Not so long ago, Basra was known for its cosmopolitan society, intellectual elite and skilled workforce – a real city that should have become a manufacturing power and a platform for regional trade. Its fertile hinterland is suited to rice and dates, for which it was once famed. Yet now, when you arrive at the airport, the first thing you see is a banner reading ‘Basra: Investment Paradise’ and all you can do is laugh, and despair.
Basra feels like a third-world dystopia. The state is almost absent, except as a governorate, which complains that it has not had a budget since 2013. Week after week, it is surrounded by demonstrators who never stop protesting, though they don’t attract much popular support.
The spread of sectarian militias has almost eclipsed the presence of the official security forces. The foreign oil companies are also invisible: at best, they recruit manual labour locally, when some tribe or other resorts to violence to ensure that it receives a share of the oil money.
Three waves of migration
Basra is the exact opposite of a city- state – that ancient model of autonomous, resource-rich cities that seems to reappear when the nation-state disintegrates. Those who make the law here are outsiders. The governorate is subordinate to a hyper-centralised system: even trivial decisions are taken in Baghdad, where Basra has few to speak for it – just one minister out of 30 and 9% of seats in parliament. The local political class represents non-indigenous parties and militias, which have a parasitic relationship to the city.
The massive tribal presence in Basra is linked to three waves of migration, the result of the exploitation of peas- ant farmers by big landowners in the first half of the 20th century; of the draining of the great marshes of southern Iraq by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s and 90s; and of the upheavals caused by the US-led invasion in 2003. Some of the most turbulent and influential tribes have brought with them a lifestyle far removed from that of the local population; they include the Garamsha, who have a strong tradition of rejecting authority that was fostered in the marshes, which were for many decades a refuge for insurgents. (1)
So Basra finds itself in the situation of many areas rich in natural resources that are being plundered by their national governments and treated like colonies – Baluchistan (Pakistan), eastern Syria, eastern Saudi Arabia, southern Morocco and the Niger delta (Nigeria). The sense of injustice this creates often leads to irredentism or separatism. But in Basra, complaints seem to be made as a matter of form, threats of secession lack conviction, and suggestions that the city might do more for itself are unheard of.
Basrans give the impression of being torn between fantasies of what their city could be, and resignation to being left on the sidelines – perhaps because the gap between hope and reality is so great that they would not know where to start. The canals in what was once called the Venice of the East are full of rubbish; the majestic Shatt al-Arab waterway, confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, has an oily sheen and smells of dead fish. The best solution, some say, would be to build the world’s tallest tower, an entirely vertical city, to escape the mire, and reach for the stars.
Meanwhile, Basra is under arms. Paramilitary convoys, bristling with guns, drive constantly through its streets. Portraits of ‘martyrs’ are everywhere. Their funerals bring society together in the most intense ceremonies. The young fighters are far more often volunteers than conscripts. Yet the cause they are fighting for is far away – a war at the other end of Iraq, against ISIS, which so little threatens Basra that Shia militias’ headquarters are completely unfortified. It’s a strange campaign to save a country that has never done anything for the city.
Moreover, the struggle is being led mainly by Islamist parties, which evoke only disgust, or by paramilitary forces that often have links to Iran, an inconvenient neighbour that arouses more criticism than sympathy: ‘The Iranians despise Arabs, whether they are Shia or not. They still haven’t forgiven us for the war in the 1980s. And they allow trafficking, especially drugs, so that they can get rich at our expense.’ These organisations seem to boast about the scale of their losses when glorifying their many victims, whose sheer numbers, in a conventional war, would profoundly demoralise society.
Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the war is more dynamic and unanimous than in any other part of Iraq. Basrans pride themselves on having supplied more than half of the popular mobilisation (hashad shaabi) after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s June 2014 fatwa calling on Iraqis to support the army against the advance of ISIS. Whatever the exact numbers, the city lives according to the rhythm of the hashad.
