Translation: “The Iraqi communists. Who are they, and what do they do?” An interview with the ICP’s Jassim al-Helfi by Methaq al-Fayyadh (2014)

Methaq al-Fayyadh, “The Communists in Iraq… Who are they…and what do they do?,” al-hiwar al-mutamadin, March 18, 2014.

 

The Iraqi public has many questions regarding the communists in Iraq: Who are they? Do they agitate against religion? How do they co-exist with the Other? Does the Communist Party have an armed military wing in Iraq? Did they participate in the armed struggle against the previous regime and do they carry weapons today? Was ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim a communist? And what of the Ja’fari civil status laws and their opposition to these? Their funding? Their activities? Their ideas? And the extent of their spread in the country?

All these questions needed answers, so we knocked on the door of the Communist Party of Iraq (ICP) and were greeted by Mr Jassim Muhamad al-Helfi, a prominent leader in the ICP and a member of its Politburo.

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: Begin with explaining, who is Jassim al-Helfi, and how did he become a communist?

Jassim al-Helfi: I am Jassim al-Helfi, an Iraqi citizen born in the 1960s to a poor family. My father was generally simple, he did not belong to the Party. My relationship with the ICP didn’t start until I reached 18 years, because the membership conditions required that a member of the ICP be 18 years old. I lived in “al-Thawra City”, as I like to call it. Because we were born and lived there, we learnt to read books studying in its schools, we felt the pain of the workers and the poor and the differences in class and living standards between the miserable and poor city and the other districts of Baghdad, this caused my orientation towards communism. The Communist Party was the party of the street, a powerful party, a populist party for the poor. It grew in strength as the young men entered into friendship with books, art, culture, theatre, cinema, beautiful songs. This enticing atmosphere was always provided by the communists, it drew us in, and thus we were guided towards joining the ICP. To be sure, it was not a case of belonging based on a deep intellectual conviction. We did not read “Das Kapital,” nor the other major conceptual communist texts. But we read novels and short stories, and the newspaper tāriq al-sha’b (The Path of the People), and the magazine al-thaqāfa al-jadida (The New Culture). There were festivals, meetings, football matches local popular teams that had communists playing for them. All this atmosphere pushed many young people to become communists, and I was one of them.

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: What is communism, a concept, an ideology, a party?

JH: Communism is an ideology, a practice, and a disposition on life. It is hard for the people to delve deeply into the communist ideology and understand the significance of communism this way. However, the actions of certain important personalities, who for us were symbols, ones  who created literature distinguished by self-denial and working on behalf of others, this is the exemplar which was put before us and we were affected by them. This idea was embodied in various movements, of which the ICP was one, and after the Communist Party consolidated in terms of its thought and organisation, its ideas spread beyond its organisational borders, seeing a greater effect on public opinion than its organisational size would suggest, even in political circles. So, when today you consider the ICP, maybe it is said that the Party is not big and does not compare with the big governing parties. However, the truth is that it has a significant impact on public opinion, especially since its activists are important cultural, social, and intellectual actors concerned with literature, and popular mobilisation within various sections of society.

The ICP is concerned with cultivating behaviours and educating its members, their participation in intellectual and political courses, and courses to prepare members to engage in dialogue, build social links, educational initiatives, and sacrifice in the pursuit of public issues. To be sure, it is the definition of what Gramsci called the “organic intellectual” because it reflects what is happening in a culture through its practice, its movement, and its defence of public issues.

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: Was the period of the 1970s the best period for the communists compared to what they are like today?

Jassim al-Helfi: The two periods differ and comparison between them is difficult. Iraq has passed through a period of more than 30 years of dictatorship and the ICP in particular was severely persecuted. The movement of the Party depended to a considerable extent on a foundation in literature, culture, intellectual endeavour, art, and joy and music in addition to its populist frame and student and youth federations, and women’s associations. These institutions were dissolved and dismantled by the Ba’th Party who banned them and prevented people from working for them. Those who did fell under the penalty of death and execution. Thus, the social foundation, the social layer of the ICP, that defended the workers, the poor and the labourers, these were the fundamental issue of the Party and they were represented by the middle class, which was the activist pillar of the communists.

However, the wars and the sanctions weakened this class, and eroded its power. This was in addition to the persecutions of the previous regime against the communists and their subjection to imprisonment. They were made to give pledges preventing them from all communist activity. These reasons led to a diminution of the activity of the Party. Then came the dictatorial regime with its right wing campaign, it wanted to submit Iraq to the sectarian project, then came the occupation. All this narrowed the opportunity for a secularist party, a nationalist party, to establish a presence in the context of the intense sectarian attraction from terrorism, violence and militias. All this narrowed the space for activity for the communists. However, the ICP remained to carry out its cultural, enlightening and revolutionary role, meaning changing the corrupt reality and bitterness in which the country lives, and forcefully promoting its ideas and values. By way of example, the Communist Party was one of the early forces to speak against political sectarianism, but when we spoke out against this, it was interpreted as though we were speaking against religion and the holy places, and there was a severe confrontation between us and between the damaging political sectarian forces over the future of Iraq. Today, we see that all the people speak against political sectarianism, it became the issue of Iraqis protecting the unity of their people and Iraq.

