1. Shiite political groups are facing heat from Shiite protesters.
Some Shiite paramilitary groups, which had enjoyed support from both the public and the religious establishment during the fight against the Islamic State, have fallen out of favor with the Shiite population. Now, they are seen as attempting to maintain their grasp on authority at the expense of the protesters, many of whom are Shiite and some of whom had participated in the fight against the Islamic State. Indeed, some of these groups have been held responsible for attacks on Iraqi activists.
This raises the potential for divergence among rank-and-file members and leadership of certain paramilitary groups. It also leads to the potential for conflict to escalate among rival groups. A recent drone attack on the home of one leader highlighted these concerns.
2. Iraqi Shi’ism is rejecting Iranian ideological influences.
Protesters are reclaiming symbols of Shi’ism and repurposing them in ways that are meaningful to them. As a result, they are also challenging the theme of the cross-national Shiite identity that marked and motivated historical protests, such as those in 1979 and in 1991. The anti-Iranian sentiment, particularly in the south, is a rejection of the Iranian brand of Shi’ism.
The most prominent aspect of this brand is the Iranian-supported parties and militias. These groups are largely seen as corrupt and implicated in extreme violence against Iraqi protesters. As a result, headquarters and offices of Iranian-affiliated Islamist parties and groups throughout the south have been attacked. Iran’s consulates in Najaf and Karbala — Shi’ism’s holiest sites — have been burned. Anti-Iranian chants and anti-Iranian slogans populate the protest spaces in Tahrir and the south.
3. Shiite pilgrimages can foster “organic” social capital
The atmosphere of current Iraqi protests, particularly around Tahrir Square, has been described as carnival-like. In some ways, this is a similar atmosphere to that of the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage, in which millions of Shiite pilgrims walk to the city of Karbala. Videos and images from the protests reveal similar communal aspects of the two events, including the sense of hospitality. The act of sheltering, feeding and providing material support for the protesters is something that is deeply rooted in the Iraqi Shiite culture of hospitality toward pilgrims to the holy sites.
In a larger research project, I demonstrate how the process of the pilgrimage itself can foster social capital. This can lead to the development of organic forms of civil society and community building, which are different from standard nongovernmental organizations. Participation in pilgrimages provides organizational skills that can be utilized outside the pilgrimage, as well as an emphasis on communal values and voluntarism. In turn, they can logistically support and sustain pilgrimage-like activities, including mass protests.
4. Past and present Iraqi governments have feared potential mobilization during Shiite pilgrimages.
These pilgrimages, which center on the revolutionary and anti-establishment narrative of Imam Hussein, have historically resonated with aggrieved Iraqis.
In 1920, Iraqi revolutionaries, rejecting British colonialism, gathered in Karbala to elect a leader. In 1977, the Baathist government attempted to ban an annual pilgrimage to Karbala. This move sparked protests, with the pilgrimage transforming into the 1977 Safar Intifada. Evidence from the Baathist government archive at the Hoover Institute shows a state fixation with monitoring these pilgrimages.
The behavior of the current Iraqi government — at both central and local levels — suggests a similar fixation with the mobilization capacity of these religious rites and how they can easily transform into a protest. The current government includes many figures who have firsthand knowledge of this from their days of Islamist opposition.
5. The sacredness of the religious establishment is being challenged.
Historically, Iraqi protests, and particularly Shiite ones, sought legitimacy from the religious establishment. In the 1920 Revolution, revolutionaries went to Grand Ayatollah Shirazi in Karbala for his support. In the 1991 uprisings against Saddam Hussein, protesters appealed to Grand Ayatollah Khoei (Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s predecessor). In 2019, many Iraqis await the Friday sermon of Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s representatives in Karbala, Abdul-Mahdi Al-Karbalai and Ahmed Al-Safi. Elite clerics have sought to avoid instability by encouraging the resolution of protester demands through constitutional means, including through existing political mechanisms. Recent sermons have reinforced the protection on freedom of speech, decried foreign involvement in Iraq, condemned violence and encouraged the resignation of the prime minister.
However, and unlike before, there is an increasingly vocal portion of the population who looks to the sermons to confirm their dissatisfaction with the religious establishment’s role in political life. And while Sistani remains largely respected and trusted by the population, the “sacredness” of other religious actors, particularly those implicated in political parties and paramilitary groups, is on the wane.
In my interviews with clerics of various rankings and political proclivities, a common trend I encountered was the dismissal of any claim that the popularity of the religious establishment is on the decline. For example, a prominent Islamist cleric in June insisted that the sacredness of clerics is unchallenged in Iraq. A few days ago, the shrine associated with his organization was attacked in Najaf. Other opportunistic clerics have been warned to not try to “ride the wave” of the protest movements.
The protests, if anything, are showing that Iraqis are pushing back against the monopolization of religious legitimacy by clerics and Islamists alike.
The centrality of Shi’ism is not a question of sectarianism
Despite this focus on the Shiite aspect of the protests and the predominantly Shiite participants, sectarianism is not a relevant lens. Iraqi protesters recognize the significant limitations on participation imposed on their co-nationalists, particularly those in Sunni areas who fear being branded Islamic State or Baathist sympathizers. They have been deliberate in celebrating Iraq’s ethnic and religious diversity and rejecting the instrumental sectarianism utilized by the political elite. What these protests illustrate is that religious and sect-based symbols need not necessarily feed into alienating sectarianism. Rather, they can be deployed peaceably and effectively by everyday Iraqis to protest bad governance.
Marsin Alshamary is a pre-doctoral research fellow with the Middle East Initiative at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in the Harvard Kennedy School.