The Iraqi Freedom Congress and the Civil Resistance
by Bill Weinberg
Houzan Mahmoud is a co-founder of the Iraqi Freedom Congress (IFC), a new initiative to build a democratic, secular and progressive alternative to both the US occupation and political Islam in Iraq. Mahmoud, who fled Iraq in 1996 and is currently studying at the University of London, is also a co-founder of the Iraqi Women’s Rights Coalition and editor-in-chief of Equal Rights Now, paper of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). A key representative abroad of the Iraqi civil resistance, she spoke in New York City on March 21 at a talk sponsored by the New School for Pluralistic Anti-Capitalist Education (The New SPACE). Later that night, she spoke with WW4 REPORT editor Bill Weinberg on WBAI Radio.
BW: Welcome aboard, Houzan Mahmoud, of the Iraqi Freedom Congress and the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. You were just speaking on the Lower East Side this evening and the night before at Queens College, to raise awareness in this country about the existence of a civil, secular resistance movement in Iraq—which shamefully, many people know nothing about, even people who are supposedly progressives and committed to the anti-war movement.
HM: Yeah, that’s very true, unfortunately. So thank you very much for this opportunity, for me to be able to address the listeners about the resistance and the work we are doing to end the occupation.
BW: There’s recently been an increasing, almost apocalyptic sense of the situation in Iraq, and there’s more and more talk in this country that it’s going to over the edge into civil war. Some of us have been arguing that it’s already a civil war. It sort of depends on what your litmus test is for a civil war. Apparently the popular litmus test for the media is an actual fracturing of the coalition government which the US occupation has managed to assemble there. But if you apply another litmus test, of the actual level of violence in society, I think you could argue that there’s already a civil war in Iraq.
HM: Yes, I agree with you. We have warned of this consequence from the very beginning, of this division that the US government has subjected the Iraqi people to, dividing them along lines of ethnic background, religious sects… What else could happen in Iraq that is worse than this situation right now? You can see all these armed militias that are killing innocent civilians, just for being labeled Sunnis or Shiites, which is really, really dangerous. Although the society as a whole is being dragged into this, I think ordinary people do not want to be part of a sectarian war. The armed militias are using the occupation as a golden opportunity to further their attacks on civilians and impose their poisonous politics on Iraqi society.
BW: You are originally from Sulaymaniyah, in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq.
HM: Yes, I am
BW: Most recently, you’ve been living in London, England.
HM: I’m a student at the University of London, and I’m a full-time activist—24 hours, I can say, almost! Trying to support the women’s movement in Iraq, the workers’ movement, and recently we formed the Iraqi Freedom Congress, our alternative against occupation and against this ethnic division of Iraq…
BW: The Iraqi Freedom Congress was founded just about a year ago, right?
HM: Yes, almost a year ago. Basically I think that’s an outcome of the struggles of women—namely Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, or OWFI. It is very widely known internationally throughout Iraq and the Middle East for its courageous work to stand up for women’s rights, for freedom, for equality, for secularism. Also the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq, which is a strong labor organization, independent from the state, and which also advocates against occupation. It is for the rights of workers to organize, to mobilize, and to have a say and a role in shaping politics in Iraq. And there have been all these movements going on.
And we who are involved in these movements decided to form an organization that is more political and can attract many more people to its ranks. And we have student union that is also part of this, and other individuals and political parties that are part of Iraq Freedom Congress. And we have our own platform—we want an end to the occupation, we want an end to this ethnic and sectarian division of Iraq, and we want people to identify themselves on the basis of their humane identity, not this kind of degrading classifications such as being Sunni or Shiite or Kurd or Arab or you name it.
So therefore, I think Iraq Freedom Congress is a hope at this moment, and we are trying to mobilize people for this movement worldwide, as well as inside Iraq to create a civil movement, with a very clear vision for an egalitarian secular system inside Iraq to be established. Ending occupation is a very important aim. But—what’s after that? What alternative? What is going on at the moment in the name of so-called resistance—it has nothing to do with people’s desire for a better life, for peace, or any sense of democracy or freedom; they just want to Talibanize Iraq. We have a social program. We want people to have a better life. And that’s what the story of IFC is about, basically.
BW: Unfortunately, the popular portrayal in the media in this country—and alas, I do not exclude the left media, or the alternative media—is that there is on the one hand the occupation and the collaborationist forces, and on the other the insurgents. And there is very little awareness that there is any other force in Iraq—and sometimes hostility to the notion that it exists. So the first question is going to be how much influence and support does the IFC actually have on the ground in Iraq?
HM: I think we have to take into consideration this chaotic situation in Iraq. We are organizing under occupation, we are organizing under the heavy presence of various Islamist armed militias who are highly brutal, who are killing and beheading and kidnapping people. So we are mobilizing amongst all this chaos and danger, standing up for secularism, standing up for women’s rights, for workers’ rights. There is a great potential in Iraqi society for these ideals. These are not new to our society. All of my comrades inside Iraq are risking their lives every moment to stand up for these principles, and for actually freeing Iraqi people from what we term the dark scenario that we’ve been subjected to. We do have grassroots support, we do have existence among the workers, among the women, and in the student movement particularly as well, after standing up against Moqtada al-Sadr in the city of Basra. Thousands of university students in Basra, took to the streets to demonstrated against Moqtada al-Sadr…
BW: This was when?
HM: This was March last year. So that led into the creation of a student union, which is progressive, which is in the same line with us…
BW: And what exactly were these strikes and protests in response to?
