Nine Ways From Najaf

Who’s Who in Shia Iraq
by Anand Gopal

Friday, March 9th 2007. [redacted]

Tuesday, March 15th 2005. Students at the Basra University Engineering College gathered in Andalus Park to hold a picnic and get-together. Militia men from the Mahdi army, which is in control of a good part of the University, had repeatedly warned students not to hold such an assembly. The militiamen descended upon the gathering, grabbed a hold of one young female student and tore her clothes off. Two male students who attempted to intervene were shot, and the woman later committed suicide in shame. In the ensuing outrage, students organized demonstrations protesting the Mahdi Army’s actions and the growing influence of Islamist politics in general; the protests abated when the Mahdi Army threatened to bomb any public demonstrations. Throughout all of this, the Basra Police Force remained a silent observer, and the Islamic parties that comprised the provincial councils refused to bring any of the militiamen to justice.

Thursday, April 10th, 2003. A large, angry crowd assembled outside the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. Majid al-Khoei, a prominent Shia cleric and potential challenger for political supremacy in Iraq, had recently arrived to the holy city from Kuwait (flown there by US forces), with $13 million in CIA-supplied funds. The cleric aimed, through a rite of pilgrimage to the Ali shrine, to establish himself as the chief Shia religious and political authority in the country. The angry crowds, under the influence of Sadrist forces, saw Khoei as both traitor and a usurper; they opened fire on Khoei and his party, eventually hacking the prominent cleric to death. With his murder, occupation forces lost a possible valuable ally and Moqtada al -Sadr’s movement rapidly filled the newly-formed power and influence vacuum. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Sadr City, Baghdad, clerics were delivering fiery sermons decrying the fierce US occupation and posters ofMoqtada al-Sadr were beginning to appear on the city walls.

In the beginning, there was the Call

It wasn’t always like this. Sadr City, named after the late Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, father of Moqtada, is a sprawling, depressed, filthy neighborhood, where sewage runs in the open and the crackle of gunfire punctuates the nights. Before the fall of Baghdad, Sadr City was called Saddam City and was a hotbed ofShia discontent. After the US forces called upon the Shias to rise and overthrow Saddam’s dictatorship in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Saddam City became one of the flashpoints of the failed revolution. But long before Saddam, before the Baath Party even came into power, Saddam City was known as Revolution City. The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) commanded a great deal of influence among the Iraqi left and the working class. The party enjoyed considerable support in the poor, Shia-dominated working-class suburbs of Baghdad, and after the 1958 revolution that brought the military dictator Abd al-Karim Qasim to power, the new regime launched an urban-housing program that provided affordable housing to the city’s poor. The resulting suburb, christened Revolution City, was both an effort to appease the ICP’s growing base (which supported the 1958 takeover) and to facilitate the country’s industrialization. The Qassim regime eventually turned on the ICP when it became clear that the party’s power presented a threat, but before this the General enacted a series of reforms, including the modernization and secularization of some women’s roles (specifically with regard to inheritance) and a major land reform scheme that hurt tribal income and hence the amount of religious taxes collected by clerics.

The landlord class therefore provided the major social and political backing for the clerics, or Ulema, and Qassim’s attacks on this class via his modernization efforts, coupled with the ICP’s tremendous influence among the working class, gave the Ulema much cause to worry. In early 1958 a young cleric from Najaf (the traditional base of the Shia Ulema) gathered with other clerics, businessmen and engineers and put the call out for a new, revolutionary Islamic party. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (Sadr I) was by all accounts a prodigy; he delivered his first lectures on theology and Islamic history at the age of ten, and by his twenties was fluent in both English and the language of the secular revolutionary left (he was, for example, well-versed in the Marxist and Enlightenment ideas of the day). The young Sadr I aimed to build an Islamic party that could provide an answer to theICP’s social program by placing the poor and dispossessed at the center of its politics but at the same time fight against a secularism that undermines the Ulema’s role and indeed even their raison d’être. Sadr I’s new party, the Islamic Dawa Party (or the Islamic Call Party), was immediately the subject of oppression by Qassim’s secular government.

