Ali Issa, Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq. Washington, DC: Tadween Books, 2015.
[Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq is co-published with the War Resisters League.]
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Ali Issa (AI): I wrote this book to remedy the glaring lack of awareness of progressive political work and dreams on the ground in Iraq now. This desire came about after I got the chance to be an interpreter for an Iraqi labor delegation that came to New York City in 2009 and only grew in 2011 when social media coverage of the Iraqi protest movement seemed so disconnected from popular and scholarly perceptions of what Iraq is, including understandings within my own family. Having a father from Baghdad means I have relatives and Iraqi friends scattered all over the world, and a focus on what is hopeful in Iraq amidst mass violence from multiple sides seemed a very necessary thing for the Iraqi diaspora as well as many other communities.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
AI: The book attempts to bring into English a wide cross section of Iraqi political analysis, organizing strategy, and recent history from several social movement sectors. This includes: worker-led organizing, most often through unions and union federations; women-led organization through organizations, safe-houses, and conferences; protest movement organizing against the US occupation and for self-determination; campaigns that focus on Iraq’s fragile environment and challenging threats to it—the list goes on. Important to note here is that very often these groups and issue areas do not see themselves as isolated. Two organizations prominently featured in the book, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq and the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, work very closely together. Underlining this connection, Jannat Alghezzi of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq says in one of the book’s interviews: “the first step for the liberation of women is economic liberation.”
Relatedly, the perspectives in the book address, at times head-on and at times more indirectly, the central lens through which much of the world, including many Iraqi and regional elites, view Iraq: that of sectarianism. That there are many other ways that Iraqis identify, form community, and act culturally and politically is something that progressive Iraqis have been insisting on for many years. That there have been concrete successes rising above the sectarian discourse, such as blocking the “oil law” in 2007, or gaining support for the Save the Tigris campaign across Iraq, shows that despite the great and increasing power of the sectarian line, it is neither inevitable nor invincible. Of course historical events like the emergence of ISIS/IS in Iraq and the rise of hyper-sectarian militias of various ethno-religious stripes—often with direct ties to the central Iraqi government and regional powers—makes the work to challenge this frame all the more difficult.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your work at the War Resisters League?
AI: War Resisters League is a ninety-one-year-old national antimilitarist, anti-war organization based in New York City. The theory of change it operates with is that social transformation comes “from below” and that challenging oppressive forces—“racism, sexism, all forms of exploitation,” as the WRL pledge puts it—must be aimed at war’s root causes.
The voices in Against All Odds, then, share much of that vision—their work often taking on a cross-movement approach and dealing directly with the roots of injustice in Iraqi society. Further, WRL’s commitment to internationalism, taking inspiration from and building deep collaborations with movements around the world and especially in the Global South, jives well with building a consciousness of what visionary Iraqis are doing and saying right now. Finally, WRL’s commitment to opposing all war is important when considering that though US militarism has been central to the predicament Iraqis find themselves in now, there are other forces too which global people of conscience must oppose as well, such as growing regional influences in Iraq in the wake of the US occupation.
This then is also tied to WRL’s central campaign now, “Demilitarize Health and Security,” which attempts to build cross-community power against the phenomenon of police militarization in the United States and government programs that enable it. Militarism is increasingly directed inward against societies all over the world, and linking movements against SWAT raids in Los Angeles to the militarization of security forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, is essential to building a world free of the cultures of fear that push this to happen more and more.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AI: I hope that the book will reach a range of audiences, from those who are interested in supporting Iraqi movements through their present political work, to those who have power in determining Iraq’s global image, people who work in the media and knowledge-production centers.
On the broadest level I hope the book can play a catalyzing role in shifting how people think about power in Iraq, its surrounding region and the world. More specifically, for an audience based in the United States I want to expand what the idea of opposing US policies and supporting the Iraqi people should mean.
While the consciousness that drove millions to oppose the US-led Gulf war, sanctions, and the 2003 invasion is of course essential, it sometimes is so concerned with talking about the destruction the United States or the West has caused, that there isn’t room to talk about what other forces are involved in repressing Iraqis regionally—not always ones that are aligned with the United States or that originate here.
The second question I hope the book raises is: How do you talk about hope in the midst of very real violence, mass trauma, and grave challenges for the Iraqi people?
Clearly it is going take far more than this book to change that perception globally and build a more robust, international solidarity effort, or even information sharing network—for various communities, including the Iraqi diaspora.
My aim is that this project can serve as a spark for something much more long term, and deeper that would actually build relationships with the people that I interview, and the millions that could be inspired by them everywhere.
On a more immediate and practical level, I hope this increases an awareness that will serve to build and strengthen relationships between people and institutions outside of Iraq to the groups working on the ground. On one level they could use support of various kinds—financial, logistical, political. My interviewees repeatedly emphasized that they need people to see them as partners. That people who are striving for justice will work with them and in the process learn key inspirational lessons about the world today.
J: What methodologies did you use to write this book?
AI: I think it’s fair to say that much of my methods here were “journalistic.” I built relationships with existing contacts and they helped me to reach more Iraqis, and in turn build relationships with them over time, which finally led to interviews that I conducted through phone, e-mail, or Skype.
