"We are the Hope": Voices from the Secular Resistance Movement in Iraq
Samir Adil is a co-founder and president of the Iraq Freedom Congress, a coalition of labor unions, women’s groups, student organizations, advocates for the rights of the unemployed and the homeless, and individuals.
While the IFC is not committed either philosophically or practically to nonviolence, it is working hard to reduce the violence actually going on in Iraq. The IFC is working toward an end to the US-led occupation, a secular, non-nationalist, democratically elected government, and the abolition of the death penalty. These changes would open up the possibility of a healthy, free Iraqi society in which nonviolent movements could grow.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you ended up in Saddam Hussein’s prison, your exile, and your return to Iraq?
I was born in 1964 in Baghdad, went to university in Mosul, and joined the Iraq Communist Party in the 1980s. In 1990 I left the Party, with six others, because of its refusal to protest Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In 1991 I became involved in the uprising against Hussein in Kirkuk, and was captured in 1992 with several comrades. I was held for six months and tortured for twenty-five days.
Our release came about because our friends outside organized an international campaign for our freedom. The Canadian Labor Congress sent a letter on behalf of its 2,200,000 members, and an international women’s democratic organization based in Sweden also sent a letter to the Hussein government. I did not know this was going on, and didn’t know why the colonel in charge of the prison started calling me a “famous person” and seeing to it that I received tea, cigarettes, and newspapers during my captivity.
After six months, government officials offered to release me if I would work with them. I refused. Later, they told me I could leave, but that my comrades could not. I refused to leave without them. Finally they did release us all, but then they called me every day to ask me to work with them. When it became clear that I wasn’t safe, I escaped to northern Iraq, and from there to Turkey, where I lived as a refugee for two years. From Turkey I moved to Canada. After nine years I returned to live in Iraq in 2002, four months before the US invasion.
What is the Iraq Freedom Congress, and what are its activities?
The IFC is a mass, democratic, independent organization established on March 19, 2005, the second anniversary of the war. Our aim is to end the occupation, rebuild civil society, and establish a secular and non-nationalist government in Iraq.
We have held two big conferences in Basra on federalism and the division of Iraqi society. Five hundred Basra residents came together to show their opposition to ethnic divisions.
On September 24, 2005, we organized demonstrations against the occupation, as people all around the world were doing. In Baghdad, 600 came out, and in Basra, thousands. We knew that Al-Jazeera and other Islamist media would cover the event because it was anti-occupation, but that they would not want to give credit to our secularist group. We made sure to bring so many IFC banners that it would be impossible to film the event without documenting our presence!
And on an ongoing basis, we continue to open offices in different neighborhoods, helping people organize to resist ethnic divisions and violent incursions. We have a presence in four areas in Baghdad, some mostly Sunni, some mostly Shia; we have opened an office in Al-Tathaman, where there are divisions between Turkmens and Kurds. We educate people and announce that under our flag, in our offices, all people are welcome, and no-one is to talk about ethnic differences.
Lack of safety from violence is people’s most urgent problem. People are killed for their ethnic or sectarian identity (on one day, fourteen men named Omar, a name associated with Sunnis, were killed — in another area, men with the traditional Shia names Ali and Hussein were killed), by suicide bombs, and in random, mercenary murders. Because of the fear people live with, nearly every home has a gun in it now. We tell people not to use their guns on their neighbors, but to
organize neighborhood patrols to defend their streets against ethnic cleansing, insurgents, and kidnappers.
Can you tell us about the complexity of Iraqi identity, and how it has been manipulated in the past several years of conflict?
The history of Iraq is a civilized history. For many years people have loved and supported each other, regardless of ethnic and sectarian differences. Until four years ago, you would be ashamed to ask someone if they were Sunni or Shia. My five brothers and I are from a Shia background — all are married to Sunnis. It was the US which apportioned power along religious and ethnic lines, and now these appointed leaders look out for their own interests, and support their own militias.
Saddam Hussein’s allegiance was to the pan-Arab nationalist movement, not to Sunnis. When he attacked the Shias in the south in 1979-80, it was not because they were Shias but because so many of them were communists. Many of his leaders were themselves Shias, including 35 of those named in the Pentagon’s infamous “Most Wanted Iraqis” deck of playing cards. By 1980, he had wiped out most of the communists, and his major remaining enemies were Iranian-supported Islamists.
However, Hussein’s Ba’ath party was not truly secular. When Hussein was defeated in 1991, and he no longer had the support of the US or other Arab nations to push back against the Islamists, he picked up the banner of political Islam to try and find a new base of support. “Honor killings” [the ritual murder of women and girls by their male relatives for perceived sexual impropriety] and other faith-based campaigns were allowed, Hussein began to invoke the Koran in his speeches, and Islamist groups were permitted to organize openly.