While Qassim was busy suppressing Islamist sentiments, his dalliances with the Soviet Union and his on-again, off-again affair the ICP proved too much for the US. al-Dawa and Islamism were not yet a large enough or coherent enough force to use as a counterweight to the ICP and the Soviet Union, so the US turned to the secular nationalist Baath Party. The US quickly developed links with Baathists in and out of Iraq; it is alleged, for instance, that a certain young Iraqi expat studying law in Cairo named Saddam Hussein was on the CIA payroll. The CIA used Cairo as a base to help launch a coup in Baghdad, led byBaathists and specifically by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, who later ruled Iraq until 1979, when he transferred the seat of power to his protégé Saddam. After the 1963 coup, the CIA turned over lists including the names of over 5000 suspected Communists, which the Baathists murdered one by one until the ICP and its sympathizers were decimated and drowned in blood. Between 1963 and 1968, when a second coup ensured that the Baathists officially consolidated power, the Dawa party saw a renaissance; Islamism was tolerated and at times even encouraged as a counterweight to communism. The party expanded via a network of charitable organizations and Islamic education centers. The party also turned towards the working-class residents of Revolution City and began to fill the void left by the weakened and ineffectual ICP.

The Baathists who came to power in 1968 sought to crush any opposition or potential rivals; the group targeted al-Dawa with almost the same ferocity and vigor as they did the communists. In the 1970s the government began suppressing the Shia press, closing religious institutions, and arresting leading members of al-Dawa. In 1975 the government outlawed the marad al-ras, the annual Shia pilgrimage from Najaf to Karbala. In 1977, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, son of the Grand Ayatollah Mushin al-Hakim and an al-Dawa member, helped organize such a procession in open defiance of the ban. The resulting uprising and repression, known as the Safar Intifada, earned Hakim, Sadr I and al-Dawa the influence and respect of the Shia poor. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 further inspired al-Dawa and other Islamists, and Iraq’s first genuine Islamist militia, Shahid al-Sadr, was born. Saddam’s government proscribed membership in al-Dawa and executed scores of cadre. The party associates responded by attempting to assassinate key government figures, most notably minister Tariq Aziz. In response, the government merely increased the level of repression, culminating in Sadr I’s execution in 1980.

Sadr I’s death was a tremendous blow to al-Dawa and to the Shia opposition in general. Sadr I left behind, however, a tremendous body of work and a weighty political legacy that still marks Iraq’s landscape. He is responsible for one of the earliest cogent attempts at drafting a revolutionary Islam. His Our Economy (1961) rejected both capitalism’s inequality and ethos and communism’s atheism and lack of liberty and argued for a mixed economy with a strong state sector. Sadr’s “Islamic socialism” proved to have tremendous appeal with the Shia working class, and his ideas found their way to influential thinkers in Iran. Sadr also developed a unique theory of Shia rule that broke both with Khomeini’s wilayat al-faqih and the more secular “Shia nationalism” later put forth by groups such as Nabih Berri’s Amal movement in Lebanon. Wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent, or direct clerical rule) itself was a radical break with Shia tradition; Khomeini’s theory, developed by 1970, went against years of Shia practice in which clerical rule was at least formally separated from monarchial rule by positing that clerics, and specifically a leading section of clerics, should rule society directly and maintain its affairs. Sadr, however, refused to accept Khomeini’s innovation and instead argued for a state that governed itself under Islamic parameters but where the Ulema retained a consultative and supervisory role. The two theories therefore agreed that the locus of political and economic power should be fixed on the Ulema, but differed as to whether the Ulema should be represented politically or rule directly.

