While the Fallujah operation, al-hashd al-shaabi, and the fight against ISIS have been grabbing the international headlines, Iraq’s political process and structures are also under considerable pressure from a long-running protest movement demanding fundamental political reform. One Iraqi analyst has described this movement as: ‘the first large-scale popular challenge to the consensus on the Iraqi political system after US occupation.’ The consensus referred to here is what is termed in Iraqi political discourse as the system of ‘sectarian quotas’ and the proposed solution is a shift towards technocratic appointments, or ‘the appropriate man for the right position based on skills and competencies’ (as it is often expressed in Iraqi public discourse.)
The origins of this trend can be traced back to a protest initiated in August 2014 by various civil society organisations who labelled their campaign ‘ministries without quotas’. The campaign focused on the demand of extracting four ministries (Education; Higher Education; Culture; and Youth and Sport) from the mechanism of ‘sectarian and ethnic quotas’, and installing qualified ‘technocrats’ to lead these ministries. Interestingly, at the time this movement began, some Iraqi commentators considered the civil society sector to be fairly impotent, unable to affect the sclerotic Iraqi political system. Since then, the demands and vocabulary of this movement have become the dominant themes of Iraqi politics, and other political actors and groups have developed political strategies which utilise, or exploit, this reform narrative (including PM al-Abadi, the Sadrist trend, and even the political wings of some of the hashd militant groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.)
Whether or not the ossification of Iraq’s political system can be reversed remains to be seen. It is nonetheless interesting to look back at the origins of the discourse on sectarian quotas and the technocratic solution which has been important in shaping Iraq’s current political discourse. This post focuses on a particularly interesting document in this regard, a letter from the Iraqi Writer’s Union which emerged from a conference held in Baghdad on August 21, 2014 which brought together intellectuals and trade unionists. The document sets out their vision for the role of culture and cultural producers (al-muthaqafin, translated later as ‘intellectuals’) in Iraqi politics. The principal demands include: the removal of the Ministry of Culture from the ‘quota’ mechanism and that it be led by a qualified ‘intellectual’ with wide support within the intellectual field; the creation of a Higher Council of Culture to work alongside the Ministry of Culture to promote cultural production and protect the rights of free cultural expression; and material support for the institutional rebuilding of Iraq’s cultural sphere including the various unions and federations of writers and artists. More broadly the letter condemns the practice of ‘sectarian quotas’ which is held responsible for debilitating Iraq’s democratic political development and calls for technocrats to replace sect or party-based appointments to ministerial positions.
Technocracy as a strategy of the Iraqi intellectual field
This document can also be read in more Bourdieusian terms as illustrative of a strategy of political intervention by the intellectual field. For the intellectual field, technocracy can be understood as a symbolic strategy which promises the rationalisation of political authority and the distribution of resources through the empowerment within the political field of the specific mode of rationalism embodied by the intellectual field. This mode of rationality, cast in universal terms by the technocratic discourse, is actually embodied only in the contingent social practices of that field. What is perhaps most interesting about this document, therefore, is its focus on the insertion of intellectuals into positions of power within the state, as opposed to building and defending the institutional components of a public sphere. The frequent symbolic references made to the need for a politics with the widest possible inclusion of Iraq’s social groups are suggestive of an implicit link between political legitimacy, reform, and popular political participation. However, this stands somewhat in contradiction with the underlying field-strategy which entails the empowerment of the intellectual within the political field by means of a strategic bargaining process between the state and intellectuals as an institutionalised sectional interest group. The legitimacy of the political authority which Iraqi intellectuals would wield, in this view, seems to be derived from the supposed universality of the rationalism embodied by their field, not from the forms of legitimacy derived from holding political authority accountable to a participatory public sphere.
The war against ISIS and the intellectual field
Another interesting aspect of this document is how it deals with the conflict with ISIS. The letter was issued in August some two months after the fall of Mosul. The ensuing escalation in the conflict between the Iraqi state-al-hashd al-shaabi and ISIS is frequently framed in sect-based terms as Sunni vs Shi’a. How do Iraq’s intellectuals and civil society groups fit into this narrative? The document is suggestive of the extent to which the intellectual field at that time embraced the dominant narrative of the Iraqi government and elite political actors. ISIS is construed as an external terrorist force whose total eradication must be the first priority of the state. The authors express support for the military effort against ISIS and seek to align their own cultural activities with this effort. The authors take a somewhat distinct position when it comes to the protest movements, here they insist that protests by all of Iraq’s ‘components’ be treated as legitimate and entirely separate from the external invasion of takfiri terrorists. This is clearly a reference to the way in which some Iraqi actors had attempted to delegitimise the protests that had erupted in Iraq post-2011 as Sunni-sectarian protests in some form of alliance with ISIS.
