Thursday, May 13, 2004

not depressed enough yet?
Try some contemplation of global immiseration. Your host: Mike Davis

Something in this essay struck me as relevant to Iraq and the ongoing confrontation between the Occupation forces and their (current) Shi’ite allies and the Sadrist movement.

Today, on the other hand, populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism. In Morocco, for instance, where half a million rural emigrants are absorbed into the teeming cities every year, and where half the population is under 25, Islamicist movements like ‘Justice and Welfare’, founded by Sheik Abdessalam Yassin, have become the real governments of the slums: organizing night schools, providing legal aid to victims of state abuse, buying medicine for the sick, subsidizing pilgrimages and paying for funerals. As Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi, the Socialist leader who was once exiled by the monarchy, recently admitted to Ignacio Ramonet, ‘We [the Left] have become embourgeoisified. We have cut ourselves off from the people. We need to reconquer the popular quarters. The Islamicists have seduced our natural electorate. They promise them heaven on earth.’ An Islamicist leader, on the other hand, told Ramonet: ‘confronted with the neglect of the state, and faced with the brutality of daily life, people discover, thanks to us, solidarity, self-help, fraternity. They understand that Islam is humanism.’

The Sadrists started out as a ‘government of the slums’ especially the al-Thawra district of Baghdad, now known as Sadr City, under the leadership of Moqtada al-Sadr’s father Mohammed Sadiq – providing a social and welfare infrastructure and an alternative system of justice to Saddam’s courts. Juan Cole’s essay on Sh’ite political factions in Middle East International provides fascinating background on both the younger and elder Sadr, who wasn’t averse to secular or leftist influences.

Muhammad Sadiq had a wide-ranging intellect. He notonly excelled in the Islamic branches of knowledge, but also learned fluent English,and studied psychology and history. Al-Asadi says that his history tutor, Dr. FadilHusayn, considered him his best student and presented him with a rare copy of TheParis Commune (presumably the one authored by Karl Marx).22 This anecdote suggests the way in which leftist and Marxist influences circulated even in clerical circlesin the shrine cities, a phenomenon that went back at least to the 1950s. Muhammad Sadiq wrote a Shi‘ite commentary on the 1789 “Rights of Man” issued by the French revolutionaries.

Prof Cole also explains how the Sadrist government of the slums mobilized after the invasion deposed Saddam.

Sadr Movement adherents differentiate themselves from middle class and
wealthier, more secular Iraqis of the sort who controlled Iraq politically for most of
the twentieth century. They decry the wearing of Western-made clothes, patronizing
movie theaters that show Western films, drinking alcohol, and the appearance in public
of unveiled women. They insist on the necessity of holding and attending Friday
prayers at mosques. They also represent themselves as more socially conscious and
caring than is the Westernized and individualistic Iraqi middle class. Their militias
provided security to millions of Shi‘ites in the spring and summer of 2003, at a time
when the Iraqi police force had collapsed and the Anglo-American forces were too
small to provide security. Sadrist clergymen fought looting and insisted on the return
of looted merchandise. Adherents also specialize in providing food and medical aid to
poor neighborhoods, seeking thereby to build a political base when elections come.
They appear to have gained some Iranian patronage for these efforts.


Sadr the elder was assassinated in 1999, along with two of Muqtada’s elder brothers. His uncle had been murdered by Ba’athists back in 1979.

Like other Arab dictators, Saddam was an assiduous killer of socialists and communists. And in Iraq as elsewhere, it is religious leaders and parties who have moved in to fill the gap. It’s one of those post-liberation ironies that a party led by a determined enemy of Saddam and supported by significant sections of the Iraqi working class now apparently has to be disposed of in the name of freedom and pluralism. Maybe it does. Muqtada himself appears to be more than a little deranged, possibly as a consequence of the brutal repression his family suffered under the Ba’ath. But this is part of Iraq’s unfolding tragedy rather than a reason for whooping it up.

Whatever happens to Sadr’s movement in particular, it’ll be interesting to see if Sadrism in the wider sense – a kind of declaration of independence by the global surplus population complete with autonomous civic and military structures – takes off in the future.