These are rather fine differences and as a result al-Dawa members often held varying positions on the matter. After Sadr’s execution and Saddam’s repression of the party, some elements of the party fled to Iran, developed close links with the Iranian regime and gravitated towards a Khomeinist view. Other sections of the party relocated to London, where Sadr’s prescription of a lay leadership with clerical backing held influence, while still others remained behind and waged a resistance campaign to Saddam’s government and engineered attempts on the dictator’s life in 82 and 87. al-Dawa ‘s actions outside of Iraq’s borders, however, proved the most remarkable. The party carried out a suicide attack on the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in December of 1981, considered by many to be the first modern suicide bombing in the Middle East. Pro-Khomeinial al-Dawa members in Tehran, grouped in a faction called Islamic Jihad, bombed the US and French embassies (both supporters of Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war) in Kuwait in 1983. Members of Islamic Jihad also made their way to Lebanon, where it is alleged that in 1982 they supplied three of the nine founding members of the group that eventually became the Hizbullah . In 1983, Islamic Jihad members were involved in the simultaneous suicide bombings of the French and US marine barracks in Beirut, famously forcing the withdrawal of the two armies. Meanwhile, back in Kuwait City seventeen Islamic Jihad members were arrested and imprisoned under charges that they were involved in the 1983 embassy bombings; the prisoners, known as theDawa 17, became a crucial bargaining chip in Shia Islamist politics, and their incarceration sparked a series of high-profile kidnappings (including CIA station chief William Buckley, AP Bureau Chief Terry Anderson, and others) that lay at the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal. The fate of the Dawa 17 is unknown; the prisoners disappeared during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, although one of the seventeen, Jamal Jafaar Mohammed, later turned up as a member of the Iraqi parliament in Nuri al-Maliki’s government.

al-Dawa grew out of the Najaf clergy, and for years represented the interests of Iraq’s landlord class but relied on the support of working-class Shias. Saddam’s repression of al-Dawa, the industrialization of Iraq and the concomitant demise the landlord class, and the marginalization and weakening of the clergy all contributed to a profound shift in the party’s class basis. After 1980 and Sadr’s death a large portion of the party fled Iraq, and it was mostly the laity-dominated London section that returned on the heels of the US invasion in 2003. The party had in the intervening years transformed into one that represented big-business interests and is today a potential political representative of a section of the post-Saddam Iraq’s nascent ruling class. Indeed, al-Dawa has apparently been involved in numerous business deals, such as a questionable concession to the Egyptian telecom Orascom in late 2003.

While the London al-Dawa moved away from clerical rule, parts of the Iranian section, led by Baqir al-Hakim, moved in November 1982 to form a Khomeinist party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). With the Iranian government’s help, SCIRI also formed an armed wing, the Badr Brigades, which periodically raided targets in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Despite al-Dawa and SCIRI’s differences on the question of the wilayat al-faqih, the two organizations remained close throughout the exile period, and members often floated from one organization to another. After the 2003 US invasion, SCIRI reentered Iraq and the Badr Brigades eventually grew to over 25,000. Hakim, returning to his home country for the first time in over twenty years, was murdered by a massive al-Qaeda car bomb in August of 2003 in Najaf and political leadership shifted to his brother Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.

SCIRI is the largest, most well-organized party in Iraq, and it is the party with the deepest pockets. The group was even earmarked for US funding under the 1998 Iraqi Liberation Act, which they nonetheless declined. They developed very strong ties to Tehran, however, and the party adheres to the wilayat al-faqih model, with the ruling clergy based in Iran but with a separate legislature for Iraq. After the invasion, SCIRI quickly aligned itself with the US and British occupation (under the guise of neutrality); they worked closely with British forces in Basra and aligned themselves with the US against the various Sadrist uprisings. The Badr Brigades entered the newly formed Iraqi army, and SCIRI forged connections with the large sections of the Shia clergy. While SCIRI has now distanced itself a good deal from the occupation forces, the leadership still routinely condemn attacks on US and British troops. With al-Dawa being more and more heavily represented by non-clerical forces, SCIRI secured a base in the moderate Islamic clergy and the traditional hawza(Islamic seminaries). At the same time, they like al-Dawa ascended to represent a section of the newly-forming Iraqi ruling class; mostly through Iranian-provided funds, SCIRI acquired controlling shares in numerous newly-privatized factories, farms, flour mills, utility companies, and industries in the oil sector. The Iranian ties suggest that SCIRI represents a section of the ruling class that is more closely aligned with Tehran, whereas al-Dawa stands a bit further removed from the Iranian orbit but also a bit closer to possible future collaboration with the US. Groups with secular Shia leaders, like Iyad Alawi’s Iraqi National Accord, fall directly under Washington’s sphere and have received direct support and funding from the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and others.