We talked in the past about the civil state, and our intense need for it. Today most of the popular movements talk of Iraq’s need of a civil state, therefore, in a number of areas the positions of the Communist Party became the programme of the people who resonate with our ideas, we have a strong presence through our ideas and policies.

Today thousands of communists are present across Iraq, making their case confidently and directly. We have more than twenty public offices in Baghdad for the ICP, and in most provinces we have more than two offices. We also have a public newspaper, and public activities. Today, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the ICP and in Najaf there is a street named after Salim ‘Adil, Secretary [General] of the ICP, a few days ago we had a festival “The Way of the People” which lasted two days, in which we challenged terrorism and made a festival for joy in which there were seminars, songs, art, culture, and dozens of newspapers participated.

The period which the Communist Party is going through now is a period of growth and development, and we continue to build and consolidate the membership, strengthen its activities, and confirm the party’s concepts, scrutinizing its ideas in a critical framework such that they keep pace with reality and respond to the interests of the people, the issues that affect them, and the heartbeat of the street, expressing the interests of the people.

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: Did the ICP participate in the armed resistance against the regime of Saddam Hussein?

Jassim al-Helfi: Yes, we had a role in the armed resistance during the rule of Saddam. I personally was a peshmerga in the forces that were then called Ansār al-Hizb al-Shuyu’i. We carried weapons from 1981 until after the crime of Anfal in 1990 and the “March Uprising”. The Communist Party was an armed force, and we participated in the uprising alongside other opposition forces. We possessed a very significant military force, since we had cells in Dohuk and in Suleymaniyah and in Erbil, and each cell contained three or four military regiments, and each regiment about three or four companies spread out amongst the marshes, mountains, and suburbs of Erbil, so that we could move around by car even in the lowlands. It was a unique experience, we had many prominent military campaigns including storming the mounds of al-Furasān [Kurdish allies of Saddam, also known as al-Juhūsh]and we controlled the internal departments of the Salahaddin University within Erbil for more than seven hours, and many more operations that are beyond counting.

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: Do you have a military wing today, are you prepared to carry weapons?

Jassim al-Helfi: Of course, no. We do not have any military wing currently, and we do not believe in carrying weapons, and there is no need to increase the violence in Iraq. We think that the urgent need and necessity is to restore security and peace and push away the shadow of weapons and weaponization from the Iraqi people. The weapons must be in the hands of the state alone. We will carry weapons with the army as citizens if this is required for the defence of the nation.

 

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: What is the communist’s position vis-à-vis religion, and the other religious peoples who live with you in the nation?

Jassim al-Helfi: We are not opposed to religion, we respect religion, we respect the right to practice religious customs and rituals. All humanity has the right and freedom of belief and religious creed. Within our internal regulations there is no position on religion, but we talk, and speak for, and we struggle for, the issues of life, of land, and we do enter into discussions about the length and breadth of the sky and the land, rivers of wine and honey. We believe in improving the conditions of the life we live, how can we improve these conditions? How can we provide clean water to the people? How can we provide electricity, and develop education and health and social security? How can we improve the lives of the citizen and his standard of living and provide a reasonable material life to all the people, and a spiritual life through culture and music and art. This is what motivates us. We respect religion and we respect the religious, and we do not oppose the particular characteristics of any person. We are from the same environment as the Iraqi people, we respect the holy places of the people. All the documents from the trials against the communists brought by the previous regime demonstrate that not one communist was prosecuted for opposition to religion. But, rather, on issue of human rights and democracy and positions against the dictatorship. These are the issues that we were tried for, and most of the communists were executed on such cases. These charges that were directed towards the communists, of hurting the religion of others, are without basis. Their purposes is to reduce the communists and limit their role. Within the internal rules of the Communist Party there is no believer or non-believer for all people are free. We are a secular party, so we respect the beliefs of others and do not force any of our members to take any particular position regarding religion, and in our ranks are religious people, Muslims, Christians, Mandayans, Yazidis, Arab and Kurd. We are a diverse party, concerned mainly with the affairs of life, the life of the people, their rights, their dignity and building the country.

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: Is the doctrine of Iraq’s communists against private property?

Jassim al-Helfi: With respect to the position of ICP vis-à-vis private property, we believe in the role of the private sector, and we belief in the importance of national investment, and also foreign investment in order to build Iraq and its development. This does not mean fragmenting the public sector, for we still believe the public sector has an important role but what has grown alongside it has been bureaucracy and a state of stagnation and idleness. So our programme calls for resuscitating the incapacitated factories and returning life to some 2000 inoperable factories in Iraq.

 

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: What of ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, al-Helfi, was he a communist?

