Contrived claims of nationalism in post-Mosul Iraq

Contrived claims of nationalism in post-Mosul Iraq
6 min read
17 Aug, 2017
Comment: Nationalist narratives of post-Mosul Iraq are not crafted with the interests of the poor or destitute in mind, writes Nazli Tarzi.
Can we really say Iraq is witnessing a newfound nationalist age? [Getty]
The post-2003 sectarian approach to Iraqi politics has infested the institutions of state as much as it has the country's respective communities. This much cannot be disputed.

Despite this, many analysts and pundits are firmly convinced that the present time heralds a new age of Iraqi nationalism. Its birth, as alleged by voices such as Fanar Haddad and others, has crystallised around the fall and liberation of Mosul city. Haddad describes "A patriotic jingoism, or patriotic belief in Iraq, a sense of ownership... even in Sunni areas".

Notwithstanding the contrived displays of nationalist sentiment and the outburst of patriotic songs in the wake of Mosul's re-seizure, the broken shards of Iraqi society are yet to be pieced back together.

The question we must ask, is whether a project that advances inclusionary and conciliatory politics is viable in a country paralysed by feuding political factions, bound by religious claims.

In even its most watered down form, the argument skims past the reality of displacement endured by 3.4 million Iraqis. Hardpressed for basic food items, internally displaced communities are more likely to be concerned with their livelihoods and survival than with abstract notions of belonging and "nation".

Earlier this month, Iraq's United Nations official Lisa Grande said a quarter of a million Iraqis from western Mosul "have nowhere to return anytime soon".  

Predictably, these nationalist narratives are not crafted with the interests of the poor or destitute in mind. They are diversionary, deployed with the intent of bolstering the profile of certain political figures and direct attention away from Iraq's smouldering problems.

'Why now should we believe that Sadr is doing something unique as an exemplar of nationalist virtue?' 

"Old and new nationalisms, I don't think there are two kinds. Can we really say we are witnessing a newfound nationalist age… whatever it is, it promotes occupation as liberation. It distracts from the bigger issues that matter: Corruption displacement, torture conducted with impunity" Iraqi author, Haifa Zangana told The New Arab.

Defenders of this argument are hard at work, crafting a place in history for self-styled nationalist figures. Their promotion comes just eight months before Iraq appoints a new head of state.

One such figure is populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr. With the biggest electorate in the country, Sadr, particularly in the realm of the western press, is being repackaged and sold as a "moderate figure". Sadr is tokenised by the proponents of these claims as the only viable check on Iran's hegemonic ambitions. "Sadr's place in all this could be difficult to pin down" Snell rightly notes, while firmly asserting that the leader is "undergoing something approaching a process of moderation" as a man acting independently of Iran.

President of the Arab Lawyers Association, Sabah al-Mukhtar throws some light on local perceptions. "The very suggestion that Muqtada is a political leader is absurd, if not insulting. Though he comes from a notable clergy family, he is illiterate and unintelligent, viewed by many as a disgrace the Sadr elders before him who were learned people." What then, "is their standard of a nationalist leader" Mukhtar questioned.

Sadr, particularly in the realm of the western press, is being repackaged and sold as a 'moderate figure'

Sadr was no powerhouse prior to the Anglo-American invasion in 2003. He acquired a name for himself after displaying a lightening ability to galvanise the Shias of Sadr city. "It gave him a higher standing from other political contenders" al-Mukhtar explained. "Those who control the mobs in the capital, are not to be reckoned with" he said.

Mukthar compared the latest pro-Sadrist PR campaign to America's efforts in 2003-4 to promote Islamist Shia parties, many of whom Mukhtar describes, "were Iranian movements, Hakim's bloc, Dawa, among others" to the front seats of Iraqi politics.

Read more: The moderation of Muqtada al-Sadr

A similar prognosis was offered by Mustafa Kamil, a media analyst from the London-based Iraqi opposition group, the Foreign Relations Bureau. Questioning the idea that Sadr can genuinely roll back Iranian influence in Iraq he said, "What we are witnessing is more of a rebranding exercise away from his [Sadr's] reputation as a 'firebrand cleric' to a more nationalistic identity, in an effort to appeal to more moderate/secular sections of Iraq." 

Recently, Sadr has also received backing from Iran's foes, Washington and Saudi Arabia, who converge in their aim of rendering militias belonging to Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), less powerful - especially before Iraqis take to the polls.

"Driven by their frustrations and failures to make the Sunni component part of Iraq's defunct political process, Washington and Saudi are now looking to prompt those who will comply with the rules of their game. Three conferences in the space of a week in Baghdad, two in Istanbul and one in Amman in search of "Sunni candidates" is all the evidence one needs" Mukhtar said.

The reality however mirrors that of preceding years. "Why now should we believe that Sadr is doing something unique as an exemplar of nationalist virtue?" says Mukhtar. 

The claim that Mosul's liberation has unified Iraq offers an optimistic assessment, which is naive at best, and ignorant at worst

The historical record forged among the chorus of these voices fits comfortably within the western assessment of politics in Iraq, that recognises the government as stable and sovereign. Compared to local sentiments, these analysts display an insular outlook in what is a multitiered crisis.

Many "experts" have conveniently sidestepped the categorical failures that cut cleanly through the political and ethno-sectarian spectrum. To name but a few, are burgeoning protests in Iraq's south over the unresolved energy crisis, fractionalisation among the ranks of the PMF and Shia parties and uninterrupted urban warfare in areas said to have been liberated from Islamic State operatives.

"The promotion of Sadr as Iraq's loudest nationalist voice is also a strategy played by sides keen to neutralise Iran's hegemonic ambitions, but Sadr is not the buffer between Tehran and Washington as claimed" says Kamil. According to him, popularity or nationalism alone, are not enough to erode the power of Iraq's mighty militia groups, loyal to Tehran. 

A detail often forgotten, Kamil points out is that "Sadr continues to conduct regular visits to Iran, hoping to keep alive the flame of his romance with Iran's political elite".

The claim that Mosul's liberation has unified Iraq offers an optimistic assessment, which is naive at best, and ignorant at worst. Unpacking this assessment, we find crafted arguments that operate at the political level to recycle old faces as new winners.

In the words of Haifa Zangana, "nationalism is not an old pair of shoes that needs to be replaced by a newer pair".

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs. Follow her on Twitter @NazliTarzi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.