After the 2003 invasion, the armed Islamist insurgency initially called for a united, Muslim Iraq. But in September 2005, Zarqawi issued a fatwa (an Islamic legal pronouncement) calling for the killing of all Shias, so now there is a split between the nationalists and the Islamists. This February, a nationalist group approached the IFC and asked to join. We set as conditions of their entry that they oppose ethnic cleansing, and that they not foment any division or engage in armed resistance, and they agreed to these terms even though this meant the loss of some of their members .
People in the US have been told by the press that the December elections for a new government were fair. Can you share your observations, and the IFC’s vision for elections under a secularist government?
How could the elections be fair? There is no civil law now in Iraq, only a religious constitution and law by militia. Some people were threatened, “If you don’t vote for us, you’ll go to hell.” The few international “observers” watched the elections from across the border in Jordan!
If the IFC comes to power, it will hold elections within six months, with no militias, fair distribution of funds and airtime to all parties, and a real presence of international observers.
Can you tell us about the international dimensions to the Iraqi struggle for secular self-rule?
Together, all the forces of political Islam in Iraq — Zarqawi, al Qaeda, and the Iran-supported Shia groups — are using what I call the “chaos strategy.” Knowing that they cannot force the US troops out through military confrontation, instead they issue fatwas on Sunnis, on Shias, and bring about instability in many other ways as well, to make the US forces fail and leave. If the US wants stability and democracy, they make sure these won’t be accomplished. They are aware also that the longer the occupation goes on without success, the more opposition to the occupation builds in the US.
Paul Bremer and President Bush have said that the US is fighting terrorists in Iraq so it won’t have to fight them in the US. Zarqawi and the other Islamists, too, consider Iraq just one more arena in a war being fought around the world. Iraqi society has been turned into an international battlefield between the Islamists, supported from across the border by Iran and some Arab states, and the US. Iraqi civilians, the victims of the September 11 attacks, the Spanish citizens killed in the train bombing, all are victims of the same forces.
What are your expectations of the US peace movement?
We, too, must look outside Iraq. We are part of a global anti-war movement, and we cannot defeat our enemies without help from our movement in the West. But the slogan “End the Occupation” is not enough. After the occupation, what then? The anti-war movement must think about the future of Iraq, not just for us but because it is crucial to the whole Middle East. The second half of the slogan must be, “Support the Secular Movement in Iraq.” That is the hope for ending the sectarian violence, and I believe also for bringing more Americans into the anti-war movement.
Houzan Mahmoud is the Head of Iraq Freedom Congress-Abroad and one of the leading figures of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Women’s organizing has been key to the development of Iraq’s secular resistance, as women know that they are the most vulnerable to persecution and repression in a militarized, Islamist nation.
BW: A lot of people are afraid to take a position of immediate withdrawal of US troops. They’re afraid that will plunge Iraq into the abyss. So, I’d like to hear your response to that.
Iraqi society is already being smashed down — by the occupation itself, by the chaos that has been created, by the lack of security and stability for the Iraqi people, by imposing a puppet regime on the Iraqi people which is heavily divided on the basis of sectarian lines. And you know, so many of them are criminals, they have to be brought to justice, but instead they are actually being imposed on us. There are all these armed militias on the ground; they have just brought a civil war, a sectarian civil war, a religious war. We have seen the occupying forces there for the last three years. Every day we see the situation is getting worse; I think we haven’t seen any week or any day in a month that there haven’t been hundreds of people killed — suicide bombings, terrorist attacks — and they are using occupation as a pretext to justify these criminal acts. Having the occupation there is not solving any of this, actually. It’s just deepening the problems, just deepening the division among people. So therefore, I think the withdrawal of troops, actually, is going to ease a lot of problems. The majority of Iraqi people want to see every soldier leave Iraq. And these armed militias — what other excuse will there be to terrorize people or to kill them or to kidnap them? What other excuses will they have? It’s occupation. So therefore I think it’s wrong, that notion that pulling out will create more problems. I think it will not. It won’t be worse than this, in my opinion.
BW: So you think a US withdrawal will actually open more space for the existence of some kind of secular civil alternative?
I think it will then be us and them.
BW: And who are the “them” that you mean?
Armed militias and Islamists, terrorist networks, who basically have no other excuses to be there, apart from using the occupation as a justification for their criminal acts.
BW: You say it would just be you and them. Is that necessarily a good thing? No mediating force?
