Translation, Part I: Faris Kamal Nadhmi, ‘The Civil Trend-Sadrist Convergence in the Arena of Protest: A psychological vision in the dynamics of the social left’

I recently posted a translation of an article by the independent Iraqi leftist intellectual and social psychologist   Faris Kamal Nadhmi. Nadhmi wrote the article back in 2010 and it argued that the Iraqi leftist-civil trend and the Sadrist movement should come together to produce a ‘historical bloc’ in Gramscian terms.

This post features my translation of a more recent article by Nadhmi, published on 18th July 2016. It is a much longer article therefore I am publishing it in three parts, this being Part I. Of particular interest in Part I is Nadhmi’s argument that the civil trend-Sadrist cooperation has produced a nascent shared public sphere through dialogue between the two parties and shared cultural and artistic activities. According to Nadhmi, this public sphere has become a shared space through which a new mutual understanding and a radical shift in each side’s perception of the other is being reconstructed and new forms of shared identity are being formed.

Translation starts here:

Faris Kamal Nadhmi, ‘The Civil Trend-Sadrist Convergence in the Arena of Protest: A psychological vision in the dynamics of the social left’, al-hewar al-mutamadan, 18th July 2016.

Authority, any authority, cannot achieve acceptance through power and money alone. The acceptance of authority also relies on its cultural project, its ideas, beliefs, conceptual frameworks, and its total vision of the world, as these exist in the minds of the people. When authority loses this distinguishing quality, as has happened in Iraq today, then political and social change becomes contingent, to a great extent, on the emergence of an alternative cultural hegemony produced by wronged social groups, most prominent amongst which are the elements of reform, protest, change, and those bearing a hope for bringing about a new situation.

The cultural hegemony of the civil elites

It is always worth repeating that the intellectual civil elites – that are not necessary materially disadvantaged – were the ones to light the fuse of the current wave of protests which have continued since July 2015 up to the present day. They have seized the moment, this historical juncture, ethically and in a missionary sense, and have practiced what is called ‘cultural hegemony’, in the expression of Gramsci. That is, they have presented an alternative vision which has begun to fill what Habermas called ‘the public sphere’. This alternative vision is represented in the call for a total political reform, establishing a future civil state that respects the principles of social justice and political democracy and rebuilding political authority on the basis of upholding the collective national identity, equal citizenship, and a renouncing of ethnic politics. This is a matter that has been delayed since the fall of the previous regime on 9th April 2003, although it was undermined by the administration of the American occupation which sought hard to adopt the politics of identity in the establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) in July 2003 and what followed which was the emergence of political Islamization.

What distinguishes the civil elites in Iraq – despite their small number, thanks to the prevailing subjugating political culture – is their deep secular-leftist-liberal roots which impact the form of consciousness in the overall intellectual production of Iraqi society. They have always possessed the experience of cultural and philosophical work, combined with ethical political concerns throughout the contemporary history of Iraq, since the founding of the modern state almost a century ago.

It is these elites who have crystallised this emergent cultural hegemony in Iraq today through their protests. For these elites are structurally distinguished not as a ‘political trend’ or a vertically organised ‘populist trend’, but rather as a ‘social movement’ constituted horizontally (politicians, intellectuals, academics, journalists, unions, and civil activists) avoiding ethnic, ideological or party labels. Furthermore, there is no personalised leadership, meaning an individual charismatic figurehead. Rather the protest movement draws its energy, dynamics, trajectories, and decisions from the overall cultural performance which has an entirely group nature.

This is not surprising given the psychological foundations of the Iraqi civil elites that are distinguished by a sceptical conceptual complex and ‘narcissistic’ trend, so that they usually tend towards giving their loyalty to abstract ideas rather than to people or icons. Maybe it is this which explains this elite’s lack of association and solidarity in their thought, and consequently their current inability to establish a political coalition and organise their protest activities according to an agreed intellectual vision which would frame their movement in the immediate and long-term.

What happened later was that the civil elites succeeded, after some months, in attracting greater numbers of protesters who are classified as within the socio-economic groups of the economically deprived, the socially oppressed, and with poor levels of education. Specifically, since the end of February 2016, when the Sadrists joined the protest movement. For the general vision of demands which the civil-social movement put forward, and which is derived from the power of the attractive ideal for cultural hegemony they have espoused, found sympathy in the deprived social bases of the populist Sadrist trend, which is distinguished by moderate religious faith, civil social practices, and is not empty of modernity in its outward appearance or its interests and concerns.