 Harith al-Hasan, ‘Social Protest in Iraq and Reality of the Internal Shia Dispute’, Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies Report, 2015, p.2.
Letter of the Iraqi Writer’s Union to the three leaders [Prime Minister, President, and Speaker of Parliament]
President esteemed Dr. Fuad Masum; Head of the Council of Deputies esteemed Dr. Salim al-Jabouri; Prime Minister esteemed Dr. Haider al-Abadi, warm greetings.
The intellectuals Iraq and her creative producers (writers, poets, artists, playwrights, sculptors, musicians, academics, philosophers) would like to offer you their warmest congratulations and blessings on the event of the choice of our people and their elected representatives to your accession to these positions of high sovereignty and we all have confidence that you will welcome this momentous responsibility, especially in the particularly sensitive condition which our nation is going through, and the political and democratic process, and that you will be ready to extract Iraq from her political, security, economic, social and cultural crises and deliver her to the shores of security and peace.
We intellectuals of Iraq are mindful of the size of our responsibility in this fateful battle and we desire to be part of the political and democratic process in order to ward off the dangers besetting our people and their democratic gains. So let us present you with our cultural vision for the political and social reality of Iraq right up to drawing a road map indicating the most important signposts on the political path ensuring that the democratic political process can be walked smoothly and serving as a strategic plan for the future to achieve a process of sustainable human development and firmly embedding popular democratic practice, building an effective civil society which feels the responsibility for social, educational, cultural and democratic institutions.
Therefore, we call for a review of the political process in its entirety and for addressing the causes of the repeated fiascos and failures which have characterised the recent political experience by adopting the principles of transparency, disclosure, and self-criticism in order to strengthen the cohesion of all elements of our Iraqi people from the Arabs to the Kurds, Turkoman, Assyrian, Yazzidis, Shabak, and Sabean in a united Iraq which respects the particularities and differences as it respects commonalities, and adheres to the constitution which the Iraqi people ratified in 2005 and the laws which ensure the realisation of a free, just and equal society for all the Iraqi people irrespective of gender, religion, nationality, sect or political persuasion.
We believe that many of the political forces actively participating in the political process have not been aware of the scale of their responsibility in building a new democratic society following from the phase of totalitarian fascism and exacerbated by the hated foreign occupation which insulted our national dignity, destroyed the infrastructure of the Iraqi state and tried to impose a blueprint for the administration of the state which did not take into consideration the local specificities of Iraqi society. Regrettably, we discover that some of the forces participating in the democratic political process were not genuinely committed to democracy and continue to hold concepts that are factional, bureaucratic, and centralising with respect to the administration of the state. They imagined that the easiest means for participation in the political process was through the legitimation of the mechanism of political quotas which lead to the division of the central institutions, the responsibilities, and political appointments – exclusively – for the political powers, not based on the appointment of the appropriate man in the appropriate position, and the marginalisation of most segments of the Iraqi people, foremost of which has been the Iraqi intellectuals. The quota system has also meant the transformation of ministries, civic and military institutions into sectors of party, sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties distanced from the spirit of justice and equality which has fuelled the fire and exacerbated the financial and administrative corruption in most of the facilities of the state. A generation of politicians and civil servants, and even the men of the military, were raised in a culture of obtaining the gains and the privileges and the high salaries and the gifts which distance them from the sense of the reality of the average citizen. They start clinging on to their gains and their positions and lose their preparedness to sacrifice for national objectives in a fragile situation. The lack of responsibility, in addition to other subjective and objective factors, has caused the endangering of the independence of the nation and the democratic gains have been imperilled. This is especially true when the forces of betrayal, treachery and incompetence have paved the way for the terrorist forces and the takfiris represented by al-Qaeda and Daesh and the remaining elements of the defunct Ba’th, to occupy Mosul in a treacherous and cowardly way and which was accompanied by the security and political collapse in some of the provinces.
