In this final concluding section, Nadhmi critiques the notion of the Sadrists as ‘blind’ followers of their religious leader. This question of agency in the field of political protest is particularly interesting. The taqlid – muqallid relationship in Shi’i fiqhposses a problem, theoretically, in terms of locating agency within analytical frameworks of social movements. However, the reality of the dynamics of the relationship between the mujtahid and his ‘followers’ does not fit a theoretical model of agency-causation which is uni-directional and top-down. In The Thread of Mu’awiya: The Making of a Marja’ Taqlid Linda Walbridge showed how mujtahids compete for influence amongst each other, and are responsive to the attitudes and aspirations of their followers i.e. she reveals a more complex and relationship of mutual influence between the two parties. Here, Nadhmi makes a similar argument but draws on more explicitly Marxist theoretical propositions. The psychological consciousness of the Sadrists is not something which stems from their leader, but from their socio-economic conditions, and their leader is bound to reflect these aspirations in a relationship of mutual realisation.
In the final analysis, for Nadhmi, what unites leftist-communist and Sadrist forces in Iraq is the unity of their objective interests (class interests) derived from their location within socio-economic structures. What divides the two sides resides at the level of ideological formation, which, in his concluding paragraph, quoting Marx in his ‘Thesis of Feuerbach’, Nadhmi points out is a level of abstraction the objective truth of which can only be discerned through a reunification of theory and practice. This would involve the Sadrists recognising the objective rationality of their interests and self-consciously assuming their role as the class of historical agency. While leftist forces engaged in a Gramscian ‘war of position’ ought to leave behind their theoretical lacunas and reconnect their ideological production with the social practice of the deprived and subjugated who, for psychological reasons, have found their solace and self-realisation through the Sadrist trend as a populist social movement.
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Faris Kamal Nadhmi, 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.
The Sadrists: Religious subordination or social leftism?
Within the academic framework, the Sadrist trend is classified as a ‘populist movement’, meaning a protest movement emerging from the deprived and disadvantaged social groups that usually, but not always, do not possess high levels of education. This movement aims at achieving goals that are in nature related to human rights, and which can no longer be achieved via traditional means and in cooperation with the state.
The fundamental distinguishing feature of such movements, according to Chista Deiwiks, is their faith in the centrality of the popular will to the political process. When the political process is incapable of realising justice, or when the governing elite is refusing to realise the popular will, populist movements appear seeking to replace the political elites with others that will enable the realisation of its will. Populist discourse is usually characterised by it simplification of complex issues and with the tyranny of the emotional dimension of politics. Such movements depend on the existence of polarisation between the people represented by the movement, and the other parties who constitute the object of anger, being the reason for the crises which the former suffer from. Usually these movements follow individual leaders with unique charismatic personalities. So populism, by this definition, can be of the left or the right, secular or religious, according to the psychological background of the political or cultural context within which the movement emerges.
According to this classification, it is possible to make recourse to the history of al-thawra city (now Sadr City) in Baghdad as a model to complete the analysis of the intellectual construction alluded to previously, that is, the question of whether the Sadrists really possess a leftist-oppositional consciousness, or whether they merely practice the religious obedience of ‘the blind’ to the orders of their leaders. Sadr City disclosed its radicalism more than half a century ago, when it was a centre of communist affiliation. And these days the city displays its radicalism through its Sadrist belonging. Therefore, the foundation is the ‘populist’ psychology which springs from the city’s deprived status tinged with its character of tribal solidarity.
Those who describe the people of Sadr City as closed-minded religious fundamentalists, and in terms of blind obedience to ‘infallible’ religious symbols, are very wide of the mark. The secret of such movements’ power has always lain in their ability to mobilise the energies of the deprived and to key into their accumulating frustration, and to vent this anger and to direct it towards a leftist trend, or towards religious symbolic trend, within the mechanism ‘identification with the saviour’. This last is a psychological solution, a refuge during times of collective tragedy, and when the people lack a political culture that can effectively secure the individual and his capacities to affect the unfolding of political events.
The political theory that argues that it is the charismatic leaders who catalyse activity and populist movements thanks to their uniquely attractive personal characteristics and ability to stir the emotions and minds of the public, meets with serious difficultly in proving its consistent applicability, owing to the development achieved by the study of the science of political psychology in the fields of collective action and in the biographies of politicians and the striking situational effects for social practices. So the concept of the ‘leader as initiator’, whether he is just or unjust, is subjected to dissection via the search for the aspirations and motives of the public and their mental conceptions. Whereas the particular qualities of the leader himself occupy a secondary place in the analysis, despite the importance of their dialectical interaction with the first factor.
