Iraqis were attempting the nonviolent overthrow of their dictator prior to his violent overthrow by the United States in 2003. When U.S. troops began to ease up on their liberating and democracy-spreading in 2008, and during the Arab Spring of 2011 and the years that followed, nonviolent Iraqi protest movements grew again, working for change, including the overthrow of their new Green Zone dictator. He would eventually step down, but not before imprisoning, torturing, and murdering activists — with U.S. weapons, of course.
There have been and are Iraqi movements for women’s rights, labor rights, to stop dam construction on the Tigris in Turkey, to throw the last U.S. troop out of the country, to free the government from Iranian influence, and to protect Iraqi oil from foreign corporate control. Central to much of the activism, however, has been a movement against the sectarianism that the U.S. occupation brought. Over here in the United States we don’t hear much about that. How would it fit with the lie we’re told over and over that Shi’a-Sunni fighting has been going on for centuries?
Ali Issa’s new book, Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, collects interviews he’s done of key Iraqi activists, and public statements made by Iraqi activist movements, including a letter to the U.S. Occupy Movement and similar messages of global solidarity. The voices are hard to hear because we haven’t been hearing them all these years, and because they don’t fit with lies we’ve been told or even with overly simplistic truths we’ve been told.
Did you know that, at the time of the Occupy Movement in the United States, there was a larger, more active, nonviolent, inclusive, principled, revolutionary movement holding major demonstrations, protests, permanent sit-ins, and general strikes in Iraq — planning actions on Facebook and by writing times and places on paper currency? Did you know there were sit-ins in front of every U.S. military base demanding that the occupiers leave?
When U.S. troops eventually and temporarily and incompletely departed Iraq, that was due, most Americans imagine, to President Barack Obama’s peaceful ways. Other Americans, aware that Obama had long since broken his withdrawal campaign promise, had done everything possible to extend the occupation, had left behind thousands of State Department troops, and would be back in with the military as soon as possible, give credit to Chelsea Manning for having leaked the video and documents that persuaded Iraq to stick with the Bush-Maliki deadline. Few note the efforts of Iraqis on the ground who made the occupation untenable.
The Iraqi media has been shut down when it has covered protests. Journalists in Iraq have been beaten, arrested, or killed. The U.S. media, of course, behaves itself without much prodding.
When an Iraqi threw his shoes at President Bush the Lesser, American liberals giggled but made clear their opposition to shoe-throwing. Yet the fame the act created allowed the shoe-thrower and his brothers to build popular organizations. And future actions included throwing shoes at a U.S. helicopter that was apparently trying to intimidate a demonstration.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with opposing throwing shoes in most contexts. Certainly I do. But knowing that the shoe throwing helped to build what we always claim to want, nonviolent resistance to the empire, adds some perspective.
Iraqi activists have regularly been kidnapped/arrested, tortured, warned, threatened, and released. When Thurgham al-Zaidi, brother of shoe-thrower Muntadhar al-Zaidi, was picked up, tortured, and released, his brother Uday al-Zaidi posted on Facebook: “Thurgham has assured me that he is coming out to the protest this Friday along with his little son Haydar to say to Maliki, ‘If you kill the big ones, the little ones are coming after you!’”
Mistreatment of a child? Or proper education, far superior to indoctrination into violence? We shouldn’t rush to judgment. I’d guesstimate there have been perhaps 18 million U.S. Congressional hearings lamenting the failure of Iraqis to “step up” and help out in the killing of Iraqis. Among Iraqi activists there seems to have been a great deal of stepping up for a better purpose.
When a nonviolent movement against Assad in Syria still had hope, the “Youth of the Great Iraqi Revolution” wrote to “the Heroic Syrian Revolution” offering support, encouraging nonviolence, and warning against co-option. One has to set aside years of U.S. neocon propaganda for the violent overthrow of the Syrian government, in order to hear this support for what it was.
