Iraq: The Al-Sadr Dynasty Is Losing Ground

The mass protests that have been going on since October 2019 illustrate the generational conflict between the Shiite communities entrenched in their religious certainties and an emerging urban youth movement. The Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr bears the brunt of this disaffection which may mark the beginning of the end of the religious fanaticism which has long dominated the poorer neighbourhoods of Baghdad.

A youth participating in a demonstration against Moqtada Sadr’s supporters in Najaf, February 5, 2020.
Haidar Hamdani/AFP

In Iraq, the emergence of a civil society has been blocked for more than a decade between a rock and a hard place, between the Sunni-Shia conflict, on the one hand, and the pre-eminence in the poorer Shia districts of Muqtada Al-Sadr on the other. The October 2019 street protests pointed to a political reversal. A new socio-political generation has sprung, breaking with the hitherto hared religious traditions, which it regards as archaic.

This new generation has undermined Muqtada Al-Sadr’s popularity. It challenges and rejects the political and cultural submission of its elders, steeped as they are in immutable religious codes and superstitions inherited from a folk culture which feeds on tribal traditions. During the confrontations between the Sadrists and those young “disalienated” protestors, a video posted on the social networks showed a young demonstrator face to face with his Sadrist father. This is not simply a struggle against a corrupt regime and politicians who have been running the country since 2003, but a generational split between young and old.

The size of the protests on 1 October 2019, put down by Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, instrumentalised by the pro-Iranian factions, the Premier’s forced resignation, the murder of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Guardians of the evolution, and of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, associate chairman of the People’s Mobilisation, perpetrated by the Americans near Baghdad Airport, the appointment of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as Prime Minister immediately followed by his failure to form a cabinet in the time frame prescribed by the Constitution… This succession of events revealed to one and all the corruptness of the clerics, the politicians and their allies and especially that of Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Sadrists’ leader.

Having rallied the Iranian orbit and settled in Qom for several months now, Muqtada Al-Sadr could no longer hide his subservience to the Tehran regime. Following the appointment of “his” candidate, Mohamed Alawi, to the office of Prime Minister, Sadr imagined that he could control any demonstration. On several occasions, however, the protestors defied the official ban against public gatherings. Saraya Al-Salam, the “peace company,” a legacy of the Sadrist “Mahdi Army” resorted to extreme violence. Muqtada and the Sadrist general staff were flabbergasted by the determination of this new generation of non-partisan rebels. After numerous bloody confrontations between Sadrists and crowds of protestors, two opposing camps took shape within the Shia community: young protestors demanding radical political reforms, on the one hand, and the extremists in positions of power, on the other, described henceforth in the street protests as “vassals of Iran”.

After failing to unite around a political consensus the two main Shia forces, Sairun (“Forward”) and Fatah, led respectively by Muqtada Al-Sadr and Hadi Al-Ameri, the former governor of Najaf, Adnan Al-Zurfi, gave up trying to form a cabinet. On the other hand, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Chief of the intelligence service and whose candidacy was presented by both parties, did manage to win the confidence of Parliament. Now Kadhimi’s nomination and the vote of confidence he got for his cabinet took place in the absence of any street protests on account of the coronavirus epidemic and the establishment of a curfew. Nonetheless, some demonstrators kept up the pressure in a few governorates in the south.

The “grass-roots” of Sadrism according to the father and the son

In order to better understand the underlying reasons for the decline of Sadrism, it is important to know its genealogy. Muqtada Al-Sadr has inherited the popularity of his father, ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Al-Sadr, assassinated under Saddam Hussein in 1999. A great charismatic figure, he was a self-proclaimed “marja”, a high-ranking Shia authority, second only to ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani who held the prestigious position of marja a’la (“grand Marja”) with the consent of the ulemas of Najaf, in compliance with the teachings of Shia dogma. In order to legitimise that self-proclaimed function, Mohammad Sadeq Al-Sadr developed a syncretic, populist rhetoric, a fusion of popular piety and official Shi’ism.

