Faris Kamal Nadhmi, Part II: ‘The Sadrist Trend: Between Nationalism and Islamism’

This post features the second part of my translation of an article by independent leftist Iraqi intellectual and social psychologist Faris Kamal Nadhmi. Part I can be read here.

In this section, Nadhmi presents an interesting analysis of the Sadrist trend as a social movement which could be a potential vehicle for the development of class consciousness in Iraq (not just a a class in-itself, but for-itself.) In making this argument, Nadhmi distinguishes the Sadrist trend from other Shi’i Islamist groups in Iraq. He highlights the internal tensions within the Sadrist movement, between more traditional doctrinal forces which, he argues, are dependent on preserving vested economic and symbolic interests, vis-à-vis a more radical reforming intellectual current with historical leftist ties.

Nadhmi’s interest is in political psychology, and his analysis turns on the psychological condition of the Sadrist popular base, the interrelation of this psychological condition with objective historical forces, and thus his conclusion that the Sadrist trend can transcend the situation of a closed-sectarian Islamist force to become a broad social movement conducive to political modernity, embracing a civil state and its attendant concepts of citizenship, while retaining its religious foundations and character.

Translation starts here:

Faris Kamal Nadhmi, ‘The Sadrist trend: Between Islamism and nationalism’ from article: ‘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.

In order to disentangle the intellectual problem mentioned earlier, the construction of the Sadrist trend must firstly be dealt with as a ‘religious political’ phenomena, as a composite with cultural and psychological dimensions which seeks, as far as possible, in its value structure to perform a social function connected to class struggle, as opposed to a sectarian-Shi’i orientation. Retaining the trend’s general doctrinal nature, without entailing its transformation into a purely theological movement, devoid of any social dimension.

Therefore, the Sadrist movement represents the only one which tried to accommodate, to some extent, with the valuable social contents of Shi’ism during a time when the general perception of Shi’ism was badly damaged by most of the other political Shi’i Islamists in Iraq. This accommodation allowed the trend a secure, cohesive, internal ethical foundation established at the peak of its public appeal by the influence and unique attraction of Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (assassinated in 1999). This influence was later extended, in thought and practice, by his son Sayyid Muqtada.

The leadership of the Sadrist trend has consistently, since its emergence as an effective force after 2003, distinguished its position as the radical ‘speaking [hawza]’, communicating directly with its followers, and this amidst the other conservative marja’iyat of Najaf who have consistently avoided direct communication – in discourse or social practice  – with its public. Meanwhile, the military wing of the Sadrist trend was for years engaged in resistance against the US occupation, and this produced repeated clashes with the official security forces led by leaders belonging to the other Shi’i political parties. This left a continuing rift in the memory of the community, the effect of which continues and is further exacerbated by the widening and acute social inequality within the demographic hierarchy of the Shi’i community.

For this reason, the Sadrist trend remained elusive and ambiguous in both its structure and function, leading to conflictual interpretations over the years of its previous activities, especially in light of the non-traditional changes which occurred in its proclaimed intellectual vision and its political positions connected to this vision. So were these changes rooted in a fixed base of principles, or were they merely derived from mood swings connected with the political conflict inside the Shi’i bloc? The binary mode of analysis (good – evil) stands without use here, whereas the researcher employing a dialectical method which devises opposites which can be dissolved [sublated] in a totalising rational framework, transcending the simplistic algebraic equations, without being drawn into narratives of demonization or glorification.

The Sadrist trend cannot be evaluated according to one standard or classification, because it has not been institutionalised bureaucratically in the same way as other Islamist parties. In addition to its economic structure, which is not transparent, and its military wing, which is not fixed (currently the Peace Brigades, but previously al-jaish al-madhi or the Promised Day Brigades), the Sadrist trend consists of three relatively fixed components, particular, dynamic and mutually interactive. However, this interaction is not regularised, and its overall outputs cannot always be predicted, which explains the crisis of a lack of fixed identity which affects the trend. These three relatively fixed components are as follows:

  • A Shi’i religious leadership with a role in terms of jurisprudence and guidance that has an intense impact on its followers. In the development of its political vision it has, over time, consistently taken advantage of the failures of past years and has become the trend closest to the concepts of ‘Iraqi nationalism’ and the ‘civil state’ alongside the explicitly Arabist trend. This contrasts with the other political-Shi’i movements which are doctrinally entrenched by virtue of their financial and trade interests and their authoritarianism which stems from their reliance on sectarian not national identity.
  • A political bloc active both inside and outside the parliament and which gathers together Islamist trends with pragmatic civil trends. It includes personalities from the elites with high levels of education alongside elements of the masses with poor education, idealistic and ascetic symbols with others that are benefitting from corruption.
  • A huge popular base drawn from amongst the non-productive proletariat (the wage earners, jobless, street vendors, and slum dwellers), and from amongst the workers and small officials, craftsmen and intellectuals, united by a civil identity connected to Islam as an everyday practice, not a political ideology. They find in their leaders a psychological safe haven giving a sense of value, protection, prestige, compensation and consolation for their social weakness and economic deprivation, more so than a religious guide in the sense of jurisprudence. They practice a social faith without theological rigidity.