The religious leadership of this trend has had little choice but to respond positively to the general framework of this reformist cultural hegemony and in the process the leadership benefited from its civil-secular content and reinterpreted it within a religious-doctrinal framework leading to its resurgence within a modern Iraqi Shi’ism oriented towards reform and justice. This resurgence has actually been delayed and remained absent for long time by the corrupt parties of political Shi’ism.

So, the Sadrist leadership launched a series of political reform initiatives which revolved around the reformation of administrative authority on a technocratic basis, separating political authority from a sectarian or party division of power. This was accompanied by repeated calls for reform from the Sadrists, championing these initiatives through protests involving a million people, and peaceful sit-ins in front of the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Therefore, for the first time since 2003, the hegemony of the public sphere transferred from the ideology of predatory politics based on sect and ethnicity, which lacked credibility and the capacity to convince, and produced extremists and Daesh, to a broad societal dialogue which revolved around – at least in theory – the culture of reform, citizenship, tolerance, freedom of expression and enquiry, social justice, the sharing the nation, and public rights. It is a serious effort to bring about a change in values, awareness, and behaviour leading to a decisive political transformation.

The emergence of a shared public sphere

The hegemonic cultural framework which has been crystallised by the civil trend in the form of a social movement, has merged within it the masses of the religious and deprived who find in this framework a ready space through which to launch their repressed aspirations. This framework produced a shared mental and behavioural space, it succeeded in unleashing the two underlying trends: the Iraqi nationalist and that of socio-economic class. For the millions of citizens protesting or waiting in their homes, it has initiated a reproduction of the spectrum of their social identity in the many colours – civil and rational – which remind them that the injustice that plagues their life targets them as deprived human beings prior to any classification of their identity into one particular branch or another.

This psychological space which has opened up for the two sides, the civil and Sadrist, has provided a political climate which has permitted them to coordinate their protests – even if only temporarily – according to unified goals and demands which emerge from the cultural hegemony which was unleashed by the civil trend, and which revolves around a single principal purpose i.e. to free the country from the system of political sectarianism which negates human dignity, and transform it into a nation state which steadfastly seeks and hopes to dispense with the vocabulary of hunger, humiliation,  violence, and discrimination from the lives of the citizens.

This convergence between the two parties rests on 4 principles:

  1. Not engaging in any hasty adventures in terms of alliances or fronts between the two parties.
  2. Neither side abandoning its intellectual identity and independent organised activism.
  3. The respect of both sides for the secular or religious choice of the other, meaning that intellectual judgements do not corrupt the nationalist participation between the two sides.
  4. The conviction that both parties need each other, that each on its own is not qualified to form the next alternative to the current political system. Neither possesses all the components of political reality for this task.

For the first time in the history of modern Iraq, the heart of Baghdad is filled with thousands of secularists and religious persons protesting or participating in sit-ins. It is a unique psychological experience through which runs an important adjustment to the frozen mental images which each side holds of the other, and which has always been bound together by an experience of emotional prejudice more than it having been an expression of rational and provable arguments. The tents at the sit-in protest, in particular, witnessed shared artistic activities and cultural events throughout the two weeks, which contributed to injecting the two parties with a dose of the vaccine of tolerance, and convinced both, at the same time, of the humanity of the other and the merit of his choices.

The essential differences between the two parties will remain deferred, thanks to immediate reciprocal necessities, until the awaited for change has been achieved with its hopes and pains. It is likely that these differences will explode, giving way to either cooperation or exclusion, depending on the type of change at the level of the construction of psycho-political thought for each side, with the effect of joint action, the change achieved and the type of the next political system.

Today, after almost a complete year since the launch of the protest movement, we find that there is an operational coordination that has sprung up voluntarily between the two trends: the elites (civil) and the populist (Sadrist) at the level of protest tactics and the slogans expressing demands. This expresses modalities of transitional, shared values characterised by a radical, peaceful tendency brought together to end the current sectarian system by eroding what remains of its legitimacy, meaning a collapse of its cultural hegemony. This coordination yielded the protests which are pivotal in the political history of modern Iraq, not least the entering of thousands of protesters into the government buildings in the Green Zone on the 30th April, and 20th May 2016.

Based on this vision, and with the language of political psychology, no side can claim guardianship of the protest movement. Therefore it is an expression of the rebellious human ambition propelled by a pragmatic nationalist trend intermingled with a new-found oppositional awareness towards transcending ideology and ethnic identity.

All this occurred alongside the influence of the authority of political Islamisation – with its closed construction – which not only lost the support of the civil trend in its many forms from an early point in its artificial creation, but also later lost a wide base from amongst the oppressed religious believers. These latter needed more than a decade to pass before they broke out of the ‘false consciousness’ upon which this authority depended to advance its electoral interests, and to thereby extricate themselves from the cage of ‘fate’ into the horizon of ‘hope’ as one of the objective driving forces of social history.