Later, his son, Muqtada Al-Sadr, has never failed to exalt in his preaching practices specific to grass-roots Shi’ism: self-flagellation with chains and the flat of swords during the Ashura celebrations, commemorating the martyrdom of the imam Husayn and glorifying the twelve historic imams. To commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn, the Sadrists make the pilgrimage to Karbala on foot, where they give thanks to the imams, the healing saints. In fact, Imam Musa Al-Kadhim, seventh Twelver imam (745–799 AD) has been dubbed in popular parlance “the medic of Baghdad”.

The father, Mohammad Al-Sadr, was an innovator who brought together and unified two sources of power, the veneration of an official religion and an archaic form of popular piety. Little by little, this fusion was to consolidate his prestige and legitimise his power vis-à-vis his rival, ayatollah Al-Sistani. At the height of his ascendency, the father even wrote a thick treatise entitled The Encyclopedia of the imam Al-Mahdi, four substantial tomes dealing with both the minor occultation and the major occultation as well as a good many myths and supernatural parables containing signs foreshadowing the reappearance of the Mahdi …1, this scholarly work quickly earned him the status of a charismatic leader. His goal was to unite the grass-roots constituencies of both branches.

His heir on the contrary, Muqtada Al-Sadr, had no intention of founding an elite movement, for fear of repeating the bitter experience of his uncle, Mohammad Baqir Al-Sadr, who had considerably influenced the thinking of Imam Khomeini. He was put to death by hanging under Saddam Hussein in 1980.

Newly empowered youth

Baghdad’s poorer neighbourhoods came into being in the forties as the result of successive waves of rural exodus prompted by the feudal system that still held sway in Southern Iraq. The population of these new districts maintained close connections with the tribes in their home provinces. In both cities and villages, this tribal influence was still experienced as a form of protection, according to Ibn Khaldun’s assabiya,2 the well-known “esprit de corps.” And yet Islam and the tribes alike associated two poles based on opposite, irreconcilable principles… This being so, how can one be a pious Shia and a Sadrist and at the same time a respectful member of a pagan tribe, subservient to its power?

In the deprived areas of the big cities, young people were attracted to Sadrist ideology because of the compatibility between the “popular religion” of the father and his son and the archaic and religious traditions of their own family background. Little by little, Mohammad Al-Sadr’s preaching were absorbed by a deprived urban population, marginalised, and even despised by the social and religious hierarchy. Thus, the Sadrists found an audience among creative youths, musicians, rappers, athletes, and people who plied unflattering odd jobs. All these were conscripted into the nascent Sadrist movement in the nineties. Sadr’s persistent preaching converted a good many young city dwellers to the radicality of the Sadrist organisations. Among them were Ali Al-Kaabi in Baghdad and Abdel Sattar Al-Bahdeli in Basra. These two men were to have an enormous influence on young people, the former as a boxing champion, the latter as a popular singer,

According to Shia doxa, respect for ritual commemorations are what guarantee the viability of the cause for which the martyr Husayn sacrificed himself. Anyone trying to denounce or undermine compliance with these rituals, who sees them as conservative or archaic, is accused of trying to attack the very foundations of the Shia faith. Born in the seventh century, these rituals survived the repression of empires, dictatorships, and other successive power structures. Thus the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn was observed until the dawn of the twentieth century, and the convoys of flagellants and other archaic rituals proliferated throughout the sixties and seventies as the masses of impoverished peasants migrated to Baghdad and Basra. Even today, there is to be seen an increased radicality of the ritual convoys of flagellants, a development marked by ups and downs throughout the immemorial history of Shia traditions. In the context of an explosive urban demography, these historic celebrations are gradually undergoing subtle changes, their meanings are transformed, and we may even say that a secularised Shia identity is being forged which distinguishes it from other confessions.

Considering the incorporation into the rituals of practices connected with grass-roots religiosity, the celebrations have mutated into a form of creeping opposition to the official religion, the dogma of the Shia elites. Inevitably therefore, the Iraqi Shia community is rent with subdivisions, fractured by rivalries and tensions between the different communities. The “Sadr-estates” in the major and provincial cities are becoming independent, breaking away from the centre.