Meanwhile, back in Sadr City…

Sometimes you just can’t kill a man. Saddam and his revolutionary guards learned this the hard way – no sooner had they put Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr (Sadr II) and his eldest two sons to death in 1999 than the poor and working-class Shias exploded in the largest uprising since the aborted 1991 revolution. Remarkably, thousands of Shia broke with custom and declared their allegiance to the martyred Sadr II, despite the traditional practice of following a living cleric. Moreover, Sadr II demanded absolute fealty from his followers, despite the standard Shia custom which regards the decision as a deeply personal one (Shias are usually free to choose or change their so-called Object of Emulation, or their personal marja)

What was it about this firebrand cleric from Najaf that demanded such devotion? Sadr II studied Islamic law in his cousin Baqir al-Sadr’s hawza, and graduated at a very young age. A fellow student with Khomeini, he mastered many languages, including English, and like his cousin was well-versed in the notions and themes of the secular revolutionary left. Like other Iraqi Shia Islamists at the time, he was associated with al Dawa, although he leaned towards Khomeini’s wilayat al-faqih conceptions. Sadr II became one of the few public figures to speak openly against Saddam’s regime; his fiery and deeply political sermons won him the admiration and praise of the Shia masses. The majority of the Shia religious establishment, however, remained silent during Baath rule. Sadr II developed a theory of the “silent jurisprudent,” who carries a quietist attitude and refuses rail against the political repression and economic misery that was rampant in Iraq. He hurled the label at such figures as the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, which caused deep fissures in the Iraqi Shia world; Sadr’s followers (and the subject of his sermons) tended to be the poorest and most oppressed sections of society, and Sistani was left with a middle- and upper-class base.

Upon Sadr II’s execution, his young son Moqtada al-Sadr went underground to escape persecution. The young Sadr was quite different from the other Shia religious authorities in Iraq. He did not have an advanced degree in Islamic studies and could not claim the right to be a bona fide Object of Emulation, as Sadr II, Sadr I, Hakim and Sistani were or are. Nor was he the appointed successor to Sadr II – this role fell upon Ayatollah Qassim Hussein Hairi, based in Iran. Sadr however quickly began to develop an extensive underground network of supporters. After Saddam’s fall, Sadr’s movement quickly ascended, renaming Saddam City as Sadr City after Sadr II, and established a militia, the Mahdi Army. Commentators often speak of the Sadrist movement in superlatives: Sadr’s movement has by far the largest and deepest base amongst the poor and working-class Shias, and the leadership regularly preaches against the dispossession and exploitation of the poor. The movement is the most militantly nationalistic – Sadr has regularly railed against the US occupation and has harbored a distrust of Iran, not to mention that they have been one of the few Shia groups to repeatedly and directly engage the US in battle. They have been the most prone of the large parties to involvement in the sectarian civil war; many clerics have issued fatwas against revenge killings of Sunnis, but Sadr remained silent on the issue, which in effect became an endorsement of sectarian fighting. And they tend to be the most extreme in their interpretation ofShia Islam; Mahdi men have often taken the lead in establishing sharia courts, attacking cinema theatres, razing liquor stores, barber shops and internet cafes, and destroying gypsy villages. The other Shia Islamic parties often have puritanical or sectarian moments as well, of course, but the Mahdi Army’s size and organization tend to place them at the front of such actions.

The Mahdi Army was at the center of numerous uprisings and battles against the American occupation. In the Spring of 2004, for instance, Sadr’s forces led a bloody uprising after authorities shut down their newspaper, al-Hawza. Sadr often does not have a firm grip on his militiamen; Mahdi men often act independently of the leadership, a phenomenon that has resulted in tremendous tensions in the Sadrist movement. Nonetheless, Sadr has used a rather extensive social-welfare network (some of it funded by Iran, some of it through the Education and Health Ministries, which Sadrists control) and fierce anti-American rhetoric to win the loyalty of the Shia poor. However, rhetoric aside, Sadr himself has engaged in a delicate dance between the US, Iran and other Shia Islamic groups in Iraq; he has struck numerous deals with Washington, often at the risk of alienating his base, and cannot be characterized as “anti-Imperialist” in any real sense. The possibility of forging such an anti-Imperialist movement, however, lies within the ranks of Sadr’s supporters, with the Shia poor and working class that respond most favorably to Sadr’s anti-American speeches. Given the dynamics of Sadrism and Sadr’s aspirations of carving out a space within the nascent Iraqi ruling class, even at the cost of cooperating with the US, it is more likely that any viable anti-imperialist movement that does arise will break from Sadr and form either independent groups or groups more closely allied with Iran.

