Editor’s Note: Jamil Ali is a pseudonym for the writer of this op-ed, who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. He is a former activist.
Formed in April 2013 — out of al-Qaeda in Iraq — the Islamic State is the jihadist group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The group became an active force fighting in Syria against the government before being disavowed by al-Qaeda. In June, news broke of ISIS’s movement in Iraq, where the group has captured city after city, including a key post on the Iraq-Syria border, en route to the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad. ISIS has proclaimed the establishment of the new caliphate, demanded the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — who has been accused of discriminatory and abusive treatment toward Sunni Muslims — and the dismantling of his government.
BAGHDAD, Iraq — On my way as I travel, I try to drag the car driver into conversation — trying to learn about where he lives, or about other passengers that travel with him, back and forth; about talks with his colleagues, when they break at restaurants, stopping to eat.
It is an opportunity for me to relive my old role as an advocate.
The driver admires my interest in talking about past habits and people’s behaviors that are now long gone — especially talking about the way everyone used to communicate.
Back in the day, leaders (official or community) met the needs of the people. I tell stories that I read or heard about, or lived through:
Until the end of the 1960s, the majority of clerical authorities in Najaf used to perform prayers at sunset and dinner time. At the Imam Ali Shrine (Rawdha Haidarya), students and followers awaited imams at their home gates to walk with them and join them in prayers. Other followers would join along the way, walking until they reached the corner where they used to pray inside the shrine.
As they walked with their students and followers, they greeted the people in the street or in the market leading to the shrine, and people approached them seeking personal advice and guidance. This practice went on until the sunset prayers began. It resumed afterwards, and in the time leading up to the dinner prayers — even if it was just a 2-minute talk, it was a big help and made people feel relieved and proud of the Najafi community.
There is a famous story, from the era of Iraq’s monarchy, I continued to tell the driver, about the many times then-Prime Minister Nuri AlSaeed made huge banquets for his guests at his residence. At the end of the feast, most of the food was left untouched. His cook suggested that he give the remaining food to needy families around the neighborhood but Nuri Saeed refused. He was afraid people would accuse him of being spendthrift with feasts. Instead, he decided to distribute the food in remote areas where he felt he would not be criticized by those who knew him.
After listening to me, my friend, the driver, asked me suddenly: “And what do you want to convey, telling such old and expressive stories of the past and remote times? I know that you mean something.”
I said yes, with no doubt, I did mean something.
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Officials of today, whether in the government or parliament and maybe even a majority of them in the independent and opposition bodies, are far from understanding the concerns of the people, their needs and their way of thinking. They lock themselves in rooms where they hear only what they like, reject the political significance of any criticism and of course, say that anyone who criticizes just has a political agenda.
But what is the problem with an agenda? Democratic states bring down their governments or dissolve parliaments, force officials to resign after irregularities or misconduct or failure to meet the demands and needs of the society. The government falls, is replaced with another — with or without elections. The opposition may form the new government, of course with their political agenda, but what is wrong with that, if it works for the welfare of the community?
And is it right to let corruption be endemic in the country and to allow further violations to increase? To allow any development to go slower than a turtle, just for fear of being accused of having a political agenda? I consider it necessary to have one, and essential in any process of democratic development.
My road friend told me: “We face a bloody enemy, as they are Takfirists [Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy] and terrorist groups. They will bring down the country and spare no one from their horrific killing, even their current allies. Such people, I know from seeing the experiences of other countries, don't accept partnership once they have access to power and authority. Are you sure it is time to talk about such things now?”
I said, yes, why not? What happened yesterday will happen today and tomorrow as long as we rely on leaders and advisers who offer only loyalty and listen to presidents or chiefs — any chiefs, even chiefs of the opposition parties, to whom they give only praise and words of compliment.
We have relied on leaders, who do not reflect reality as it is, I said, either telling false lies or reflecting something they don’t know anything about. They move in luxury cars, where people cannot see who’s in it, all they stop for are a few checkpoints, and traffic police who privilege such convoys, but who don’t even get to see through the car’s black window glass. Their residences are in the green zone, areas that even junior staff are seeking to reach. They are far away from all of the problems they talk about.
But the driver only said this all is a plot by known political parties, by which he meant the Kurds.
What about Salahddin city, I asked him, were the Kurds there? And what of Sharqa and the problems in Al Anbar? If so, then what about Iraqi Army officers? Are they accomplices in the plot too? If they are, then who assigned them in the first place to such posts?
Whoever wants to assess or judge any action, should start with himself and the performance of his institution. No matter what, one must not assume to look for the problem outside his home or government. We have learned to justify our mistakes so we don’t have to publicly air our dirty laundry. No one will admit the mistakes they’ve made — they just keep on making them. Airing the dirty laundry would mean admitting to and exposing the wrong and asking for help to clean up the mess. It is a virtue.
Just before arriving to my destination, at the end of the drive, I told my new friend: I had a relative once, he was rich, a director-general of an important company, and he one day told me, “I don't like whoever criticizes me or makes me hear anything to make me angry.”
In the end, he died in his bedroom, home alone.
As most of his friends left and quit on him, as they found out that he will not stand for them, they realized neither his money nor his position were any good for him.
And I do not wish this end for anyone.
This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.