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Assault on Iraqi writers

Assault on Iraqi writers

Fear is hanging over secular Iraqi intellectuals following a militia raid on the Writers Union building in Baghdad, writes Salah Nasrawi

Last week’s attack on the offices of the Iraqi Union of Writers has led to fears that the country is turning into a nation ruled by fundamentalist militias and vigilante groups known for their bigotry and use of violence.

The dramatic rise of the self-styled religious extremist groups has been connected to growing pressure from the government and political groups on the media to show public support for the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces which are battling the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

On 17 June about 50 black-clad gunmen stormed the headquarters of the Writers Union in downtown Baghdad. They beat up staff and guards and destroyed the offices of an organisation that has long taken pride in its secularism and defied rising sectarian extremism and religious fundamentalism.

The rampage shocked the intelligentsia of a nation that has been living in dread of a sectarian war since IS seized large parts of Iraq last summer. The attack by gunmen dressed in military uniforms triggered an outpouring of public anger at home and expressions of solidarity from around the world.

In a statement, the Union said that dozens of armed men attacked its offices and briefly held its guards and staff hostage. The assailants, who used SUVs without licence plates, set up temporary roadblocks to divert traffic in the area during the raid, the statement said.

It said the attackers seized identity cards, money and personal mobile phones from the Union’s employees and security guards and smashed furniture in offices before leaving.

Union President Fadel Thamir described the attack as an attempt to “turn Iraq into an extremist religious state like [Taliban-controlled] Afghanistan.” Thamir, a well-known literary critic, urged the government to “bring the perpetrators to justice and stop violations against writers.”

Said Thamir, “This aggression underscores the dangers to the lives and safety of all those who work in literature and cultural organisations.” The Shia-led government had no immediate reaction to the attack, but Baghdad’s chief of security promised an investigation.

Iraqi President Fouad Masum, a Kurd whose post is ceremonial and has no executive power, said the assault “undermines both the state and the rule of law.” He called on the authorities to provide protection to the Union and other organisations.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack, but from the little information available it seems clear that it was planned by an organised Shia-fundamentalist network, probably targeting a social club and bar on the premises.

The religiosity of society in Iraq has grown since the overthrow of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s secular regime in the US-led invasion in 2003. It is not unusual for hardline groups, sometimes working closely with the security forces, to raid alcohol shops, bars and nightclubs in Baghdad.

They step up their vigilante activities during Ramadan to ensure the Islamic fasting month is not tainted. Ramadan this year started on 18 June, a day before the raid on the Union building, but there were no reports of members or guests having been caught drinking alcohol during the raid.

Union member have been harassed by Shia fundamentalist vigilantes on many occasions before. In 2012, security forces stormed the social club in the building and forced all those who were there to leave under threat of violence.

Volunteer groups claiming to “promote virtue and prevent vice” on the streets have been chastising and, in some cases, physically assaulting and arresting people they consider to be sinful or behaving improperly.

In July, two dozen women and two men in an alleged brothel in Baghdad were murdered by gunmen who stormed the place. Scores of young people whose behaviour is perceived to be unconventional have been murdered in recent years.

There have been no investigations into these and other cases to determine the perpetrators, but many Iraqis believe it is clear who is responsible. They say the killings have been carried out by members of local militia or religious groups.

The attack against the Writers Union, however, raises broader questions about the Shia-led government’s policy toward culture in view of the increasing hostility to secular and moderate intellectuals in Iraq.

Following the fall of Saddam’s dictatorship, Iraqi writers, journalists and artists hoped that the country’s new rulers would make commitments to changes underpinned in the new constitution to build a participatory and inclusive democratic culture.

Unfortunately, the worst fears of the intelligentsia in the Arab part of Iraq have come true: Shia fundamentalist groups who came to power after Saddam’s fall have begun to impose their religious ideology and conservative lifestyle.

In Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, which is under the rule of a heavy-handed political coalition government, free speech and political and intellectual dissent are hardly tolerated.

Today, Iraq lacks a national cultural policy with clear values and priorities able to promote democracy and diversity, sustain the country as a richly creative society and ultimately be the best hope for stability in what is now a dangerously unstable nation.

Post-Saddam Iraq has had no ministers of culture who were interested in their portfolio or took their jobs seriously. All the posts in the Ministry of Culture are now filled with political appointees or cronies with little or no cultural background or activities.

Under a chequebook reward system, thousands of carefully selected writers, journalists and artists receive financial support from the ministry each year.

But no philosophy or goals to affirm the centrality of culture and the arts to Iraq’s national identity and to ensure their role in strengthening national unity have been set. Individual creativity is rarely recognised or encouraged.

Threatened and frustrated, Iraqi intellectuals rarely form groups to oppose the government. Rather, individual intellectuals or groups of intellectuals ally themselves with cliques within the government to lend their support to the policies of the ruling groups.

Many Iraqi writers, artists and intellectuals have left Iraq for lives in exile out of fears of harassment, or because they have been deprived of jobs or opportunities. Those who have stayed and want to make a living in Iraq have had to cooperate with the state’s or ruling groups’ institutions, or resort to self-censorship.

Iraqi journalists have also been the targets of campaigns by the government or the ruling political class to stifle the media or buy their silence. Hundreds of media workers have been killed or murdered in violence since 2003, and independent journalists remain subject to intimidation, harassment and exclusion.

During the last 12 years, bit by bit, the Iraqi media has fallen into full compliance with the structures of power, most notably the government and those of the ruling cliques. The majority of the media outlets in Iraq are now either institutionally embedded with or submissive to the ruling groups. Almost all media owners or bosses are people who have nothing to do with journalism.

Iraqi journalists are subjected to sectarian polarisation in their daily practices. Acrimonious infighting, selective engagement in public causes and a lack of professionalism are common. As a result of cunning operations by both the government and complicit media organisations, Iraq now has a toothless mainstream media that lacks efficiency and influence, and is not trusted by the general public.

The country’s national media organisation, the Iraqi Media Network, has fallen under the total control of the state, as journalists who served in party propaganda machines or loyal bureaucrats with little or no knowledge of journalism and carefully chosen by the prime minister’s office have been appointed to key positions.

The Iraqi Journalists Syndicate is seen to be cozying up to the government and the political elite in return for protection and profits such as financial rewards, pensions and land.

The absence of objective and professional coverage has led to the widespread reporting of government propaganda, something that is sadly familiar to Iraqis from Saddam’s decades in power.

Since IS’s advances last summer, the government has increased its pressure on the media to make journalists follow the official propaganda line on the war against the terror group. Criticism or “negative reporting” are often labelled as treason or even denounced as betrayals of the Islamic creed.

Last week, local media reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has formed a “War Media Cell” to oversee and coordinate news reporting on the fighting with IS.

They said the main duty of the group will be to feed the media with the government’s narrative of the war and circulate news of the “successes” of the security forces and the Popular Mobilisation Force. It will also monitor local and international coverage of the war, the media said.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on June 26, 2015