American freedom as Iraqis saw it in the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 came on top of a military tank that trampled its way into the cradle of civilisation. Liberation in Iraq having got rid of one dictator and expressed violently through imperial conquer was promoted as freedom of the market, a bogus and unfounded claim that neoliberalism would set the people of Iraq free. Yet, fifteen years since the Iraq War, Iraq is no closer to realising anything other than reeling from America’s destruction of the country and the collapse of a nation of communities as one of its most poignant and glaring legacies. Impoverished and left to feed their families from the scraps left by US and their Iraqi elites’ ravaging of the country’s wealth it seems, as many Iraqis commonly express today, that there is no clear way out of this quagmire. So the question is posed, where now for one of the oldest civilisations that historically contributed much to world knowledge and development?
A new resistance – a counterforce against violations of humanity and its associated totalised impoverishment – can be only genuinely enacted and initiated if it comes from knowledge and above all a critical reflection of Iraq’s devastation and place in the world. It is from the deep recesses of devastation, as peoples of this land have historically shown in their fortitude in times of crisis, that the spirit of critical reflection will emerge and take shape in everyday life, for catastrophe can only be negotiated by the knowledge that it bears to witness. Knowledge of what America destroyed in Iraq and of course, before it the devastation wrought by totalitarian dictatorship, which has been conveniently transformed into a spectacle to meet specific political interests, could be the basis of a new resistance movement founded on the principles of justice and dignity.
Iraq’s national protest movement is a sign of good things. Protest and the spirit of resistance against the occupation and its legacies, against those who profit from politically induced sectarianism and its colossal destruction is at the heart of a new critical consciousness in Iraq. Youth, the majority of Iraq’s population, are fighting back, reclaiming their lives and their families’ futures through the art of political expression. In Basra and across southern Iraq as well as many other areas of the country protest is becoming a mobilising and educating spirit of resistance. It is here in the utterances for a different and alternative Iraq that change will come about. Progressive change will not be realised through Iraq’s elitist politics and its increasingly neoliberalised and formal education institutions that are the institutional victims of war. A new Iraq will be one that will not emerge from political quotas and the consequent dominance of sectarian political parties and militia groups – the fear barrier, through protest, is now being undermined by the revival of street politics. A new Iraq will be reclaimed by the majority – the poor – who resist the attempt to erect hegemonic structures based on sectarianism and US supported efforts to construct a comprador class based on the disutility of oil as merely an export good for the benefit of ‘world markets’. Subsidising the living standards and beneficiaries of ‘global economy’ has come at the cost of those who are now protesting and who have seen their social and ecological environments collapse around them.
What was obfuscated by the occupation’s fueling of social and political violence – so called sectarianism – is now after 15 years clear – the US destroyed the Iraqi state, including its Army, security and all the things that constitute the continuity of life as embodied in the institutions of the state. Awareness and the educative role of protests now filling the streets is motivating an entire generation of youth against the legacies of occupation and the ways in which the US in its wanton destruction of the country and deliberate efforts to reshape society incentivised and brought to power a transnational ethno-sectarian elite that hijacked the Iraqi state and its oil-endowed institutions. No form of development can come from those people as their very existence is tied mercilessly to extracting as much rent from the state as possible.
Iraq’s state institutions, dilapidated and characterised by endemic malaise, are ill equipped for change. The spirit of anti-colonial and anti-imperial sentiment is unwittingly embedded in each one of Iraq’s protestors. Protest itself is reaching deep within Iraqi society. What is education if it is not for the purposes of bettering the wretched welfare of the people? Today, we see Iraqis voicing their disgust at the US constructed system that continues to wreak havoc on everyday life – from schools, to hospitals, to roads – all are characterised by the outcomes of the carnage of war fought in the name of freedom and liberation.
Freedom is necessarily about the liberation of the mind and against the violations of humanity that Iraq has endured. Four decades of dictatorship, and that constant theme that Iraq is negotiating, imperialism, can only be attacked and undermined by a consciousness of critical self-reflection – a deep learning of where Iraq is today. A new resistance will be based not on US-European notions of development, whatever they may be, but from Iraqis’ search for meaning based on their own rich historical and civilizational past – from Sumeria, Babylon and Assyria, and from the wisdom of Iraq’s great religious traditions and the living heritage of Imam Hussein – a source of inspiration for all Iraqis fighting against modern forms of injustice. Those voices will not be silent as long as Iraqis reclaim notions of freedom and liberation as their own and reconnect to the land that offered their ancestors the salt of the earth.
An NGO sector made up of thousands of local organisations was constructed to serve US occupation interests. The US spent billions on democracy promotion, civil society strengthening and human rights. Yet, now, in time of great need for change, where are those who spoke the language of freedom and change? Today, unorganised protests are calling for change yet have no support from NGOs. Civil society of the NGO form, tamed by ‘assistance’ funding, is nothing but pieces of paper, certificates of registration bound by the language and actions of aid money. More than civil society and NGOs, a real, genuine and grassroots civil society of protestation and expression is the mobilisation of Iraq’s population against the inhumane neoliberal existence of everyday life that has aggressively pitted one Iraqi against another, for the sake of maintaining a semblance of sustenance under the conditions of institutional disarray and collapse.
A critical consciousness fought not for specific groups but one geared to national transformation are indelibly intertwined in Iraq’s national protest movements. It is not violence that will bring to life those calls for improved welfare but the actions of individuals who strive to change a world around them characterised by the vulgarity and crudity of US war and its plan to create a client state, a realisation now as before that the Iraq War was about nixing Iraqi self-determination and its historically produced anti-imperialist culture and heritage.
Iraq is at the heart of new wars and their legacies, and the search for a new Iraq not beholden to US imperial interests or to the debilitating structures of neoliberal governance is in the making. Iraq and what has happened to it is the concern of all those who resist war and subjugation of the poor. It concerns all citizens of the world, for their futures too are increasingly not far from the wars inflicted on Iraq. We must strive to help Iraq find its true spirit, and this can only come about once the peoples of Iraq start to realise the wealth of knowledge and cultural development that its culturally rich communities have offered to world civilisation.