Why do anti-Islamist militants turn to clerical leadership?


Iraq has witnessed several protest movements in recent history, many of which have been explicit about their desire for a “civilian state” (al-dawla al-madanīya) or even a secular state, which separates the religious domain from the political domain. Paradoxically, however, the latest youth-dominated protest movement (which took place from October 2019 to February 2020) looked to the Shia religious establishment, the Marjayya, for support and legitimization. At the same time, these civil society activists and protesters argued for a secular or civilian state. How to reconcile their political aims with their desire for recognition by a religious institution?

In this report, I present three complementary explanations of the position of the protesters. First, I argue that Iraqi protesters have developed and defined their position on “secularism” and “the civil state” based on their rejection of the Islamist parties that have misruled Iraq since 2003. In other words , they argue for a separation of religion and politics, and less a separation of religion and state. Second, although the Marjayya presents itself as non-interventionist in politics, it has historically played a (mainly mediating) role in protest movements. The 2019 protest movement was no exception, as the Marjayya advocated for a resolution through existing political institutions, while emphasizing the right to peaceful protest. The Marjayya’s name had been smeared by her supposed association with Islamist parties, and her positive reaction to the protest movement protected her from further reputational damage and acceptance by protesters. Finally, civil society leaders recognized the value of clerical support and consciously decided to have allies among the religious.

However, the arguments presented in this article reflect the positions of primarily middle- and upper-class activists, not working-class protesters. This research bias is reflected in much of the analysis of the protest movement, which takes the experience and opinions of the most visible and publicly-facing activists as representative of the movement as a whole. Policy makers and analysts sometimes underestimate the complexity of class and religion in Iraq and future research should take this into account.

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