By Kali Rubaii (Purdue University)
Sometimes a black hat is just a black hat.
–Flannery O’Connor, Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being (1979, 334)
When people ask me about the nuances of the Iraqi grassroots protests against US (and Iranian) imperialism, I find myself repeating the story about Flannery O’Connor, who, when asked to explain the subtext and symbolism behind the black hat worn by a character in her fiction, responded that it was just a hat. The question about nuances of Iraqi politics is fair, but this time, it is a black hat situation: Iraqi people are simply calling for a government that represents them, and they want imperial forces out of their lives.
Upon the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the US president stated, “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” His statement tapped into the logic of preemption, a prevailing paradigm by which the war on terror was launched two decades ago. The underlying assumptions embedded in his statement reflect trends in security discourse (Gusterson and Besteman 2019) more broadly: that imperialism is morally defensible, that preemptive aggression prevents rather than provokes violence, and that social and historical layers can be glossed in order to elicit confusion and consent by the American public for “peace” via perpetual war.
The logic of preemption (Masco 2014) replaces historical context with a moralizing, speculative future. In this logic, acts of violence prevent imagined future deaths; these acts then appear morally good and even necessary (Hajjar 2012). However, this logic only works on a narrow audience: when US troops were redeployed to Iraq in early 2020, the Iraqi public declared open dissent against imperialism. If preemptive logics ever work on the imperial metropole, their claims are lost on empire’s peripheral subjects: Iraqis have been resisting occupation for decades. Back in 2003, when George W. Bush declared preemptive war on Iraq, journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi threw a shoe at him, an event echoed in today’s protest signs with cardboard shoes hurled at effigies of the current US president.
Since October 2019, cities across Iraq have witnessed ongoing peaceful, secular, antisectarian, and anti-imperial protests representing a broad cross-section of the Iraqi public; women and men, young and old, Sunni and Shia, of all classes, from all regions of Iraq are chanting, “We want a homeland!” together. Thousands have been injured and hundreds killed, yet they remain unrelenting.
The focal point of their dissent is their government’s failure to serve the interests of its own citizens, in part due to outside imperial influence. Protestors are calling for a new election, new constitution, and new parliament. Since the US assassination of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis, protestors have added to their call a refusal to turn Iraq into a proxy battleground between the United States and Iran. “We want a homeland” denounces all foreign intervention in Iraq.
Iraqis do not enjoy being treated as a colony, so it should be no surprise that the US embassy, the largest in the world, having cost over $750 million, was a site of popular protest. Such an installment, planted in the Iraqi capital without invitation, is an outpost of empire, not a defenseless American homeland. When Shia militias breached the embassy compound, the United States sent military troops in response. The rhetoric of protecting its interests far beyond its own borders may convince some that the United States acts in self-defense, but it has never convinced the Iraqi people.
The Iraqi public is aware of how interimperial struggle (Doyle 2013) for control of their country takes place on their land and their bodies, through a wide range of actors, including their own government. Not only have Iraqis experienced the Iran-Iraq war, but they also lived through two US wars and sanctions. The US-led occupation in 2003 systematically dismantled Iraq’s national structures, from agricultural policies to social arrangements. Based on fieldwork in 2014 and 2015, I have previously outlined (Rubaii 2019) some of these divide-and-rule policies and their resulting sectarian violence. A fragmented Iraq quickly became open ground for geopolitical struggle. Hamad, who has lived for eighty years in Iraq, described this to me in 2015:
The US destroyed all the infrastructure. All the ways of life. And they left it open for the vultures to pluck out the eyes. . . . This is not the right way. I know a worldly Iraq, a hub of life that for thousands of years was a center for trade, for even the Jewish scholars, for even the smallest and oldest tribes, the Yazidi, the Mandaean. . . . This Iraq, this closed Iraq, started with the US sanctions, and the first US war. . . . When the Americans came to Baghdad . . . they cleansed it with the help of militias. . . . Anyway, the Shi’a militias have come from Iran, and the New Iraqi Government, which is loyal to Iran. . . . We are an open book for anyone seeking death. But for anyone seeking life together, like the fig and the grass growing, we are closed.
Sixteen years since the occupation, parts of Iraq still lack basic services like clean water. Civil society protests have taken place repeatedly to confront government corruption and unfair treatment. In fact, the Iraqi government sought to shut down popular resistance in Anbar province in 2011 and 2012 during the Arab Spring. The Shia militias featured in news media today are those the US invited into Iraq from exile in Iran to support US troops fighting Sunni militias and groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. Their presence in Iraq’s militarized landscape is intimately linked with US imperialism, a fact that undermines claims made by the US administration to justify military intervention against Iran, within Iraq.
While protests today do not represent every part of Iraq, they feature a national unity unprecedented since the early 2000s. Iraqis are calling for a changed relationship to global militarism, and thus for their own government to serve them instead of a militia-industrial complex. Meanwhile, the United States consistently divests from its own public by allotting more than half of its tax dollars to military spending.
Perhaps Iraqi protests are best read in the United States as an invitation for the American public to join them. As Aziz Rana argues, “social democracy at home requires anti-imperialism abroad.” Iraqis are standing up against the myriad ways imperial militarism defeats the interests of ordinary people. They, like many subjects of empire, remain unconvinced by government alibis. Whether in Iraq or the United States, anti-imperialism requires that we identify the institutions, policies, and economic engines to abolish, and that we organize popular campaigns to realize those simple ends.
Doyle, Laura. 2013. “Inter-imperiality: Dialectics in Postcolonial World History” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 16 (2): 159–96.
Gusterson, Hugh, and Catherine Besteman. 2019. “Cultures of Militarism: An Introduction to Supplement 19.” Current Anthropology 60 (S19): S3–15.
Hajjar, Lisa. 2013. Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights. New York: Routledge
Masco, Joseph. 2014. The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
O’Connor, Flannery. 1979. Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Rubaii, Kali. 2019. “Tripartheid: How Sectarianism Became ‘Internal to Being’ in Anbar, Iraq.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 42 (1): 125–41.