The analysis came from them and their concrete experiments on the ground, as well as my readings in Iraqi history.
J: What struggles and/or challenges did you face in writing this book?
AI: My main challenges were ones of isolation, since I know of only a few people who are actively undertaking work of this kind. That is why I am eternally grateful to those friends, family members, and fellow travelers who supported me and urged me on. I also cannot forget the role Jadaliyya played in encouraging me to get early interviews with Iraqis out there. Jadaliyya helped me build up a network of interest and support that led a book project like this to completion.
Second, were logistical challenges of reaching Iraqis on the ground when things like power-outages and violent upsurges are a regular occurrence. While making no claim to comprehensiveness, reaching Iraqis in Iraq’s embattled Northern and Western regions and broadening the Kurdish voices is a high priority for me as I continue this work.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AI: In work related to Against All Odds, War Resisters League is in the final stages of releasing an accompanying “Study and Organizing Guide” so that community groups and reading circles can access the issues the book takes up, though they might not be very familiar with Iraq or the recent history of the region. We are excited to bring popular education tools so that people can more easily relate Iraqi stories to ones in their daily lives and political work, in the United States and beyond.
Also, much like the book launch event in New York City on 25 June 2015, which featured the Iraqi-Canadian hip-hop artist “Narcy,” I am planning further campus and community events this coming summer and fall.
[A Night Celebrating Iraq: Against All Odds (25 June 2015)]
WRL’s work on police militarization will soon take us back to the Bay Area, where building on a victory last Fall, we will again be challenging Urban Shield. After pressure of a cross-community coalition that WRL anchored nationally moved the massive weapons expo and SWAT training from Oakland to nearby Pleasanton, we are gearing up get it defunded all together. Seeing Urban Shield as one of the engines driving militarization in the United States and globally and therefore a nexus of anti-black racism and Islamophobia, bringing attention to and stopping it, is a key strategic goal to building a movement against war and its root causes.
Excerpts from Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq
From the Introduction
Against All Odds begins with a series of reports from 2011, along with statements from various participants in Iraq’s uprising. The importance of that time and spirit becomes clear with how many interviewees refer back to it as a watershed. In the words of Ismaeel Dawood of the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative: “[In those] ‘Days of Rage,’ Iraq was covered— overtaken—by sit-ins and protests from the north to the south, demanding social justice….” I explore what “social justice” meant to different strands of the groups participating in the 2011 protests, what the protestors were asking for, and how they did so, in addition to the repression meted out against them and the subsequent media silence that attempted to keep them invisible. Following reports on these protests, statements from Iraqis to both Occupy Wall Street and the Syrian uprising highlight the key role that cross-regional and global solidarity plays in the vision of some Iraqi organizers.
In section II, “Interviews,” I go further in-depth by interviewing several leaders from across Iraq’s movements, beginning with Uday al-Zaidi, brother of “the shoe thrower” and prominent figure in Iraq’s 2011 protests. After that, a prominent electricity sector unionist in Basra shares the story of the Federation of Oil Unions’ struggle—and partial victory—over the US government’s privatizing “oil law” in 2007. Next, the president of the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq analyzes the Anbar protests in early 2013, an analysis that turned out to predict much of the events that would impact all of Iraqi society throughout 2014—namely, the repression of the opposition movements and the gains of IS.
Next is an interview with the founder of shakomako.net, a website that aims to serve as an empowering virtual community and media source for Iraqis around the world. Thereafter, an interview with an organizer from the Save the Tigris and Iraqi Marshes Campaign sheds light on Iraq’s environmental crises and activists. The next interview explores OWFI, one of the very few organizations directly opposing US intervention while actively working with refugees running from the horrors of IS violence.
Finally, this section ends with an interview with a visionary labor organizer working in Iraqi Kurdistan, analyzing economic conditions in the north, as well as the regional Iraqi Kurdish government’s cynical use of the spread of IS to silence and marginalize its opposition.
The founder of the Solidarity and Brotherhood Yazidi Organization, Hussam Abdullah, himself a refugee who also escaped IS attacks, told me in an interview that the present IS campaign to destroy so much of Iraq’s historical diversity and ethnically cleanse Yazidis from Iraq is “trying to crush hope.” This crisis of hope is further elaborated in what the Baghdad-based artist Ali Eyal—who was affiliated with Sada, a project that supported emerging visual artists in Iraq—recently told me:
“You could also ask what is art’s take on the destruction that is happening? What is its perspective? What does art say about what Iraq is going through? What will it look like? What will be its form?...If only you knew how much hope Iraqis have. For example, yesterday Kadhimiya [a neighborhood in Baghdad] was bombed. The next day we were out there making art. [In Iraq] we are strange. On the same street where there is an attack, people are walking the next day as if nothing happened….Iraqis remain ordinary Iraqis like you and me. Their sole preoccupation is to survive, to persevere.”
The nature of Iraq’s perseverance and how it relates to the visions described in Against All Odds is something worthy of far more attention. It holds stories of remarkable cruelty, courage, and tenacity. It also holds out the possibility of popular struggle leading to a just Iraq to come.
[Excerpted from Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, by Ali Issa, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2015 Tadween Publishing. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]