Faris Kamal Nadhmi, ‘Muqtada al-Sadr between the safety of reform and fear of change: Will he choose revolution or counter-revolution?’
al-Mada, 4 February, 2020.
For a significant section of Iraqi public opinion, it has become commonplace to describe the political behaviour of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr as volatile, contradictory, puzzling and strange.
And this raises a fundamental question: what does al-Sadr want? What is the secret of his oscillation between participation in the October Revolution, and supporting and protecting it for several weeks, and, more recently, his suspicion of the Revolution and his view that it has deviated from the correct path? Is it a lack of psychological stability? A fluctuating ideology? A cunning politics? His acquiescence to external [foreign] dictates beyond his control? A desire to subject the protest movement to his own terms and conditions? Or perhaps some mystical religious knowledge derived from inspirational sources not available to ordinary people?
In truth, a clear answer to all these questions requires a multidisciplinary approach. It must start with the psychology of politics and its changing polarisations, but also investigate the dynamics of authority, the competition over the growing political vacuum, and the expanding cultural gap between the religious loyalty of the Sadrist trend and the secularity of the current protest movement. It must also address foundation of inspiration through irfan [a form of Shi’i Gnosticism], and the effects of regional conflicts inside Iraq, arriving finally at the personal psychological characteristics that allow for the possibility of interpreting Sayyid al-Sadr’s positions by deconstructing his political behaviour and re-examining its causes and elements, with the aim of demystifying his politics.
This entails focusing on a single psycho-political theme without denying or ignoring other parallel and complementary forms of explanation. This theme is not satisfied with intrinsic mood swings in the behaviour of Sayyid Muqtada, but is interested in shifting political context in which he finds himself and which clarifies the twists and turns in his actions as a serious response to emerging situations that are unexpected for him.
I want to focus here on what could be called the binary between “reform” and “change” that explains most of the decisions of al-Sadr and his recent positions. This analysis emphasises Sadr’s personal performance as a political actor, and does not extend to the broader structure of the Sadrist trend in its many dimensions (including its social base distributed between its hierarchies of class and different cultures that are not all identified with its leader in all situations and positions despite their overwhelming loyalty to him).
For throughout the last ten years, al-Sadr has engaged in many serious stances with the protests, making him one of the most important actors in the production of the values and techniques of protest in Iraqi political life. Similarly, he has brought forward many detailed proposals calling for citizenship, social justice, combating corruption, religious tolerance, and for discarding sectarianism and confirming a national identity and strengthening the state and dissolving the militias. All this was in addition to the well-known convergences, friendships and alliances with the madaniyin, the communists and liberals. However, in all these situations he remained a “reformer” in his orientation towards the political system (meaning he favoured maintaining the foundations of the system and only changing its function). He did not embrace comprehensive “change” (meaning the alteration of both the foundations and the function), despite instances that seemed to indicate otherwise (such as when his supporters stormed the Green Zone and the parliament in April 2016, which he himself described later as merely “pulling the ear” [i.e. not a big deal].
Without delving into the meanings of political form, its realism or delusion, Sayyid al-Sadr believes himself to be a “reformer” and a “guardian of reform” and a “lover of moderation”. This reflects his transformation after 2008 away from an actor who drew legitimacy primarily from the militias, towards one who associates himself with the legitimacy of the state. However, this was without arriving at a radical position vis-à-vis the current situation, despite his use of the famous phrase “pulling and gouging” [shala’ qala’] which was merely a popular and figurative expression aimed merely at generating enthusiasm and mobilisation. Therefore, he remained committed to diversifying his alliances and political practices in all directions and preserving his image as a “reformer” for himself and his followers. This sort achieve three interrelated goals in the accumulation of capital and influence with the political class, which are: satisfaction of the demands of religious doctrine; interest in the social and national concerns of his movement; and his organic and utilitarian attachment to the political system, while criticising and protesting against it all at the same time.
Sayyid al-Sadr has lived all his political live in the current period following regime change in 2003. This makes him mentally attached to the current system in which he may not see much good, but he may also see much evil in an alternative with an unknown character and orientation towards himself. Hence, his current dilemma began with the emergence of the October revolutionary movement which suddenly threatens comprehensive change (structural and functional).