Jassim al-Helfi: Qasim was not a communist but rather a nationalist and a populist close to the concerns of the people and their issues, and the poor and the workers, so they considered him a communist or close to the communists because of the convergence between him and ourselves. Even today, when we talk about the issue of social justice, it does not stipulate the communists alone, but rather everyone who believes in social justice and equality, but the communists put this matter, which concerns the people, with force that affected public opinion so they became issues of general concern.

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: Does the Communist Party have a spiritual leader, or follow a marja’?

Jassim al-Helfi: The Communists do not have a marja’ as an individual, but the doctrine is our guide, we cherish the role of the individuals who led our party in the past. This includes [Yusuf Salman ] Fahad, Salim ‘Adil, Jamal al-Haidari, and the rest of the martyrs. We honour these important persons for their role in the Party, and they are commemorated for their heroic feats, for they gave their souls and lives for a common cause, which is the nation and the people. Fahd refused to back down and was executed, and Salim ‘Adil was hacked to pieces because he too refused to give in. He gave his life because he believed in what is deserving of struggle and sacrifice. And today we have Hamid Majid Mousa [ICP Secretary General until 2016] and he is a man who is always giving for the cause of Iraq, the Party, and the nation.

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: From where is the Communist Party funded? Does the party have foreign sources of income?

Jassim al-Helfi: The Communist Party funds its activities via donations from our Iraqi colleagues inside and outside the country. We do not have funding from any faction, so the party is poor materially, but rich intellectually, and even those who work in important government positions donate half their salary to the Party and to its activities. There are also party subscriptions, according to the ability of each member (between 1-3%).

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: Observers speak of the presence of extremism amongst the communist youth, and aggression against others with whom they share the land, the air and the water?

Jassim al-Helfi: I regret to hear of even one extremist amongst the communists, for the communist must not be extremist, for we defend the issues of the workers and the people by peaceful and loving means. The communist must conduct his discourse in a loving way that is close to the people in order to have a positive effect on the other, whereas the extremist is an outsider, an outcast of his community. The young people from the communists make their calls through dialogue and exchanging opinion in an acceptable and good manner, we do not allow for extremism, we do make cleavages between ourselves and others with different views. I think that fanaticism like this is not a part of the Communist Party organisation. The Party contains educational rules, aimed at educating, cultivating and dialogue. The ideas are not to be imposed on others, the purpose is to convince them [through dialogue].

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: The Ja’fari Law? What is the reason for your opposition?

Jassim al-Helfi: We are not alone amongst those opposing the Ja’fari law [civil status codes], we oppose the Ja’fari Law as part of a broad section of opposition starting with those who oppose it amongst main marja’ of Najaf who said that there are jurisprudential and conceptual gaps, so that in this case it is best left to the secularists, and in this group there are men of religion, tribes, women, young peoples’ movements and powerful civil-secular parties. And another reason for opposition to the law is because it contravenes the articles of international law which Iraq has signed and which are now part of Iraqi law. We are a part of the international system, we are not isolated, living alone on an island without a relationship with the world, we are connected to the whole world, so the dignity of humanity, its freedom, its protections, are not confined to national borders, for Iraq is a signature to international law and this [Ja’fari] law currently contravenes many of the articles of the international conventions which Iraq has signed. From a second perspective, we signed a constitution which we all agreed upon, and this law contravenes and cuts across a number of articles of the constitution. Thirdly, this law contributes in dismantling the national fabric at a time when we are suffering from severe conflict in the social foundations of Iraq, we do not need to fragment the social fabric of the country. And from a practical perspective, quite frankly, today we find in our courts the rates of divorce is 50% of the marriage rate, despite those who marry being 18 years and over, because of the intense difficulty of life and the environment which is not hospitable to successful marriage. So how are children aged 8 or 9 years to marry and form a family on their own? This is something unacceptable and completely unrealistic.

And from the perspective of timing, we wonder if this is the law that is most urgent, which Iraqis most need today? There are laws which really concern the country, such as social security, why has this not been initiated for example, while it protects the dignity of the citizens, why has the labour law not been initiated? The oil and gas law? Why has a law to invest in building the country not been brought forward? Or the law regarding political parties, freedom of expression, are these laws not more pressing and needed for the Iraqi people? But unfortunately they are absent while a law that does not speak to the needs of the citizens is the centre of the agenda. So I wonder, why bring this law forward now, when the Iraqi parliament is not allowed to subject it to proper scrutiny.

The reason for putting this law before parliament now is simply for electoral propaganda. I do not think it will be ratified, it will not see the light of day, for if they are insistent upon its ratification, we are also insistent on our position.

 

Methaq al-Fayyadh: These were the fundamentals of our talk to Mr Jassim al-Helfi, leader in the ICP. We will have many other meetings with those who differ, agree, love and hate with respect to everything regarding Iraqi issues and the situation in Iraq, we are committed to impartial journalism for differences of opinion need to sour friendship, towards a closer dialogue and new topics, by the grace of God.

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