Why are the Basrans so willing to sacrifice themselves? The most cited answer is religious obligation – the duty to obey Sistani, the supreme authority (marjaiya) of the Iraqi Shia clergy. But his opinions are more often ignored if they go against the prosaic interests of the political class, the customs of Iraq’s lively, even exuberant, popular Shiism, or other dominant social norms. He can shout, call on political parties to make necessary and obvious concessions, or formally forbid self-flagellation during pilgrimages, excessively costly funerals or recourse to tribal law – and people won’t listen. But his call to mobilise was heard loud and clear. (2)
A genuine social movement
The hashad is the opposite of conscription: it’s a genuine social movement, rooted in the imagination and traditions of a Shia society that feels betrayed by its elites and is trying to find its bearings. The war against ISIS, easier understood as a metaphor if you live a long way from the front, resonates with a founding moment of Shiism: the slaughter of Hussein, son of Ali and cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, at the battle of Karbala in 680, along with his supporters. (3) The popular religiosity and psychology of the Shia is centred around this tragedy.
The battle is replayed every year during Muharram, the first month of the lunar calendar (and more particularly during the Ashura celebrations), in theatrical performances (tazieh) and other commemorations such as ritual self-mutilation. These help people to relive Hussein’s sacrifice, the centrepiece of a culture of victimhood that presents Shiism as a circular resistance, both triumphal and suicidal, to aggression and oppression. Today, the story is repeated daily in the fight against ISIS, which supposedly brings together all the enemies of Shiism: tyrannical Sunnism, an imperialistic West manipulating the enemy and – in any good conspiracy theory – Israel. The martyrs who die for the Shia cause are depicted in an iconography that belongs to Hussein. The struggle is now more literal than theatrical, a ‘snuff movie’ where the actors are actually killed rather than pretending to die.
The hashad should also be understood in its social context: the young, idle and often without job or marriage prospects, find self-fulfilment. The heroism of the dead is a source of inspiration to their peers and of pride to their parents. It also brings in money, since Basra’s local authorities pay compensation (nowhere else in Iraq does), although the derisory amount – around $830 – shows that life is cheap on the market of nihilism. Funerals bring a community together more than any other event by activating traditions, more or less authentic, that give meaning and foster a sense of belonging: tribes parade, neighbourhood solidarity comes into play, people fire shots into the air, as at a wedding, and the martyrs’ exploits are sung like epics.
This morbid vitality has a political side. The supposed representatives of Iraqi Shiism failed to take advantage of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The dawn of a new era, longed for and dreamed of during centuries of domination, turned out to be an anticlimax. No one believes in the future any more, which makes continual regression to a reinvented past all the easier, by default.
Paradoxically, the complex victim mentality born out of centuries-old submission can today be articulated in complete freedom. There is nothing to prevent this: it is imposed on all, publicly expressed; it structures society and defines political legitimacy. Any Shia leadership figure must defer, or at least appear to defer, to the manifestations of uninhibited Shiism, which often go against the more structured ideologies and more cynical calculations of the elites. And to his cost, that is the lesson Sistani has learned. His call to defend Iraq was based on a non-sectarian nationalism, encouraging Iraqis to unite in support of the armed forces. But his voice was soon lost in the hubbub of popular emotion.
That is the wider lesson to be drawn from Basra. This potentially flourishing city, which has so many urgent problems, is allowing itself to be taken over by and dragged into a much bigger quest – the construction of a Shia identity that must break with a cycle of failures that are increasingly self-inflicted. Only when that quest is fulfilled will Basrans start to look to the future
1 The marshes, once a refuge for Shia insurgents against Saddam Hussein’s regime, were almost completely drained by the mid-1990s. Since 2003 the authorities in Baghdad, with the help of the UN, have tried to recreate the wetlands by demolishing the dykes built by Saddam’s government.
2 This led Sistani to announce his decision to limit his public interventions in politics from spring 2016.
3 In the long war of succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the battle of Karbala marked the Umayyad caliph Yazid’s victory over the follow- ers of Hussein. Their defeat was the starting point for a martyrology that was appropriated by the Shia and persists today.