The US and the occupying powers, in my opinion, are protecting terrorist networks, rather than secular, progressive movements inside Iraq. The occupying forces were the first to prevent the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq from having a demonstration against the rapes and abductions. We were told that we are not allowed to have a demonstration without their permission. The first Union of the Unemployed in Iraq sit-in strikes in Baghdad, in the very beginning of the occupation — its leaders were arrested by the US occupying powers. So they don’t want to see any progressive, militant, secular, egalitarian movement inside Iraq with a vision for a better future, for an alternative, for a government that is not a puppet of the US. They just want to put puppets there, they don’t care what’s happening to the society... what they care about is just their own interest. We are not protecting their interest, we are protecting the interest of the Iraqi people; that’s why they don’t want us to grow and they won’t be any support to us at all.
BW: The second argument which I frequently get, is that we have to support the insurgents, because the insurgents are the actually existing resistance to US imperialism. That supporting a civil or secular movement is a distraction, and that we have no right to tell the Iraqi people what form their resistance will take.
I myself have been told so many times abroad in various meetings and seminars, “Why are you not allying with the so-called resistance, and fighting together against occupation?” I think this question is either very naïve, or it’s actually stupid, just to think about that. They are Islamists who are killing women and beheading them for not wearing the veil. How can I, in any sense, as the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, go into alliance with the enemy of women in Iraq? Or, those Islamists who have no eye to see a secular person, who consider anyone who is secular as infidels who therefore have to be killed? How can I form any alliances with these kinds of people? And plus, what is their social program? You need to have a social program to agree on — is just fighting occupation everything? I have to sacrifice women’s rights, I have to sacrifice workers’ rights, secularism, and I have to sacrifice my rights as a human being to fight the occupation? I don’t. I think it’s a historical mistake and it’s suicidal for my movement inside Iraq to go that route, just to please some marginalized leftists in the US or Europe, for their fantasizing or romanticizing the issue of resistance against imperialism.
These Islamists have no sense of anti-imperialist vision. They have no sense of working class struggle or anything like that. They are people who have primitive notions of running societies, you know? The Talibanization of Iraq, that’s what they want — I don’t want to be part of that destructive agenda. The best thing in Iraq that has ever happened are these movements that we are leading. I think if we are progressive people, if we are from an egalitarian point of view, we have to promote something that is for women’s rights, for workers’ rights, that promotes secularism — and we shouldn’t support bigots, we shouldn’t support reactionary movements who are oppressive in any way.
SB: Can you tell us about organizing for women’s rights in the context of the larger struggle for a secular Iraq?
In Iraq we have Islamists who have been imposed and empowered in the so called parliament by the US government and are implementing Islamic Sharia law. We have other Islamic armed groups who are calling themselves a “resistance” but which are just another version of the Taliban; they have turned Iraq into a battlefield and enslaved women by veiling them and preventing them from attending university or going to work. This is the dark situation we are been faced with in Iraq under occupation.
In this context, the proper and active participation of women in civil life is made almost impossible. Imagine how it is to organize, when women cannot go out alone with out an armed male relative due to the lack of basic security, and everywhere there is the presence of reactionary, right-wing political parties who do not consider women human beings! It has taken away the confidence of women to take part in politics.
In the Iraq Freedom Congress, we start from this point: that the presence of women in our movement is a pre condition for achieving equality and freedom. Our movement is distinguished by its progressive outlook toward women’s liberation and equality. The high rate of women leaders and activists in our movement is very visible compared to all the other groups.
SB: How do women’s rights under Iraq’s Islamist-leaning government connect with movements for change in the US?
The occupation of Iraq is not a local issue; it has to be viewed in a global scale. Whatever happens in Iraq will affect us all. When the US government brings religious reactionaries to power and violates women’s rights, this will not only affect our rights in Iraq but the rights of women in the US too.
The US is bringing in many laws against the rights and civil liberties of the people of US, under the pretext that “We are at war” and “this is to “protect Americans”.” So people in the US, and we in Iraq, have been subjected to brutalization, random arrests and imprisonment, and the curtailment of women’s and workers’ rights under the same pretext. It seems that not only Iraqis are a “threat” to “US security.”
Therefore having international solidarity with secular, progressive and pro-women movements is vital. Our movement in Iraq is part of a wider international struggle against war, oppression, and inequality. So therefore we have the same route to go to fight in the same ranks to liberate humanity.
SB: How are women organizing, either within or outside the IFC program?
IFC is striving for an egalitarian, secular society and state system were by all humans are considered equal. So our women who are active in the IFC and the women’s movement which is lead by the Organisation of women’s freedom in Iraq are been considered the most courageous women who are fighting for secularism and equality in the face of growing Islamism and chaos in Iraq. Despite the dangers and risks on their lives but they are organizing and mobilizing other women and men both against the occupation and the ongoing sectarianism in Iraq. the work at all levels in the community, in the schools and factories to spread the word and promote this movement.