by Martin Accad
In the month of October 2019, the global media reported the arrival of new disturbances, protests, and violent government reprisals and deaths in Iraq. As of early November, the death toll is estimated to be over 250 people.
Iraqi protests motivated by socioeconomic demands, poor governance, and endemic corruption are common occurrences, as we have seen waves of them since 2011.
What distinguishes these protests is that they are not dominated by the Shiite Sadrists, nor by the communists against the elite, nor by Sunni Islamists with a strong religious ideology.
These protests are primarily socioeconomic. They have no clear leadership. They are made up largely of unemployed young men, and social media is once again central to their communication networks. These characteristics seem comparable to protests in Lebanon that erupted on 17 October, though the protests in Lebanon have attracted the participation of entire families with their children.
Protests in Iraq – as in Lebanon – are increasingly radical in their demands, going so far as to request the removal of government. In Iraq, political party headquarters have been burnt down. Experts rightly warn that we should avoid seeing these events through a sectarian lens, even though they have been taking place primarily in Shiite neighborhoods. Since the fall of the Saddam regime, it was mainly the Sunni neighborhoods that had expressed political discontent. Now, however, the Shiite-dominated nature of these protests is an incidence of the socio-economic status of the Eastern regions where they are taking place.
The protests are therefore post-ideological and truly socioeconomically driven. These sorts of protests may be the most dangerous for existing governments. This is how the “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia in 2010. With rampant corruption in many post-uprising Arab countries and little to show for reform, we could very well be witnessing the birth of a new “Arab Spring.” This possibility has not gone unnoticed in the global media. But this time perhaps these revolutions are inoculated against an ideological takeover by Islamist parties or the elite. They may be the sort of uprisings typical of post-war countries, unable to recover from destruction fast enough.
All of this was not unexpected. In last December’s brief on Iraq, I had expressed serious doubt that the then-recently-elected Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, would be able to carry out the much-needed reforms that he was acutely aware his country needed. Abdul Mahdi was confirmed as his country’s PM almost exactly one year ago, on 21 October 2018. But only a few weeks before, he confessed that his country was not ready for the reforms that were required for him to accept the premiership – namely moving away from economic rentiership, decentralizing the government, reform against endemic corruption, reforming public institutions, and enforcing the rule of law.
Abdul Mahdi ended up accepting the position. So, either he thought he would be able to bring reforms from within, or the temptations of power and money had gotten the better of him from the very beginning. Either way, he is now said to have declared his willingness to resign if a replacement is agreed upon.
Theological Reflection and Missiological Implications
Economic injustice and the unfair distribution of resources are not new issues in human history. The Old Testament contains much condemnation through God’s prophets on the society of ancient Israel. “This city must be punished,” we read in Jeremiah 6, “it is filled with oppression. As a well pours out its water, so she pours out her wickedness. Violence and destruction resound in her; her sickness and wounds are ever before me” (vv. 6-7).
When injustice fills the land, popular uprisings naturally result. But when these uprisings degenerate into all-out violence, this often happens to the detriment of smaller communities, including the church. Radical ideologies often capture the agenda and western foreign policy interests can steal the movement away from the local population.
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of protecting the local and national nature of popular demonstrations. Foreign intervention often harms minorities in the long run, particularly Christians. Therefore, the local church has a tremendous responsibility. In the Old Testament, God’s people are invited to be different from surrounding nations and to reflect God’s justice and law in the land. The prophet Jeremiah complains that “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit … ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (6:13-14). This is a warning to God’s people at all times. If they do not offer a prophetic voice that promotes an alternative model for a just and equal society, there is hope neither for society nor for the church.
The church needs to model a different picture of reality – whether in Iraq, in Lebanon, or anywhere else in the Middle East. Now is the right time for the church to be involved, before radical ideologues get involved, and before any particular political party captures the agenda.