It is regrettable that some are trying to confuse matters by suggesting that this terrorist assault, of dubious foreign origins and which comes with unjust agendas and goals, is itself an expression of the protests by one of the esteemed social components of our people. The tangible experience of all Iraqis, and especially those who have tasted the bitterness of rule under the takfiri terrorist invaders, has confirmed that this barbaric assault has no relationship, from near or afar, with the demands and aspirations of any component of our people who themselves have specific and legitimate demands which bear no resemblance to these practices that are neither moral nor Islamic and which are practiced by the unjust forces and manifest in killing for identity and the expulsion of fundamental components of the Iraqi people foremost amongst whom have been our Christian brothers, the Shabak, the Yazidis, the destruction of the symbols and cultural institutions of these groups, and of mosques and churches, memorials and commemorative places, the violation of sacred places and which attempts to impose a bloody legal rule on the people. This rule adopts only a façade of the true religion of Islam, for most of the ulama and their guides in the Arab and Islamic worlds have decreed the invalidity of the practices of this brutal force and therefore it no longer has the religious, legal, or political legitimacy which qualifies it for continued existence, and this confirms that it does not possess the elements of legitimate existence and will therefore quickly disintegrate, dissolve and vanish in the dustbin of history along with the curses of all those who are honourable, the Iraqi victims, and from the Arab and Islamic nations and global public opinion.
From here we see that one of the fundamental starting points for building a sound democratic society is found in the abandoning of the mechanism of sectarian quotas which treat the institutions state as if they were property belonging to one party or another, or to one sect or ethnic groups or another, and this would mean opening the space for the participation of all the Iraqi people to assume the political responsibilities as opposed to their being confined to members of the party quotas. Ideally the ministries and political responsibilities would be entrusted specialists and technocrats who possess the qualifications and competencies for the administration of the institutions state in the spirit of justice, equality and law. This principle does not contradict with the supervision of the forces participating in the political process to adjust the administrative and political approaches in ways that serve the realisation of flexible democratic administration as opposed to centralisation of the institutions of the Iraqi state.
It is our assessment, as intellectuals and those engaged in the fields of knowledge, beauty, philosophy and culture, we feel, regrettably, that throughout the last ten years we have remained embattled and intentionally marginalised from political institutions and we do not understand the insistence upon inserting the Ministry of Culture, for example, in the process of political quotas. This is a demand we have raised since 2006, since it distances the Ministry from the cultural producers themselves. Therefore, we demand, perhaps for the thousandth time, that the Ministry of Culture be removed from the quota mechanism and entrusted to one of the real intellectual activists whom enjoys wide acceptance. We pledge that this would represent a gateway towards reforming the relationship between the section of the Iraqi intellectuals which has continued to feel during this last decade that it is excluded and ignored by the political institutions which do not pay any heed to the requests of the intellectuals and does not treat them fairly. On the other hand, the Council of Deputies in its previous sessions has not initiated any law or legislation to benefit the intellectuals despite their many just and legitimate demands, the latest being the legislation that was before the Council’s previous session but has still not been ratified.
It is known that it is not possible to achieve a modern civilizational and human development process without the participation of all sections of society and its components and this includes the intellectuals who aspire to contribute with a clear and specific role to the process of democratic and social transformation through the tools of knowledge, methodology, and the unique thought of culture. Maybe it can be said that it is impossible to build a modern democratic civil democracy without delineating the specific and distinct role of culture and that ignoring this role will lead necessarily to a transgression of the fundamental pillars which are the corner stone in the structure of any modern society. Therefore, we demand the recognition of Iraqi culture and its role in the political and social and cultural process, and the provision of all the legislative, cultural, and legal guarantees to protect cultural action and Iraqi intellectuals against all the threats which constrict their creativity which is apparent in the limited view of some towards culture and the effort to debase its role or expunge it by means of circulating different concepts and conceptions on the role of culture in modern society. It is this which highlights the need to give guarantees of creative freedom and freedom of thought and the practices of all forms of the cultural activist, the literary writer, poets, philosophers and academics, and the various artistic activities found in theatre and cinema, songs which are sometimes subjected to exclusion and threats launched by the backwards mentality of taboo and takfir.
