge demonstrations demanding direct elections, forcing the change in US policy which resulted in the transfer of sovereignty at the end of June — only had to focus his attention on the problem to solve it.
It is a political defeat for the government of Iyad Allawi and his American sponsors — who clearly had wanted to destroy Muqtada al-Sadr. But it is certainly a defeat for the Sadrists also. They suffered heavy losses militarily; more important, the majority of Iraqi Shi’a did not join their uprising against the continued de facto occupation, but rather, in huge numbers, supported Sistani’s call to end it.
The signs are now that Muqtada al-Sadr will go into politics — that is, turn his movement towards participation in the elections scheduled for January 2005. The US and the Interim Government want the disbandment of the Mahdi Army; but that is unlikely to happen. (Many political parties, including some participating in the government, have their own militias; it is unclear why Sadr would disband his).
But what sort of political movement will it be? What, exactly, is the Sadrist movement? Muqtada — who is maybe 31 (some reports suggest he might actually be even younger) — inherited this mass movement from his father, Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr, an Ayatollah (a high-ranking Shi’a cleric) who, along with Muqtada’s brother, was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s agents in 1999. But although for sure Muqtada is, as some observers put it, “mercurial” and in some ways politically unstable, he has consolidated his own base in post-Saddam Iraq. In April, the US closed a Sadrist newspaper and tried to arrest him — this is what provoked the first “uprising” of his supporters, as a result of which his influence grew immensely. By the end of the fighting, polls suggested he was the second most popular political figure in the country (after Sistani), with 67%. Over 80% said their opinion of him had “improved”.

The Shi’a are the majority in Iraq — perhaps 60% of the population, vastly outnumbering the Sunni, who are concentrated in the central part of the country. Since the colonial period, when the divisions were encouraged, the Sunni have been politically dominant. Saddam’s regime was overwhelmingly Sunni, and the Shi’a faced discrimination in many spheres. Religious holidays were banned, for example, because such large numbers of pilgrims attend them. (This was also an economic blow to the Shi’a middle class in the holy cities, which depends on annual pilgrimages for its income). In fact, historically, the division between Sunni and Shi’a was far less rigid: the Shi’a were mainly rural, and disadvantaged because they were poor. With large scale migration to the cities, a new class of urban Shi’a poor was created — but it seems there was considerable fluidity, and there was, before the fall of the regime, not much tradition of sectarian, communal hostility.
That said, the Shi’a religious authorities, and others within the mosque, were aware of their political marginalisation, and at least part of the dynamic behind the growth of religious parties from the 1950s onwards was to rectify this communal disadvantage. For many years, the religious parties — the most important being the Dawa (Call) party, which even today, although it gets much less publicity than other groups, remains the most popular — were feeble competitors to secular parties. In 1958, when the pro-British monarchy was overthrown and replaced by a nationalist dictatorship, the poor were mobilised largely by the Communist Party. This movement was violently crushed by the first Ba’thist coup in 1963.
Ayatollah Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr (so-called Sadr 1), Muqtada’s uncle, was a major Islamist thinker, and ideologist for the Dawa Party (of which seems not, or only briefly, to have been a member). He was executed by Saddam in 1980 — after the Iranian revolution, when Saddam was afraid Sadr 1 would be the next Khomeini. In fact, Sadr 1 was a “modernist” by Islamist standards; the Dawa Party, likewise — for instance, in that it sees itself as a party — was and remains modernist in this sense. Muqtada, on the other hand, is a Khomeinist ideologically — that is, he favours rule by the clergy itself (in this case, obviously, him) — albeit with an Iraqi nationalist tint. (He has criticised Sistani, if obliquely, for being Iranian.)
His father’s movement was not Khomeinist, either, so this development is relatively recent. Muhammed al-Sadiq al-Sadr (Sadr 2) had an unusual style of preaching for a religious leader, directly addressing social and economic concerns — which made him immensely popular among the poor, especially in the vast Shi’a slums of east Baghdad, known popularly as “Sadr City” after him. This is why Saddam had him murdered.
It is in these slums that Muqtada, too, has his main support. “No matter how dumb he is,” one resident told The Washington Post (3 June 2004), “many Iraqi Shi’ites will follow him and respect him because of his father.”
The size of his active support is hard to gauge. Certainly it numbers in the tens of thousands. Sistani, clearly, can mobilise vastly more: but even so, and even after the military defeat of the past few weeks, the Sadrist movement is very significant. Its real base was never in Najaf (indeed, Najaf, a largely middle class city, is known for its hostility to the Sadrists) — but, especially, in Baghdad. US military operations against the Mahdi Army in Baghdad in recent weeks provoked outrage from civilians caught in the crossfire. If a military solution proved impossible in Najaf, this will be true ten times over in Sadr City.