The balance sheet

And such is the state of Shia Iraq today, a political landscape that is controlled by three main Islamic groups. There are splits and complications, of course. al-Fadhila (the Islamic Virtue), for example, is a split from the Sadr movement that also enjoys support from the Shia poor (with a strong base in and around Basra) and has ties to oil companies. al-fadhila has at times worked more closely with occupation forces, and its leader Mohammed Yaqubi is seen as Sadr’s rival (there are reports that Ayatollah Hairi is beginning to consider al-Fadhila as the genuine heir to Sadr II, perhaps so that he can outmaneuver Moqtada al-Sadr for leadership and influence in Iraq) . And Thar Allah (Allah’s Revenge), a grouping associated with SCIRI and with ties to the tribal communities in Basra, has attacked Sunnis and occupation forces regularly. Others, such as the marsh Arabs of south central Iraq, have organized in groups such as the Iraqi Hizbullah. But the Sadrst movement, al-Dawa, and SCIRI have the lion’s share of support and influence in Shia Iraq. Specifically, al-Dawa commands the most influence in Nasiriyya, SCIRI in Baquba and Kut, and the Sadrists in East Baghdad, Kufa and parts of Samarra and Najaf. But more generally, Shia Iraq, yesterday of the Communists, today belongs to the Islamists. Iraq is littered with tragedies, but the transcendent tragedy is that secular alternatives have been lost beneath the detritus of dictatorship, occupation and civil war. Like Iran, generations will most likely have to live and die under theocracy and oppression before a secular alternative, reinvigorated and re-imagined, is alive in Iraq once more.

List of Important Shia Parties in Iraq

al-Dawa: Oldest Islamic party; rejects the wilayat al-faqih; strong base in middle class and has many ties to big businesses; second or third largest party in Iraq

SCIRI: Close ties to Iran; split from al-Dawa in early 80s, accepts the wilayat al-faqih, with the supreme faqihbased in Iran; strong base in middle class; owns many big businesses and has ties to foreign business interests; the largest and richest party in Iraq; military wing is theBadr Brigades

Sadrist parties: Most militant parties in Shia Iraq, generally under the leadership of Moqtada al-Sadr; accept the wilayat al-faqih, but hold that Iraq and Iran have a separate ruling faqih; strong base in the working class and poor informal sectors.

al-Fadhila: Split from the Sadrists; possibly closer to Iran; generally less militantly anti-American than the Sadrists; accepts the wilayat al-faqih but the question of whether they support a separate faqih for Iraq and Iran or one for all Shias, based in Tehran is not clear; similar social base as the Sadrists, but developing ties to big business

Thar Allah: associated with SCIRI; involved in many revenge killings of Sunnis and of former Baath party members; social base are the tribal communities, especially near Basra.

Iraqi Islamic Forces Union: Split from SCIRI before the invasion on the grounds that they refused to support the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which SCIRI supported.

Jund al-Imam: associated with SCIRI; a split from al-Dawa in 1969 over the nature of the future Islamic state – members called for an explicitly Shia state that by definition excluded Sunnis;

Islamic Task Organization: a wing of al-Dawa that over the years became a distinct organization; engineered an assassination attempt on Tariq Aziz in the early 80s; opposes attacks on US forces

Iraqi Hizbullah: organization of Marsh Arabs; active against Saddam Hussein’s regime; led by Abu Hatim


13 Responses to Nine Ways From Najaf

  1. David says:

    Someone has read Faleh Jabar… along with a lot else, I’m sure.

    I don’t think it’s the case that Muqtada al-Sadr has never condemned sectarian killings. I don’t have the cite on me, but I remember for example an article from the end of last year about a demand from members of the Association of Muslim Scholars that Sadr condemn a particular killing. A Sadr spokesperson responded that he’d condemned the killings in the past, but wouldn’t do so on demand.

    Not exactly a good sign, and nor is Sadr’s acquiescence to the ‘surge’, but I think it’s too simple to view the Sadrists as primarily sectarian. There’s a fundamental tension within the movement between sectarianism and an inclusive Iraq nationalism – which has in the past cooperated with the Sunni resistance, sent aid to Fallujah in 2004, and participated in several formal attempts to forge some sort of unity in the insurgency across sectarian lines. Now, the sectarian side seems to have been pulling ahead for the last two years, but I think the short-term potential for some sort of broad Iraqi nationalism to grow out of the Mahdi Army, if say the US forces a confrontation, is greater than the short-term potential for it to grow out of any secular force. The all too likely alternative to a newly unified nationalist resistance is for ethnic cleansing to continue until it’s complete…

  2. osinsky says:


    As far as I know, Sadr has never condemned sectarian killings as such, but has condemned individual killings on tactical grounds.

