It took fifteen years, a decade and a half, two generations, and millions of lives destroyed, for people in and around Iraq to start talking about “improving conditions on the ground.” The mere utterance of these words, in all different variations, dialects and accents, is desperately sought after music-to-the-ear for those who orchestrated and benefitted from the destruction of everything in the land between the two rivers. Remember, this was a war waged under the premise of rebuilding and democratization.
People today speak, with a desperately buoyant optimism, of a country floated by malls not a medical system, football stadiums not full time employment, by victories on the battle field not by advances in the field of education, and by politicians that speak in sweet sounding twisted tongues, with little to show for their wind filled words.
Locally, staying positive is a nationwide coping mechanism that keeps more than thirty million people hopeful in a world devoid of the most basic of services, a system rife with corruption, water and soil poisoned by environmental terrorism, and communities perpetually on edge, anxiously avoiding the next car bomb or massacre.
Regionally, neighboring countries, in cahoots with the global finance and investment community, continue to shamelessly churn out conferences and seminars about the huge economic potentials of investing in the so-called reconstruction of Iraq. Despite an endless serenade of pledges, barely a sidewalk has been built. Ironically, almost all of the pledging countries, near and far, are the same ones that have conspired against Iraqis through undemocratic coups, dictatorship and laser guided missiles from the Fifties till today.
A driving force behind today’s manufactured optimism is the emergence of a messy national identity, sewn together like a flat tire hastily patched up by a tired pencherchi. It is a brand of Iraqiness that is blared across airwaves, shoved down the throat of millions, many with their mouths wide open, desperate for the emergence of a national discourse. People are tired of navigating a minefield of sectarianism and ethno-cultural divides, a legacy decades in the making.
This new identity, hastily packaged for mass consumption, mostly revolves around the sanctified heroics of the Iraqi army and a litany of militias that were forged in battles against the scourge of ISIS. For almost four years, much of Iraq was under the control of a rabid group of subhuman crusaders, calling themselves the Islamic State. In collusion with local thugs, these criminals set out to rape, pillage and destroy whatever was left of the country. Iraq was held hostage, yet again, by an army of religiously motivated murderers; this time, not dressed in the khaki fatigues of the American Marine Corps, but shrouded in the raggedy attire of a suspiciously well organized group of criminals that wanted to insurrect a so-called Caliphate on the broken backs of Iraqis and their sisters and brothers in Syria.
This triggered the ethnic cleansing of entire communities, the destruction of one of Iraq’s oldest cities, Mosul, and the complete breakdown of trust in the government’s ability to protect the people’s sovereignty. So it is natural for Iraqis to celebrate the end of ISIS. We all did. But like any party, the music stops, the lights come on, and next day’s realities emerge with the rising of the sun. And in the case of Iraq, this reality doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
Almost all of the same fundamental issues that plague day to day life in Iraq still persist – severely anemic public services, massive unemployment, epidemic rates of sectarianism and illiteracy, a complete absence of any local agricultural production and industry, a security situation that is at the mercy of political parties, and the list goes on.
Despite these conditions, Iraqis still persevere, every day, year after year, creating, living, loving, inspiring and fighting on. That sense of survival exists in spite of living conditions in Iraq and not because of them. Optimism is a product of this perseverance and not a reflection of anything concrete.
The specter of elections
In May, the specter of elections will haunt Iraqis once again. Corrupt clowns will masquerade as religious fundamentalists, yielding car bombs, and not ideas, to persuade the electorate. The involvement of regional pariahs will complicate matters even more, shifting the political discourse away from the needs of voters to the destructive desires of racists, sectarians and economic vampires. The vote will be nothing short of a shit show where the same characters will make fools of themselves and anyone who wastes their time at the ballot box.
So long as the governance of Iraq is held hostage by sectarian allocation, no parliamentary official will ever be selected for their merit. Instead, government power will fall in a politician’s lap because of the way they pray or because of which language they speak, and not because of their talent and ambition. The way Iraq’s constitution divvies up government control by sect, religion and ethnicity is antiquated and encourages more incompetency and theft. It will always put sectarianism ahead of a national discourse that truly respects the rights of all Iraqis, especially those that are most marginalized. This is why most Iraqis reject it.
The long road ahead
Fifteen years later, the real battle in Iraq is being waged between this toxic cocktail of government officials (i.e incompetent thieves), armed militias (i.e. religious nut jobs) versus secular, progressive civil society and cultural initiatives and spaces that want to create a society for all Iraqis, and not just the filthy few.
So the next time somebody says “Everything is fine in Iraq,” chuckle, smirk, roll your eyes, light a cigarette, take a shot, do whatever you need to do to exhale a deep breath of “what the fuck are you talking about?” — and then use that as as an educational moment to instigate a conversation about what steps need to be taken to fix the long list of issues that continue to terrorize Iraqis and what role you will play in this reparation process.
Perseverance is the least that we owe ourselves, as Iraqis or not, as communities living inside Iraq or in the Diaspora. It is our only choice and the most effective solution to a situation that is mired with multiple layers of complexity. The road to A Different Iraq is long and doesn’t pass through the shiny floors of a shopping mall. It is a difficult path that will require us to question every conception, misconception, social construct and bias that makes up our very identity.
Only when we embark on this journey, can we begin to claim that, “Everything is fine in Iraq.”