Sayyid al-Sadr has moved from being the dominant political actor in the “safe” reformist space during the last ten years, to coexisting horizontally with others who are not his followers in a “troubling” revolutionary space during the last four months. This, without his having a genuine desire to radically change the system [shala’ wa qala’]. This fraught coexistence between two adjacent psychological realities forced him to oscillate between his admiration for revolution, and his concern vis-à-vis the revolutionaries and his occasional criticism of them, to his threatening and targeting them – as was seen recently – in an effort to halt the storm of radical change and replace it forcibly with “moderate” currents which he thinks sufficient to turn the broken windmills of reform after the growing popular protest refused, fundamentally, to recycle old faces through the position of prime minister.
Al-Sadr has serious fears concerning the “change” of the current political system. Some of these fears have a religious-doctrinal basis, because al-Sadr is still committed to a political system that reforms itself gradually and preserves the influence of the “Shia house” and religious theology in public political space. He regards this as preferable to a venture into “the unknown,” and undermining the foundations of the current system and replacing it with another form – secular perhaps – that could permanently end the influence of the men of religion and confine them to the mosques. He is also concerned about the cultural superstructure, that people will no longer believe they require a “paternalistic” [abawiyah] figure to rectify their lives, and will were no longer think that changing their own minds and actions requires sacred precedents.
The most important and impactful of his current fears relates to his compulsive belief in the theory of foreign conspiracy which “supports” the revolutionaries, with the possibilities of an “imminent” civil war, and the “sins” and “deviations” that are impacting the path of revolution because of “infiltrators”. These fears have arisen fundamentally because of his exit from the socially open and enlightened atmosphere of the madani political, cultural and journalistic elites with whom he was interacting daily in Najaf during the years that followed the outbreak of the protest movement in 2015. This open environment has been substituted for his isolation today in Qom in Iran, surrounded by imaginary scenarios dictating what he hears every day without him being close to the real events in Iraq. Added to this is the assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis, which left a narcissistic wound in the Shi’i religious self, a warning shock of the possibility of the disappearance of Shi’i political hegemony if the protest movement persists in its radical search for change and not merely gradual reform (even if it is a movement led – fundamentally – by the Shia poor.
This backward turn in Sayyid al-Sadr’s positions has disappointed many of those who love and support him (from outside the Sadrist trend as well as some of his followers). This includes those who saw in him an Iraqi leader capable of protecting the rising national project to save the country, even though it seems understandable from his perspective to resist the change and be satisfied with “reforms” most of which will be mere talk. However, this turn – if it persists in the coming days – will mean al-Sadr burning his important symbolic and populist capital outside of his trend down to the lowest level, he will have destroyed all this completely and with unprecedented speed.
The final political outcome of his current position – in the event that it persists – will mean his lining up with the counter-revolution, and the transformation of important parts of his movement into tools for the violent preservation of the dilapidated and the corrupt, not of the liberation and change that he has been calling for in recent years. This is what actually happened in the last few days, when his “blue hats” organisation transformed from a symbol of “heroism” and protection for the October movement into an authoritarian faction working to betray the protests and practice “the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice”. This behaviour will revive the negative political memory of the violations practiced by Jaysh al-Mahdi in the years of sectarian violence 2006-2007.
Regardless of the nature of Sayyid al-Sadr’s emerging positions, and if he will continue with his current plan opposing the momentum of October revolution, or make a positive retreat to reset his company within the new relations of forces imposed by the winds of the revolution, his recent abrupt changes of position will leave deep effects. These will be felt, on the one hand, by the Sadrist trend and the rest of the Shi’i and Iraqi mobilisation that is oriented towards change, and, on the other, by the base of the Sadrist movement generally and especially its groups that are desperate for change and whom sacrificed hundreds of martyrs, and thousands of injured, throughout the last months.
The earthquake of the October Revolution has affected the political cultural and foundational values of millions of young people in central and southern Iraq, is rebuilding the political space of the country. This requires the Sadrists (or any other political movement), if they want to persist and develop their social capital and respect the honourable protests, to remodel themselves – politically and intellectually – in a new and realistic way on the updated political map without trying to approach the present arbitrarily with the mindset of a past that he departed and cannot be recovered.
For this revolution without leadership or systematic ideology has become a reality that fills the Iraqi public sphere today. It cannot be erased irrespective of its ultimate destiny or in the event of its ending. Without an objective reckoning equal to this new reality, the Sadrist movement will remain lagging behind, playing catch up with events, and seeking to take them hostage by forcibly applying its own stopped and extinguished time.
Original Arabic article: https://almadapaper.net/view.php?cat=224455