On August 5, 2004, when Sayed Moqtada Sadr called on his followers to rise and resist the US occupation forces, the regional socio-political scene in the region was injected with vigor and motivation. A young Muslim scholar demonstrated to the “Sheikhs” of the GCC and the palace scholars of Al-Azhar and the Arabian Peninsula, that ulama can play a leading role in reshaping strategic events, rather than being pawns of foreign-imposed dictators.
Between 2004 and 2016, Sayed Moqtada did commit some political missteps, but the credibility of his movement was never in question. The broader Islamic movement in the region was willing to accept his mistakes for his valour in 2004. Then came his 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia where he met Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) at the height of tensions between Islamic Iran and the US-Saudi-Israeli nexus. This meeting led many analysts to believe that Moqtada is a mediocre leader with little strategic foresight. More importantly, it provided ammunition to his detractors to paint him as an unprincipled political opportunist.
Fast forward to the latest events in Iraq where Sadr’s socio-political movement has paralysed Iraq’s already fragile system, there are important lessons to learn from the mistakes and successes of his movement.
Let us briefly look at some key successes of the Sadrist movement.
Moqtada Sadr and his movement were political kingmakers in Iraq for quite some time. The Sadrist movement achieved this status mainly because it positioned itself as a counter-system movement, a grassroots champion of ordinary people. Whether people support or oppose the Sadrist movement’s policies, the fact is that even anti-Sadrist forces do not deny that his movement has widespread support.
There are three factors for why Sadr commands large following. First, he challenged US occupation head-on and normalized mainstream dual track, political-military resistance to the occupation. Second, his movement provided at least some practical services to the Iraqi people during the initial years of US occupation, when state structures collapsed. Three, the Sadrists were and are one of the very few anti-system movements in Iraq and the wider region in comparison to other socio-political movements in the neighborhood.
The Sadrists never bound themselves within the political framework set up in Iraq by the US-led occupation. Instead, they always wanted to break the US-imposed political structure and were candid about it.
Keeping the above points in mind, let us analyse some of the missteps of the movement which has led to decline in its popularity.
When looking at secular socio-political order, it is important to keep in mind its sacred basis and the “godfathers” of the secular order. In the US, for instance, the dogmas of free market and the patronage of corporations are important pillars a socio-political movement must uphold to succeed in the political system. The political fate of Bernie Sanders is a good example of what happens when one does not uphold the key pillars of the secular socio-political order. More evidence is provided by the fate of US politicians when they challenge the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC.
An Islamic socio-political system has its own fundamental principles and patronages one must adhere to in order to become functional and gain legitimacy. If these are followed properly, they can survive huge pressure and intrigues as the experience of Hamas in Gaza shows. There is probably no other Islamic movement which faces such great hardships as Hamas does, yet it retains its credibility and mass following.
Despite severe pressure, Hamas figured out the mechanics of the socio-political system where it operates. In the Iraqi theatre, the guidance of a qualified Islamic jurist is the “price” a socio-political movement must pay in order not to go on an ego trip and devolve into a power-hungry political clique. It is also needed to adequately evaluate its own steps to be in harmony with the broader goals of society and the global Islamic movement.
In the case of Sadrist movement, the movement over-identified with its anti-system identity, got carried away by it and ended up losing the support of Ayatullah Kadhim al-Haeri. It began to see all those disagreeing with the movement to be “pro-system” that they aimed to change.
Another aspect which often leads to the downfall of Islamic-oriented movements is their over-emphasis on a particular mode of operations. The case of an-Nahda in Tunisia is a clear example. The Nahda movement set the political system in Tunisia and its secular foundations, as the golden operating scheme for itself and lost touch with the realities of new Tunisia. As a consequence, an-Nahda got subverted.
The Sadrist movement began to over rely on protests and confrontations to address political issues and wield its power. This created a perception of the movement as unruly and immature. This led other parts of the Islamic movement in Iraq to move away from it rather than seek active cooperation with it.
The third issue which led to the decline of the Sadrist movement is its fixation to gain political power. This fixation has undermined its initial branding as being the anti-system movement and gave its critics legitimate grounds to criticize it as being power-hungry.
Possessing significant financial, popular and administrative resources, the Sadrist movement could have provided the right kinds of social services and socio-economic infrastructure to the Iraqi society. This would have organically propelled it into power if it had played the long game.
The plight of the Sadrist movement is a good learning experience for the region’s Islamic movements not to get entangled in petty politics which often sucks the energy and credibility out of credible movements.
While the Sadrist movement cannot be written off in Iraq’s socio-political landscape completely, it is difficult to imagine how it will be able to rebrand itself. In politics, just like in business, branding is everything. The Sadrists lost their brand.