This coordination between the civil trend and the Sadrists calls us to renewed reflection on the proven empirical base in the study of the science of political and social psychology as documented through the previous two decades in numerous countries, arguing that: ‘Wherever possible the deprived and oppressed should be reminded of their shared social identity (national identity, for example), and that they represent the biggest affecting group, so the choice of collective protest, thereby transcending their particular identities, will reveal to them the promising possibility of change and the restoration of justice which has been denied to them.’

It seems that Iraq is not an exception to this rule. For dealing with the current political crisis which is undermining civil peace and social cohesion, can be realized through, and benefit from, psychological techniques of crises which emerged from the dynamics of groups subjected to the politics of identity.

Temporary theoretical assumption, or an effective choice taking shape

The civil trend-Sadrist convergence has produced an intellectual dilemma which will remain alive for a long time, having raised sharp debate amongst the civil trend activists themselves around the ethical extent and efficacy of a convergence with a religious trend (that is, the Sadrists) who are classified as being of the political Islamist movements in Iraq.

Is it an expedient, instrumental, and transitional convergence which might later lead to violent conflict? Or is it a reforming convergence, addressing crises that have emerged thanks to the deterioration of the situation in the country and the necessity of trying to save what can be saved? Can a convergence between a secular civil trend and a religious trend with a history of violence really be achieved? What kind of assurances must the Sadrists give to convince the civil trend activists of the sincerity of their intentions and the steadfastness of their positions? Is it plausible that this convergence could be the nucleus for the emergence of a historical bloc which includes all the social forces that have opted for the choice of the civil state based on citizenship? Or is the whole matter nothing more than a passing theoretical assumption that will have no lasting significance?

This debate should be considered a positive sign, with its stimulating, innovative, and even skeptical contents, alongside its commitment to standards of open and objective discussion, leaving behind previous prejudices, distrust, and slander issued by any side, such that it has committed an unprecedented act in the annals of Iraqi political thought with respect to the means for addressing the huge political crises.

On the negative side, theoretically and practically, is it clear from some of these discussions on the part of the critics among the civil trend – but not all of them – that they have assumed an attitude of proving their righteousness and their ‘purity’, free from contaminating contact with those others calling for the rapprochement with the Sadrists, calling them an intellectual and class ‘enemy’, or at least ‘deceived’ or ‘naïve’. In acting this way, these critics are forgetting the sweeping natural and social disasters that require the emergence of a unified human identity for those who really want to resist, pending the stabilization of the situation, and the return of the necessary dialectical conflicts which will emerge anew.

This argument from this specific group often takes an idealistic and unilateralist orientation as if it is trying to prove the ‘treason’ hidden behind the rapprochement of the two trends, without exerting any useful effort – theoretical or practical – to bring forward alternative and workable intellectual conceptions for saving the country. Their inability to exert this effort, or their lack of courage or foresight to do so, results in a threat to their self-esteem, or pricks their conscience, both of which can be avoided by unconscious substitution mechanisms i.e. via the ‘condemnation’ of the other and the purging of its ‘sin’ which ‘requires’ stoning and censure.

To penetrate deeper into this intellectual debate it might be appropriate here to repeat my assumption about the presence of a clear social-leftist current in Iraq, and that this current, in its psychological essence, is generalizable to any previous or current ideologies, whether they be secular or religious. There are tangible indications of a new left demographic emerging from socio-cultural trends which support the idea of the civil state and which began to emerge and spread within important sections of the Iraqi populace, both those usually classified as ‘civil trend activists’ and as ‘religious persons’.

The leftist current, before it takes form as a political concept is a ‘socio-psychological current of the masses within a comprehensive cultural-political framework which is not the sole monopoly of the secularists and atheists but is also psychologically available to all the political categories of humanity capable of being affected by it within particular historical phases’. This is because it includes a radical value-based orientation in favor of changing the world in a direction that coheres with rationality, justice, and the recognition of the unity of human value.

At the same time, another problematic issue which circulates among a significant number of Iraqi civil trend and leftist activists centers on the ‘blind’ obedience shown by the Sadrist masses to their leader. From the beginning these people doubted that the Sadrists possessed a genuine leftist and protest orientated consciousness, citing their exit or withdrawal from the arenas of protest because of their total doctrinal obedience to the orders of the leader, as opposed to the objectives of radical, fundamental reform and the recovery of their rights.

End of translation

Part II can now be read here.

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Comments (2)

  1. Reply

    Very grateful to you for tackling these translations. Do you have a link to the Arabic original, as I’d very much like to share both.

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