    I agree that the Sadrists are not primarily sectarian (in that they do not always act in purely sectarian terms), but I think they (along with certain elements in SCIRI) are a leading sectarian force in Shia Iraq. This certainly hasn’t always been the case, but some of the things you point to (like the aid to Fallujah) happened before the civil war began in any real sense. The tensions you speak of really came to the fore after the bombing of Samarra last year, and it seems to me that the elements in the Sadrists movement that are the most sectarian are winning the day. There have been voices, such as Sarkih, that have condemned sectarianism, and splits such as al-Fadhilia have at least given lip service to a full Iraqi nationalism.

    With that being said, I think you are right in recognizing that any genuine Iraqi nationalism that does come about will be from forces in and around the Mahdi army, not any secular party and not al-Dawa. But I think such a phenomenon would cause deep fissures in the Sadrist movement and its impossible to say which direction Sadr himself would go in. Judging by his past actions, he hasn’t proven to be an independent force of Iraqi nationalism, despite his rhetoric. In any event, call me a pessimist but it seeems as if the prospects for anything of the sort emerging out of any quarter of Iraq are dim.

  3. Binh says:

    Great piece.

    It’s worth noting that Fadhila within the last month or so broke from the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia coalition that dominates Iraq’s parliament, on the grounds that Maliki’s government is sectarian. Fadhila also controls Basra’s local government. This is kind of a big deal because they’ve essentially given up power and influence within national politics because of the government’s sectarianism. They’ve also begun to have armed clashes with the Mahdi army as well now that the British are handing control over to local forces.

    Lastly, I would disagree about Sadr not being anti-imperialist. I think he’s a petty-bourgeois anti-imperialist, which explains why he vacillates wildy between confrontation and collaboration with both the U.S. and the big (Shia) bourgeoisie represented by Sistani. The Vietnamese NLF were also petty-bourgeois anti-imperialists – sure they fought the Japanese, French, and Americans, but they also agreed to the partitioning of the country at the Geneva Accords in 1954, they squashed militant working class organizations (led by the handful of Vietnamese Trotskyists), and they were willing to join the South’s government if only the South and the U.S. would let them.

  4. osinsky says:


    The question about Sadr has been a debate some of us have been having here in Philly. I think that while all real petit-bourgeois movements vacillate between classes, not all movements that vacillate are petit-bourgeois. The sine qua non of a petit-bourgeois movement is that it must bear some real relationship to the actual petit-bourgeois class, something that is much clearer in the case of the NLF than in the case of the Sadrist movement. Moreover, we have to judge the class nature of a movement based the social composition of its base, the social composition of its leadership, and the class interests it objectively represents. As I understand it the NLF had a base in the peasantry and a leadership drawn from more educated elements and sections of the old ruling class, but represented interests distinct from the working class and the old ruling class. The base of the Sadrist movement is in the working class and to a smaller extent the informal sectors. The leadership is harder to categorize, but I think its not so simple that the clergy and associated elements can be considered petit-bourgeois (many, in fact, are tied to big business). Finally, I think the Sadrist movement has quite consistently acted in such a way as to try to elbow in on the existing Shia big bourgeoisie; this may mean at any given time cooperating with the US or Sistani, or it may mean standing against them. By rough analogy, the Taliban did the same thing. I don’t think that this means that the Sadrists can’t be pushed into an anti-imperialist position, but I mean this in a different way than the manner in which petit-bourgeois movements are pressured. Again, by very rough analogy both Saddam and the Taliban were pushed into adopting “anti-imperialist” stances.

