Last Words of a Leading Iraqi Scholar
Anyone who wants to understand the outcome of the parliamentary elections held in Iraq last month—in which a Shia political alliance won the most seats, but not enough to form a government—could do worse than consult the work of the Iraqi sociologist Faleh Abdul Jabar, who has been described as “one of the top Iraqi intellects of his time.”
Abdul Jabar, who died in February, had been following developments in his country and giving broadcast interviews until within days of his death. His final publication, a paper published this month, is an insightful account of the uniquely Iraqi social and political forces that came into play in the period since the summer of 2015, when a popular movement erupted in protest against the corruption of the country’s Islamist government.
His death, wrote Toby Dodge, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, “deprived the academic world of the leading intellectual working on Iraq.”
Abdul Jabar’s final paper, “The Iraqi Protest Movement: From Identity Politics to Issue Politics,” combines a deep knowledge of Iraqi history with a wide understanding of sociological thought. It describes a process in which identity politics in Iraq, in the form of political parties representing contending religious identities, gave way to issue-based politics. The 2015 uprising—which began as a demand for reliable electricity as people sweltered without air-conditioning at the height of the Iraqi summer—demanded practical policies from those in power and an end to corruption.
Evidence from the recent parliamentary elections proved Abdul Jabar’s point. In the course of the campaign, “Shia popular cleric Muqtada al-Sadr formed an electoral alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party,” Renad Mansour wrote in his foreword to Abdul Jabar’s paper. “Moreover, Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani argued against voting along identity lines, and even said that a Christian should be supported if a better candidate than a Shia,” wrote Mansour, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London.
Abdul Jabar showed that the Shia population of Iraq resists easy classification, especially in political science. As Mansour pointed out, after the Ba’ath regime in Iraq was overthrown by the forces of the United States and its allies, “the new Iraq was to be defined along identity lines, so as to ensure fair representation of all ethnicities and sects and to prevent the return of a Ba’athist Tikriti dictatorship. Under the logic of demography, the Shia majority would govern the new Iraq.”
But Iraq’s Shias did not play the part that had been written for them. An Iraqi version of Iran’s velayat al-faqih, or theocratic rule, did not take root. At the grass-roots level, the Iraqi Shias did not automatically support Iranian involvement in their country, and when the air-conditioning failed in Basra and Baghdad, they rose in revolt against their own leadership in government. This is the picture Abdul Jabar draws.
Dodge’s and other memorial tributes on the blog of the London School’s Middle East Centre describe Abdul Jabar’s life and career as nothing short of extraordinary.
He was born in Baghdad in 1946 in modest circumstances; in his 20s, he joined the Iraqi Communist Party and worked as a writer and editor. In the 1970s, he spent time in Lebanon in support of the Palestinian resistance movement. In the 1980s, he joined the Kurdish communists opposing Ba’athist rule.
In the 1990s, he moved to London where he began doctoral studies in sociology at the School of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck, University of London. His supervisor at Birkbeck, Sami Zubaida, oversaw a thesis that was eventually published as the book The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq (2003), a work which Dodge described as “the definitive work on Shia political activism in Iraq.”
This book, Dodge wrote, “explained Iraq to the wider world but also avoided analytical shortcuts or clichés and hence [its] conclusions have stood the test of time.”
Later, Abdul Jabar founded the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Beirut, to train a new generation of Iraqi social-science researchers, with the aim (according to its website) of “promoting a nonviolent, rights-based, tolerant and democratic civic culture in Iraq, and building new civil society and governance organizations.”
As a writer and editor, Abdul Jabar’s publications shone beams of insight into Iraqi society and politics. Tribes and Power: Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Middle East (a book he jointly edited with Hosham Dawod, a researcher in contemporary anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research) collected articles that showed that the tribe, though enigmatic and amorphous as a social unit, remains a living thing across the Arab region and that, despite its archaic associations, the tribe adapts and survives and should be considered relevant in social and political analysis.
Another example: In 2017 he published, in collaboration with Mansour, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future,” a paper that made the case that these informal militia organizations were a fact of life that needed to be acknowledged in the process of social and political settlement in Iraq.
His friend and colleague Kawa Besarani wrote, “Although Faleh went through many changes in his political life, he remained true to his core belief of the need for progressive social and economic change in society, not only in Iraq but in the Arab world in general.”