The letter also urges a “national” agenda. Some of us see nationalism as a root cause of the wars and sanctions and abuse that created the disaster that now exists in Iraq, Libya, and other liberated lands. But here “national” is apparently being used to mean non-divisive, non-sectarian.
We talk about the nations of Iraq and Syria as having been destroyed, just as we talk about various other peoples and states, back to the nations of the Native Americans, having been destroyed. And we’re not wrong. But it can’t sound right in the ears of living Native Americans. So, for Iraqis, talk of their “nation” also seems to be a way to talk about returning to normalcy or preparing for a future not torn apart by ethnicity and religious sectarianism.
“If not for the occupation,” wrote the president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, in 2011, “the people of Iraq would have ousted Saddam Hussein through the struggles of Tahrir Square. Nevertheless, U.S. troops empower and protect the new Saddamists of the so-called democracy who repress dissent with detainments and torture.”
“With us or against us” idiocy doesn’t work in observing Iraqi activism. Look at these four points in a statement made in June 2014 by Falah Alwan of the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unionists in Iraq:
“We reject U.S. intervention and protest President Obama’s inappropriate speech in which he expressed concern over oil and not over people. We also stand firmly against the brazen meddling of Iran.
“We stand against the intervention of Gulf regimes and their funding of armed groups, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“We reject Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian and reactionary policies.
“We also reject armed terrorist gangs and militias’ control of Mosul and other cities. We agree with and support the demands of people in these cities against discrimination and sectarianism.”
But, wait, how can you oppose ISIS after you’ve already opposed U.S. intervention? One is the devil and the other the savior. You must choose . . . if, that is, you live thousands of miles away, own a television, and really — let’s be honest — can’t tell your ass from your elbow. The Iraqis in Issa’s book understand the U.S. sanctions, invasion, occupation, and puppet government as having created ISIS. They’ve clearly had as much help from the U.S. government as they can stand. “I’m from the government and I’m hear to help” is supposed to be a terrifying threat, according to fans of Ronald Reagan who resent anyone trying to give them healthcare or an education. Why they think Iraqis and Libyans hear those U.S. words differently they don’t explain — and don’t really have to.
Iraq is a different world, one the U.S. government would have to work to understand if it ever attempted to understand it. The same goes for U.S. activists. In Against All Odds, I read calls for “retaliation” framed as calls for peace and democracy. I read Iraqi protesters wanting to make clear that their protests are not all about oil, but principally about dignity and freedom. It’s funny, but I think some of the U.S. war’s backers claimed the war wasn’t all about oil for the similar reason that it was about global domination, power, “credibility.” Nobody wants to be accused of greed or materialism; everyone wants to be standing on principle, whether that principle is human rights or a sociopathic power grab.
But, as Issa’s book makes clear, the war and the “surge” and its aftermath have been very much about oil. The “benchmark” of a “hydrocarbon law” in Iraq was Bush’s top priority, year after year, and it never passed because of public pressure and because of ethnic divisions. Dividing people, it turns out, may be a better way to kill them off than to steal their oil.
We also read about oil workers taking pride in controlling their own industry, despite its being — you know — an industry that is destroying the earth’s climate. Of course, we may all die from war before the climate gets us, especially if we fail to even begin to understand the death and misery our wars inflict. I read this line in Against All Odds:
“My brother was one of those taken in by the U.S. occupation.”
Yeah, I thought, and my neighbor, and lots of Fox and CNN viewers. Many people fell for the lies.
Then I read the next sentence and began to grasp what “taken in” meant:
“They took him around 2008, and they interrogated him for an entire week, repeating one question over and over: Are you Sunni or Shi’a? . . . And he would say ‘I am Iraqi.’”
I’m also struck by the struggles recounted by advocates for women’s rights. They see a long multi-generational struggle and great suffering ahead. And yet we hear very little from Washington about the need to help them. When it comes to dropping bombs, women’s rights always seems to appear as a great concern. Yet when women are organizing efforts to obtain rights, and to resist the radical removal of their rights by the post-liberation government: nothing but silence.