The Mahdi Army essentially consists of local unemployed youth (though, over the course of the past few months, others have joined it — there have been cases of police, etc, defecting to do so, and according to some reports, Ba’thists, too). It seems some of the older leadership of the movement, associates of Muqtada’s father, are not happy about this violent street-level organisation. More recently, with the “uprisings”, the focus of Mahdi Army activity has been fighting the Americans. But otherwise, like many Islamist groups, mainly they have been involved in policing “Islamic” behaviour in local neighbourhoods — enforcing dress codes, closing shops selling alcohol, preventing the showing of western films, terrorising prostitutes. At one point the Mahdi Army destroyed an entire town of about 10,000 people outside Baghdad populated mainly by gypsies, and considered a red light district.
Many reports suggest that Muqtada’s militia are extremely unpopular in the areas where they operate, dishing out thuggish “justice”. And until April this year, as a “resistance” movement, they were, relative to the hard-line Sunni guerrillas (whether Ba’thist or Islamist), moderate: Muqtada opposed the occupation but, on the whole, called for peaceful resistance to it. That changed with the attempt to crush him.
Although the “uprisings” this year saw some mutual support between Sunni and Shi’a (and Muqtada’s picture was apparently prominent in Sunni towns, at least in the spring), the Sadrist movement is based entirely in the Shi’a community. Underlying the Shi’a resistance — and for that matter, Sistani’s intervention — is the fear that American promises will be reneged on. Muqtada is fiercely hostile to Kurdish demands for autonomy (and there seem to have been some clashes in the Kurdish north, where the Sadrists have built a base in the Turkoman community). None of the Islamist movements in Iraq cross the Sunni/Shi’a divide in any serious or lasting way. The Sadrists are no exception. Since the fall of Saddam, the various Islamist movements have grown enormously — but the sectarian dimension seems to have grown also.

Is the Sadrist movement fascist? It has some similarity to fascist movements: it is an armed, reactionary force, radical in one sense but implacably hostile to anything democratic, never mind socialist. Naomi Klein, writing recently in The Guardian, suggested that although the movement’s aim is theocracy, since for now it is fighting for national independence, for now it serves a democratic end. But this is wishful thinking at best. The reactionary aims of Muqtada — even if he moves into peaceful politics — are not something “held off” until some future Iranian-style government: they affect daily life.
On the other hand, the Mahdi Army, despite its name, is not an “army”, but — for the most part — something closer to urban street gangs elsewhere than to either a nationalist guerrilla movement or the terrorist cells of some of the Sunni Islamists.
Unemployment in slums like East Baghdad is more than 60%. (Those joining the Mahdi Army get a small salary.) It is true that, on the whole, the Shi’a were at least willing to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt at first, if not actively support them. Such good will as there was has been completely lost. Secular, democratic and working class forces are weak in these communities; the Sadrists provide answers of a sort. That it is an implacable enemy of the emerging labour movement should not make socialists unsympathetic to the motives of urban youth in joining up. How, tactically, Iraqi socialists might address this question is beyond our ability, from afar, to judge. But doing so must surely be a matter of some urgency.

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