    The situation is so complex that it’s quite possible that what I say about Sadr is not the case, but it seems that given the above factors, this makes the most sense to me. The other controversial argument in the post is about the class nature of the clergy and the origins of Shia Islamism in Iraq. It’s fairly well documented that the clergy formed Islamist organizations to protect their class interests, which were tied to the landlord class, not the petit-bourgeoisie. I think this flies in the face of Gilbert Achcar’s analysis in the Eastern Cauldron (11 Theses on Islamic Fundamentalism…) and Chris Harman’s Prophet and the Proletariat, which paint Islamism as a purely petit-bourgeois phenomenon.

  5. Binh says:

    If his movemet is not petty-bourgeois in nature, the alternative would be to argue that it is either bourgeois or working class, neither of which are tenable positions in my opinion. Undoubtedly, the base of his support is among the working class and lumpenproletariat. But the leadership of the movement – himself and his associates – are all (very) junior clerics, whose rise to power and prominence is not due to decades of religious learning and scholarship but because they express the anger of the Shia majority. This is what angers the top layer of clerics in Najaf, Sistani and co., that this young firebrand upstart has come close to upstaging them.

    Your article lays out very clearly how Sadr (and his relatives) have articulated an Islamist petty-bourgeois utopia, where capitalism exists but with strict limits on inequality, where the poor are taken care of, where capitalists obey the rules of Islam, etc. A “bourgeois” Islam would countenance the poor to suffer their lot peacefully, wait for the paradise after you die in poverty, etc all of which fly in the face of Sadr’s words and actions.

    Furthermore, and most importantly, is how the Sadrists behave in practice. He blasts the occupation but participates in the Iraqi government because he wants to have a hand in the political (and economic) spoils, control of the Health Ministry to build a system of patronage, etc. I don’t know how they would take to the independent Iraqi unions that are trying to organize the oil fields, but I take it they would be very hostile to such efforts unless they were “Islamic” unions a la Khomeini’s embrace of the Shoras in 1979.

    I think Sadr’s case is pretty straight forward and I don’t see how anyone could argue that his movement is proletarian or bourgeois in nature. I thought Achcar’s argument was that Islamism is simply an anarchronism, an aberration, and has no modern class nature or basis. Harman I think is more correct but I’m not familiar with a lot of the examples he used and I do think there are plenty of straight-bourgeois Islamist parties in the world (they run Iran, for example).

    Lastly I hope this gets published in the ISR. It’s the kind of thing that’s needed for people to get their heads around what’s going on in Iraq.

  6. Binh says:

    I’m abusing the comment feature here. Sorry.

    I think there are issues you raise which should be separated, although they are related to one another: the class nature of the Shia clergy (and Islamic clergy more generally), and the nature of the Sadr movement. I won’t comment on topic #1 since I’m not familiar enough with the subject but I think on topic #2 we can make some general observations.

  7. osinsky says:


    I’m willing to be convinced that the Sadrists are a petit-bourgeois movement. My main disagreement, however, comes from the actual relationship of parts of Sadr’s movement to the bourgeois class (and lack of a real relationship to the petit-bourgeois class). You characterize the parties that run Iran as petit-bourgeois, but I think it’s impossible for a petit-bourgeois party or movement to actually be part of the ruling class. Certainly, at the time of the revolution itself the bazaaris and others played a key role, but since then the groups that make up the Iranian ruling class, like all ruling classes, are thoroughly bougeois in that they control industry (and the state). A good deal of Sadr’s material support comes from Iran (for example, Iran helped fund the creation of a wide range of social and cultural networks the Sadrists run). This coupled with the fact that the Sadrists control two ministries and have ties to businesses and industries through these ministries (a recent Guardian article, for example, detailed the way in which Sadrists indirectly control parts of certain industries through backroom dealings via these ministries) leads me to believe that if anything they are a bourgeois movement. If we broaden the conception of a petit-bourgeois movement to include cases such as these, I worry that the term will lose its analytical power.

    My main difference with Achcar’s piece and to a lesser extent Harman’s is that both characterize Islamist fundamentalism as a petit-bourgeois phenomenon, which I think is true in some areas but there are important exceptions (enough exceptions, in fact, to call into question the vailidity of the statement). I think the Taliban, for example, can in no way be classified as petit-bourgeois, except again without broadening the term to the point that it just becomes not very useful. There are plenty of other problems with Achcar’s piece; for example, he describes Islamist movements as wanting to return to a previous era and as medievalist. This is certainly true for many Sunni Islamist groups, but fundamentally untrue for most brands of Shia Islamism. Khomeini’s Wilayat al-Faqih, for example, was quite revolutionary and a break from anything that had existed before.