So it is a dynamic social/religious/political trend, it mixes integrity and corruption, peace and violence, culture and ignorance, nationalism and sectarianism, discipline and indiscipline, the closed-mindedness of the Islamists and the open-mindedness of religious believers who have a leftist history that they do not disguise.

From all this, the most important point is the Sadrists’ popular base and social weight, which represents the most valuable objective which any leftist dreams of attracting. For the huge social base of the Sadrists includes Iraqi Shi’a of the deprived and downtrodden who find in the cohesive Sadrist environment a haven, solution, and consolation. With their volatile social awareness, they represent the stage of transformation from an Islamist consciousness, with an emotional psychological function, into a class consciousness with a liberating and rational function. It is a slow transference owing to the intense sectarianism practiced against them over decades, however, it is a secured transference owing to the radical leftist social trend within it, and owing to the growth of the civil consciousness in the Iraqi public which cannot be ignored.

Overall, it can be said that the Sadrist trend is the only Islamist trend which benefitted from the sharp political conflict in Iraq over the past years, in order to begin a remarkable effort to develop its ideas and theories, its ideological construction, to review its mistakes and sins, to re-institutionalise the mechanisms of its work on a more realistic and rational basis closer to the constitutional legitimacy of the state.

Today the Sadrist trend is trying to distinguish itself as a religious-class movement for justice, trying to utilise the concepts of political modernity and religious reform to transfer from a belligerent sectarian trend towards a principle of tolerant citizenship, perhaps resting on a growing intellectual vision whose essential ethical content is not made clear in its significance or effect except in the general national framework where, not having been politicised by a particular doctrinal sect, it avoids remaining a purely conflictual and narrow sectarian identity.

However, this advanced vision is still in the process of flux, sometimes advancing sometimes retreating, according to the intensity of the conflict, as yet unresolved, between the forces of liberation and the forces of conservatism within the Sadrist trend itself. It is, in essence, a conflict of interests between, on the one hand, parasitic centres dependent on financial benefits and influence, exclusively interested in deepening the doctrinal and theological/sectarian identity of the trend. And on the other hand, the rational elites attached to the leftist and liberal trend, meaning the intellectual who sees in the trend a movement that is nationalist in function, and religious in construction, before it is any other classification. And one of the most important by-products of this conflict is the question which circulates widely in Iraqi public opinion: Is the Sadrist trend seeking the state or authority? And in each case, what kind of state and what kind of authority? Civil, or religious?

Thanks to this, a negative stereotype of the Sadrist trend, which has an objective basis, is still very much alive in Iraqi political memory, owing to the sectarian ethnic cleansing attributed to jaish al-mahdi during the period of fighting (2006-2007), and to the shari’a courts that emerged in the same period. And due to some of its symbols becoming entangled with political and financial corruption through the government positions which it worked through. And also due to its volatile positions and its occupation of an uncertain middle ground between the opposition and authority.

This image will not automatically be erased, its erasure requires that the leadership of the Sadrist trend brings forward fixed, consistent and clear positions both practical and discursive. This includes a transparent self-critique. It must also purge its ranks of corruption, and announces a charter of principles adopting the rejection of the militarisation of society, a final end to its own military formations, the adoption of the law as the only standard for the organisation of the affairs of state and society, dependence on the principle of citizenship by forbidding political activity on the basis of religion, sect or ethnicity, and the ratification of the principle of the peaceful democratic transition of power, and respect of personal freedoms and freedom of expression, cultural and religious diversity, as well as an active contribution in a total national reconciliation, including the Western provinces with a majority Sunni demographic.

The realisation of these requirements needs, before all else, the Sadrist trend to embark on a fundamental religious reform in its system of thought and discourse, to transform from religious radicalism drawn from ‘the sacred truth’, into the social radicalism drawing on the ending of injustice, via inoculating Shi’ism with political civil thought and breaking its connections with traditional, authoritarian political Islam, and ending the use of religion to encroach on the general cultural norms of the society. This means recovering Shi’ism from the circle of oppressive sectarian mythologising, and reconstituting it within the horizons of enlightenment, making of it a historical social ideology for justice.

This task seems extremely difficult, owing to the conservative construction which characterises the hawza institution in general meaning it has worked in every age for the reproduction of Shi’ism as a sectarian and ritualistic identity which produces influence and riches, more than an intellectual-rationalistic identity conducive to political modernity and social democracy. However, the Sadrist formation is not traditional in this respect, and remains a candidate – in theory at least – for the penetration of theological taboos and the initiation of a modern movement unprecedented in the Shi’i thought, and which could have positive repercussions for all the political movements of the Middle East.

End of translation

The concluding Part III can be read here.

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