In the case of the Sadrist trend, because of the dynamics of the relationship between its three components addressed previously [see Part II] and its continuing ability to accommodate its internal construction with the general formation of political events in Iraq, the calculation between the trend’s leader (Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr) and their followers, must be understood as follows: the unity of the deep psychological identification between the two sides does not allow for either to act – psychologically – in isolation from the other, that is, both sides exert an influence on each other of comparable force. Therefore, the leader adopts his decisions, plans, speeches etc. in a way that is affected by the pressure he is subjected to by the positions of his followers, who regard him as responsible to their expectations for the return of justice, dignity and security, so long as they have given him the mandate of holiness. At the same time, his followers show a powerful obedience to the decisions of the leader, who is the receptacle of an authority passed down historically in accordance with the principle of ‘deputisation’. He is thus ‘the icon’ which permits them to feel pride in the broad collective identity and to confront their misery, deprivation and despair stemming from their scattered individual identities.
For the absolute authority of the leader of the Sadrist trend does not extend exclusively from his own being, or from his special capacities, or from his family’s history of martyrdom, but extends fundamentally from the subconscious authorisation which is granted him by the incapacitated public, which requires from him that he be the ‘sacred’ catalyst in protest action towards the realisation of their cherished goals, that are currently in abeyance so long as the public is not courageous enough to do this by itself. He moves the publics because they want to be moved. It is he that follows their objective interests in order to be their leader, not the other way around.
The inability of the public to mobilise is an issue that does not only affect the Sadrists, but Iraqis generally, including the Shi’a. In this case, the incapacity springs from fatalistic religious currents based on the idea of awaiting the person of the omnipotent saviour [the Mahdi] on the one hand, and on the other, on the political culture of subjection to the effects of encroaching authoritarianism and its cruelty for over the last 50 years.
This reciprocal function between the two parties (the leader and the followers) makes each one meet, in the general framework, the expectations of the other, implicitly, even if this has not been made clear publicly, or has appeared to be the opposite in a small number of cases. Here lies the secret of the intense emotional cohesion between the two sides, so that the psychological construction for each – the individual for the leader, the collective for the public – finds its realisation and satisfaction in the formation of the other. This synchronisation occurs in the expectations and the reciprocal exchange of satisfaction in both positions.
So the Sadrist leadership, charismatic-individual, is distinguished as an expression of the suppressed collective leftist motivation, and is an engine to move it at the same time. Just as the Sadrist movement is distinguished as an expression of the consciousness of protest in social practice and the leftist reforming motives that have been in abeyance, and which need to be sparked to life by the words of the leader and his orders.
While the connection of religious loyalty, which appears on the surface to be the fulcrum of the relationship between the two sides, is actually nothing more than an ideological formational compensating for the venting of deep latent ambitions and aspirations [objective interests], related to oppression, deprivation, and humiliation, and which allows – that is the religious link allows – the masses to feel secure, to feel consolation in a world which violates their humanity on a daily basis. In such phenomena, the ideology springs from the psychology, not the other way around.
Social practice and standards of judgement
The arena of civil political practice in general, and leftist in particular, ought not to remain isolated within ideological lacunas which adhere to the slogan ‘all or nothing!’, especially in a country like Iraq which is sliding into the abyss.
Because we are talking about difficult and protracted political action, fraught with possibilities, interpretations, and risks, it follows that any opening up or convergence between the civil trend and any religious trend with a leftist social base, that is politically realistic, cannot engage in avoidance or antagonistic actions, if it might open the doors for a political movement pushing towards halting the deterioration, the bloodshed, and the continuing collapse of the walls of the crumbling state.
This accommodation, or political coordination, does not involve an alliance of destiny, or that either side neglect conceptual commitments or its values. However, it does require that the civil trend, as the side most targeted and most vulnerable in the face of bullying from political Islam, obtain political guarantees and intellectual assurances from the Sadrists that this convergence is not simply a bridge to the realisation of authoritarianism on their own behalf, but is a coming together of collective wills towards an historical phase entailing the realisation of radical reform throughout the entirety of Iraq’s political entity.
This convergence could provide an important psychological precondition for dealing with the historical crisis of confidence between the secularists and the religious trend in Iraq by at least realising one step towards a coherent national state, owing to the convergence being based on rationalist precepts. Therefore, it represents an intellectual and political choice capable of proving, or disproving, its worth with reference to its results, without requiring its prior categorisation as either ‘virtuous’ or ‘unvirtuous’.
I am guided here by one of the most well-known sayings of Marx found in the ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’: ‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.’
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