An idolatrous worship

Upon the death of Mohammad Al-Sadr, an idolised ayatollah, often referred to as a “Messiah”, his followers transferred their quasi-filial devotion to Muqtada Al-Sadr. The mass of his devotees rallied “blindly” around Muqtada, seen as the new Messiah incarnate, “the hidden imam.” Following in the footsteps of a family tradition, this grass-roots religion exalts its young leader, responsible for raising the “Mahdi army” in reaction to the American invasion of Iraq. Now, according to Shia dogma, the imam Mahdi, or “hidden Imam,” the last of the “occultated” imams, will appear at the end of time to establish justice on earth and chastise wrongdoers. Muqtada calls his militia the “Army of Mahdi.” In order to provide ideological fodder to his fighting brigades, he resorts to popular folk superstitions. He delves into the abundant literature on the dis-occultation of the Messiah. His fanaticised activists follow him blindly. Having become a “healing saint,” Muqtada Al-Sadr is literally an object of worship, his disciples go so far as to kneel and kiss the tyres of the vehicle in which he is riding. Or they humbly ask permission to wipe the sweat from his brow with a cloth in order to collect his body fluids, meant to have the power of healing the sick, adults and children alike.

There has been a resurgence of precepts thought to be obsolete and an intensification of popular events that seemed to have died out, the return of religious prohibitions which had been condemned by traditional Islam, along with flagellation. In order to preserve practices, they deem sacred, the Sadrists are capable of unleashing disproportionate violence upon those who would interfere with the teachings of their idol Muqtada. Thus the “Army of Mahdi” was directly implicated in massacres perpetrated during the 2006–2008 civil war.

Secularisation and modernity

Since 2008 the leader and his movement’s political activities have reached a new high. So it was inevitable that his clan’s implication in the financial wheeling and dealing and economic scandals, its obvious clientelism, not to mention the favouritism practised by his lieutenants in the management of public affairs and the policing of the neighbourhoods, inevitable that all this should meet with multifaceted opposition from the new generations. His activism in the political process and the economic and financial spheres have led him to neglect the cultural and religious activities which had previously fuelled his movement’s popularity. Large, culturally advanced sectors of the younger generation have become secularised. They form a literate, “modern” generation, inserted into the global stream of social networks and gradually breaking away from tradition. At the same time, there is a growing rejection of popular superstitions, perceived as ”outdated, backward”. Thus, this urban generation rejects the culture of the elders and their parents is in revolt against Sadrism, takes its stand, especially on the Web, in favour of contemporary cultural dissent. This generation gap surfaced during the powerful protest movement of 1 October 2018 when those young people were dubbed by their adversaries “the Babji3 and Facebook kids”. Thus, we have the physical emergence of an urban generation which has clearly broken with the purported political-religious legitimacy of the Sadrist movement.

This being the case, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s general staff is up against the unmanageable protests of a young generation on its way to full empowerment. Unable to grasp the mainspring of this rebellion of radicalised urban youth, incapable despite its repressive strength of imposing the necessary reforms, the Sadrist movement cannot stem the tide of protests swollen now by an unprecedented student participation. Sadrism may be entering a paralysing cycle of decline which will prevent it opposing an irreducible grass-roots estrangement.

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Occultation in Shia Islam refers to a belief that the messianic figure of the Mahdi, an infallible male descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, was born and went into occultation and will one day return and fill the world with justice and peace. The minor occultation refers to the period (874– 941) when the Twelver Shia believe the imam still maintained contact with his followers via deputies. The major occultation denotes the second, longer, period of the Occultation which lasts until the present day. (Wikipedia)

2EDITOR’S NOTE. Assabiya is a concept popularised by the philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332– 1406) in his Prolegomena to designate unity, group consciousness, social cohesion. In modern times, the term may be synonymous with solidarity (positive meaning) or with clannishness (negative meaning).

3TRANSLATORS NOTE: An online game which has recently caused protests in the Muslim world.