In order to allow Iraqi intellectuals the opportunity for an effective participation and responsibility in building society they must be engaged in the responsibilities and official positions which cannot remain monopolised by the supporters of the parties, sects and electoral blocs and the policy of quotas and therefore we look forward to Iraqi intellectuals assuming the important centres in the diplomatic corps and international and regional organisations, both Arab and national, and their participation in the formation of political, social and cultural decisions which touch on the fate of society and the nation.
In order to empower Iraqi intellectuals to carry out their role we repeat our particular demand that the Ministry of Culture be removed from the policy of sectarian and political quotas by finding legislation to support the cultural activity and protecting and encouraging it, and we confirm the importance of adopting our particular suggestion of forming a Higher Council for Culture to protect un-official cultural activity in Baghdad and the other provinces and particularly the activity of the federations, associations and literary and artistic unions. This body will be a supporting partner to the Ministry of Culture not in opposition to it just as we find in many Arab states like Egypt and Kuwait, especially after the Ministry of Culture in its meeting with the leadership of the Union of Iraqi Writers announced explicitly its lack of responsibility for supporting cultural activity and that it is concerned with the administration the activity of its directories and department only. Therefore, we call for the completion of the construction of the under-developed or destroyed infrastructure for culture through the establishment of cultural centres and headquarters for the various unions of writers and artists in Baghdad and the rest of the provinces and Iraqi cities and the building of public libraries and centres for scientific and practical research for qualified young people in particular to support inventions and legally protect the patents of invention and intellectual property rights. We hope that the raising of all the political forces to the level of the challenges which face our nation and our people and that they work selflessly in order to cement the home-front and overcome the differences and that there won’t be a rush for the positions and spoils, and reduce its demands by ensuring the widest participation for the people’s power in the administration of the Iraqi state.
While the central goal currently is inflicting a defeat on the takfiri oppressive invaders and their supporters, it is necessary for all to resort to the constitution and the law to resolve the various conflicts and search for the commonalities which secure the realisation of the central goal. There is no doubt that updating the constitutional and legislative mechanisms, represented in the election of the three heads [Prime Minister, President, Speaker of Parliament] is an essential step to move the political process forward and achieve the outstanding issues which have affected the process of development and construction and completing the conditions of building a pluralistic democratic civil society securing the circulation of authority and that authority respects the law and the constitution.
Just as we direct the call to the Iraqi political forces to place shared goals above factional, sectarian and party demands, we direct to the Kurdish leadership to carry their national responsibilities and that they lighten their demands and contribute in a serious way in the response to the takfiri invaders who defile our national soil, and in the success of the political process, and freezing of particular demands, which are legitimate demands ensured by the constitution, but which require political and security conditions conducive to the agreement of the political forces and components of the people. Both they and all of us have confidence that it is the rock of brotherhood – Arab, Kurdish, Turkman, Assyrian, Yazidi – which will smash all plots hatched in secret or openly against our people and their gains and their unity and we demand that Arab and Kurdish rifles all be directed again the takfiri gangs of Daesh and those who come with them until we cleanse the nation of its filth.
We repeat our call to all Iraqi intellectuals to place their creative and cultural energy in the service of these central goals, at the forefront of which is the expulsion of the takfiri invasders who defile our holy and national soil and rebuild the cohesion of the Iraqi social fabric and re-establish the democratic political process on a sound basis which includes building a democratic civil society. Iraqis had a choice that was expressed in the 2005 constitution, which guarantees the widest participation to all sections and classes and components of the Iraqi people and not just those parts of the quotas in the political process and in rebuilding the infrastructure of Iraqi society to repair what has been destroyed by years of dictatorial rule, and years of degrading occupation and fallout of sectarian conflict and the oppressive takfiri aggression, the forces of al-Qaeda and Daesh and the remnants of the buried Ba’thist regime.
Therefore we look forward to making a distinguished contribution from all our intellectuals in support of the path of democracy and strengthening the cohesion of our national people and supporting our brave armed forces and all the honourable who vowed their lives in order to eradicate the scourge of the oppressive takfiri terrorists from our land and have not spared any intellectual or moral or material effort foremost of which by bearing arms in defence of our national soil by which victory will be achieved over the barbaric invaders.
We believe in the capacity of the Iraqi people and their courage and the political forces and brotherly components in facing all the challenges and walking with confidence on the road to construction and development and the spread of the concepts of freedom and equality. We trust that the power of our united people and our brave armed forces will shake the earth with our coming forth and our bravery and our faith.