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5 May 2016

Last Saturday, riots engulfed the previously quiet Green Zone of Baghdad - an island of the Blessed in a Sea of violence and poverty, which is contemporary Iraq. Anti-government protesters stormed Baghdad parliament and haunted politicians. They blamed them for the political system's inefficiency and proposed radical changes: to reconstruct the post-war political system of Iraq and build across sectarian lines, which in fact turned out to be a source of nepotism, clannish behavior, and corruption.

Then suddenly the protests stopped, and the angry people went home because this was the will of one person - Muqtada al-Sadr. They also had to prepare to commemorate, on the 3rd May, the martyrdom anniversary of the 7th Shia Imam, Imam Musa ibn Jafar al-Kazim, whose shrine is located in Kadhimiya in Northern Bagdad. He is believed to be a direct ancestor of the Sadr family. Thus, this is why his commemoration is very important for Sadrist movement.

The majority of protestors were members of the Sadrist Movement, which literally hijacked the protest initiated by secular activists last summer. Sadrists managed to became the main revolutionary force in post-war Iraq, merging ideas of social justice with religious and even eschatological ideas. Contrary to the obvious Western misperception, these Islamic Revolutionaries have nothing in common with primitive Wahhabis, who oppose every inner dimension of human life. The Sadrist movement is enrooted in specific philosophical tradition, which shows its relevance still today.

Sadrism: inception and ideology

The Sadrist Movement was initiated by the father of Muqtada al-Sadr - Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr - who was one of the major leaders of the Shia resistance against Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq. He appeared to be more radical than the current Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Sistine, who was at the time was Sadr's main ideological opponent in the frame of the Shia community. Sadr created a net of autonomous Shia cells across the country, including de-facto independence from Baath rule in Sadr city in southern Bagdad. The main social basis of his support was the impoverished Shiites who were suppressed and segregated in Iraq ruled by Sunnites. In 1999 in Najaf, the place of burial of Imam Aly, Sadr was killed alongside his two sons.

Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr as well as a majority of representatives of Iraqi political Shiitism was influenced by another representative of the Sadr family - Baqir al-Sadr. He supported the Iranian revolution in 1979 (this was one of the reasons for his execution in 1980) as it called to restore the Islamic State based on the Shia doctrine, but opposed the Wilayat Faqih doctrine (rule of the wise - Islamic scholars) of post-revolutionary Iran. He was inclined to the more egalitarian version of the government - Wilayat Al-Umma. According to Sadr, while the two functions of khilafah (governance) and shahada (martyrism; supervision) were united during the times of the Prophets, the two diverged during the occultation so that khilafa returned to the people (umma) and shahada to the scholars. So Islamic Scholars may have only supervisory functions, and not political ones.

Socially, Baqir al-Sadr opposed usury in the banking system and proposed to transform banks from instruments for the growth of capital into tools for enriching the community, continually bringing prices of labor and commodities near to their genuine exchange value by combating monopoly in every area of economic life. In the social sphere he defended mostly socialist goals:

“equalize or narrow differences in standards of living by providing a reasonable minimum of material comfort for all and preventing waste, extravagance and the concentration of capital by the few; devote one fifth of the country's oil income to social security and the construction of houses for the citizenry; and provide free education and free health services for all.” [1]

The receipt of success

The movement founded by Grand Ayatollah proposed social justice and defense for the poor, however, contrary to secular versions of Arab socialism, it did not reject religion. It was based on and deeply enrooted in the religion and Shia-version of Islam. Contrary to Wahhabis, Sadrists also insist on the importance of local customs and tribal laws praising diversity of Iraqi society and not willing to homogenize it. From the very beginning it tried to show its independence from Iranian and Iraqi identity. Using the methods of missionary activism, Sadr and disciples came to the southern marshlands that were notoriously hard to control, and were often at odds with the Shia clerical establishment in Najaf.

The Sadist movement became a significant force in the Shia branch of political Islam, and started to provide social services for the poor and mobilizing the resources of local communities to fulfill their daily needs. Thus, they managed to create a state in a state and appeared to be the most prepared for the dramatic post-war changes in modern Iraq, where state institutions and political movements collapsed. After the fall of the Saddam regime, their positions strengthened because only they could provide the people the necessary minimum to survive. Their structures of mutual cooperation worked. It is why Sadrists with their experience also became most influential force in newly founded structure of governmental social services in Iraq. In a country torn by war it is an immense source of power.

Hierarchy of martyrs

Another reason for the strength of the Sadr movement is its fleur of martyrdom. The founder Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr and his sons died as martyrs, and Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr's father in law and prominent Islamic philosopher and theologian, also died as martyr, executed during Saddam reign. Despite the majority of Iraqi Shia leaders that came to the country from exile after the Western invasion in 2003, the Sadr Movement was presented in Iraq in this dark time Shiites. Contrary to them it was not merely political, but first and foremost social, and could not be eradicated so fast. It survived and was presided by Iraqis who were native for them. It's why Sadr Jr became the focal point of radical Shia elements and founded the famous Mahdi Army, which started to fight against occupants. Thus, Shia eschatology in Iraq ascended its culmination.

The third source of Muqtada al-Sadr's rise was his support from the young. He impersonalized the hierarchy parallel to the traditional Shia system with Ayatollas and Marjas, but was based also on the traditional system for Shias - hierarchy of martyrs and the blood ties of the martyrs. His father, brothers and father in law died as martyrs. All Shia Imams were martyrs who defended the conception of the Imamat's light, the specific right to rule the Ummah, which belongs to the descendants of imam Aly. Shia Islam is hierarchical, but Shias always keep in mind the connection between hierarchy and martyrdom - the hierarchy and membership of a particular race marked by this sign of martyrdom.

Sadr and the current political crisis

After some time Sadr changed, and now he has some deep contradictions with other Shia leaders and does not support the growing Iranian influence in Iraq. In 2014, he declared that he will withdraw from politics, but his structures are alive as recent Bagdad events shows. Now it is the most dynamic political and social force in Iraq, most leaders are relatively young and are chosen because of their competence and loyalty. Thus, the party absorbed many western educated professionals, who made the party's political behavior sophisticated. Muqtada al-Sadr tries to reach out to secular, Sunni and, Kurdish forces.

Today, Sadrists have become the leading force of a new political crisis providing both support and a challenge for Prime Minister Abadi. Not one clan in Iraq wants their radical reform and technocratic government instead of one based on the balance of sectarian interests, but Sadr proposes to return his supporters on the streets next Friday - the crisis will deepen.

Sadr's strive to be more moderate and promote unity among Iraqis is understandable, but it has no future. Real changes are impossible without foreign support and this support can only come from Iran and the broader Shia world. The doctrinal basis of the movement is pure Shia and its mission is impossible to fulfill in the state organized quota system, and it will be permanently unstable as Lebanon has been for decades. The future of Iraq as artificial country is doomed. Sadr urges to end the quota system for different sectarian groups. It fact, it will turn into the rule of Shiites, because they are most numerous religious group in Iraq and they have elaborated political doctrines and structures like the Sadrist movement. The only alternative to ISIS' dominance is Shia dominance with respect to Sunnites, of course. If it is the real aim of the Sadr movement, it should be praised.

[1]Hanna Batatu, “The significance of Muhammad Baqir al Sadr”, Middle East Research and Information Project, January/Februay 1982.