    And I think you are right, there are two separate but related issues: the class nature of the Shia clergy and that of Sadr’s movement. I’m much more confident in the first (which why I mention it explicitly in the article, whereas I don’t make definitive statements about the second in the article.) I think the early Shia clergy actually represented the landlord class; this is very thoroughly documented in the literature, at least for Iraq.

    I’m thinking about writing an article just about the Sadrists in order to come to more definitive conclusions.

  8. Binh says:

    To clarify: in my post I argued that the Iranian clerics are “straight-bourgeois” not petty-bourgeois.

    As for Sadr’s relationships with Iran and businesses, I would argue:

    1) the NLF got a lot of material support from China and Russia, two state capitalist countries. Who pays the bills doesn’t automatically determine the class character of a movement, although it can play a big role (obviously) in how that movement behaves in the class struggle
    2) the NLF didn’t have any “real relationship” to the petty-bourgeoisie in Vietnam, except maybe the peasants if you want to count them. Its petty-bourgeois nature stemmed from the social composition of the CP’s cadres, its social/political goals, and its relationship to the other social classes in the country: they hated the French and their collaborators, but they also hated the economic backwardness associated with the old landlord class. And they hated working class organization. Thus, they weren’t bourgeois or proletarian – they were petty-bourgeois.
    3) any smart businessman would want to be on good terms with Sadr because he is potentially the most powerful man in Iraq. It would be stupid to ignore him or not be on his good side, especially if you have a business where his militia is strong
    4) how big are the businesses that Sadr has relations with? My guess is small to medium sized businesses. Big business I think is firmly behind Sistani, SCIRI and to a lesser extent Dawa, as you argued in your piece. If Sadr had major financial resources behind him, he’d be able to create a much more disciplined force by having well-paid officers at the core of his militia instead of undisciplined firebrands who disobey him whenver they feel like it.

  9. osinsky says:


    I think the NLF did have an actual relationship to the petit-bourgeoisie, both through their base of support (the peasantry, which I certainly do consider petit-bourgeois in every sense) and, as you mentioned, through the social composition of its cadres.

    I don’t think that either of these statements can be definitively said of the Sadrists. While there are many characteristics of the petit-bourgeoisie, the absoultely essential factor has to be a relationship to the actual class. Otherwise we can alip into discussions like some defenders of the Cuban state do when they claim that Fidel et al. led a workers’ revolution, despite any real relationship to the working class, because it acted “objectively” as a working-class force. I feel that there is a tendency to read a class character from Sadr’s vacillations, whereas I think most of the movement’s actions could be also adequately explained by seeing the Sadrists as a section of the bourgeoisie but not the most dominant and collaborative section (e.g., al-Dawa) or the section represented by the comprador bourgeoisie.

    By the way, I used your argument about Iran’s dwindling oil reserves in my talk on Iran yesterday.


  10. David says:

    I forgot about this comment thread – oops. In case anyone’s still reading it, I’d just say that I basically agree with Binh. The other Shi’a parties are, yes, bourgeois, tied to the landlord class. But all clergy are not the same – Sadrism’s cadres come from a different segment, one with a great deal less institutional authority, which is why they’ve fought so directly with all the religiously highest ranking clerics.

    Sadr’s base of support – distinct, of course, from the movement’s leadership – seems to me to be described fairly exactly by what Mike Davis says about the new global informal working class. Not sure what that implies, exactly, but it’s worth thinking about Sadrism in relationship to the potential or lack thereof for self-organization among the majority of Iraqis who live off of some combination of irregular, informal work and political or identity-based patronage in state jobs or charity.

  11. Binh says:

    David: the feudal landlord class was essentially liquidated in Iraq after the 1958 revolution and land reform. Do you mean a capitalist landlord class? If so, I would argue they are just plain old capitalists and the term “landlord class” is unnecessary and perhaps confusing.

    The NYT ran a decent piece on Sadr that captures his (petty-bourgeois!) contradictions:

  12. Binh says:

    One thing that was funy about the NYT article I just posted is that an Iraqi politicians refers to Moqtada as “Mookie.” I find that hilarious!

  13. Lickspittle says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Lickspittle.

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