HM: One day there was an outing by the students, of the kind which usually takes place—you go to a picnic in a park, girls and boys, make some talk, listen to music, dance even. But nowadays they can’t dance of course—so they were just in the park, talking and listening to music, and suddenly the militias of Moqtada al-Sadr attacked the whole gathering and they killed one student and they just humiliated all the female students. So that created a lot of anger among the students, and they just decided to strike for a few days on the campuses, and then they took to the streets to demonstrate against Moqtada’s group. And Moqtada was actually forced to apologize to the students, officially.
HM: Yeah. So therefore they have now a student union which is strong, which is mobilizing students, and it’s very progressive. And now they are part of Iraq Freedom Congress as well, because they find a platform suits them.
BW: So this mobilization against the Sadr militia was the founding struggle of a new student movement.
HM: Exactly. It’s called Student Struggle Union. So, yeah, we have grassroots support, but that’s not enough to be able to combat such difficult situations. We need to build up on it a strong civil movement inside Iraq as well as world wide—the Iraq Freedom Congress is open for membership from across the world; whoever agrees with the platform of the Iraq Freedom Congress, they can join, they can promote its activities. And I think it’s important and it’s needed. We need a very progressive civil movement world-wide against war—against the occupation of Iraq, and for promoting progressive alternatives throughout Middle East, not only in Iraq. At the moment, many of those who are in the lead of the anti-war movement are really reactionary, backward, and they’re even using anti-war demos to propagate for things that have nothing to do with Iraq in my opinion.
BW: What do you mean?
HM: For example, in UK, where I live, left groups and Islamist organizations in the Stop the War Coalition ue all their efforts to get someone elected to Parliament, like George Galloway. And what the hell—this hasn’t to do anything with Iraq.
BW: Well, I suppose they would argue that by getting their people in Parliament, they can get the UK out of Iraq.
HM: Well that’s not how things work; you have to build up a movement for that. Through one MP or two MPs…
BW: Right, but I suppose they would argue that it’s not mutually exclusive—that you can build a movement and at the same time try to get your people in Parliament…
HM: Well, I don’t agree with that notion, because even having people in Parliament, if they are hypocritical, and if they are not really for the cause itself, how can they be any influence at all? And let’s not forget who Galloway is and what he stood for in the past—saluting Saddam. For what? For killing people, for starting wars? They make heroes of such people, giving them platform. Whereas they are completely blind to the women’s movement in Iraq, to the workers’ movement in Iraq. They mention no word about these movements, they give no support to these movements, while in their official statements, they say, “unconditional solidarity with the resistance in Iraq” Who is this resistance? They mean Moqtada, they mean Zarqawi, al-Qaeda—who are terrorist networks, who are beheading people and on a daily basis creating more terror in our society. So I think really this is something that they have to be ashamed of. I think we need to build up a very progressive anti-war movement, a very progressive initiative world-wide, in support of the progressive movement inside Iraq.
SELF-DEFENSE NETWORKS, “HUMAN IDENTITY”
BW: Before we return to the international situation, why don’t you tell us more about the actual work of the IFC and its member organizations on the ground in Iraq, and some of the victories they’ve achieved.
HM: Well, at the moment lack of security is a very, very major problem in Iraq. Imagine, you go out for two seconds, and you are not sure if you can get back to your door safely. If there is no basic security, how can people mobilize effectively, how can they bring about some sense of civil society? Therefore, one of the things that IFC is trying to work on is to respond to that particular demand and need for the people of Iraq—to bring about security, by people themselves. By creating a safety force in each neighborhood and district, for people from the neighborhood themselves to create committees of security, and to not allow militias and the occupying forces to enter their neighborhood and to turn it into a battlefield. Because this is happening. Armed militias can just go attack some people in the neighborhood, kill them or behead them, just because they’re, as I said, Sunnis or whatever. We shouldn’t allow this to happen, people should feel safe in their own neighborhoods, and that’s the most important and crucial thing for people in Iraq—to believe in themselves, that they are powerful and that they can do things, they can provide security for themselves. What we say at the moment, our slogan, is “Our safety is in our own hands.” The USA cannot provide us security, armed militias cannot provide us security. Because they come to the neighborhood, if you are not 100% like them, they will kill you.
BW: How are you organizing these public safety networks? How are you actually countering these heavily armed militias?
HM: There are people in the neighborhoods who are trusted, the key people in the area—they hold gatherings, they talk to the people on how to create these committees, to watch out what’s going on in the neighborhood, and protect the people from anybody who wants to harm them…
BW: Are they armed themselves?
HM: They are armed. At the moment, in Iraq, every family, every household, has a gun. People have guns at home, to be able to defend themselves if someone is attacking them in the middle of the night. But we trying to make this more collective—to expand that protection to the whole neighborhood by preventing groups of armed militias entering.
And if they see that, if they see that everyone is united and are protecting the areas, they will not be able to attack one individual because they are weaker… And in two or three areas now we have started this initiative and it has been successful. And there’s a lot of desire for the same model from other areas of Baghdad. But we need a lot of support, we need a lot of resources.
BW: Primarily, this model is in place in a particular neighborhood in Kirkuk, I understand.
HM: Yes, it’s called Solidarity. It’s a very ethnically diverse neighborhood—Kurds, Turcomans, Arabs, Christians. All these groups lived in Kirkuk for many years and the political groups want to create hatred between these people. And we are fighitng this. We have a campaign called “The identity of Kirkuk is a human identity, not an ethnic identity.” And people live in Solidarity with peace, there’s no problem, no attacks, nothing—because they are just looking after themselves collectively. So I think that works, and I think it’s very important just to spread this principle, this idea that we’re all humans, there’s no need to attack each other, or to listen to these politicized religious groups trying to bring about this ethnic or sectarian division.
BW: Kirkuk is actually very strategic. We hear a lot more about Samara now, and last year it was Fallujah, in the center of Iraq, which is where the real violence has been recently. But the situation in Kirkuk is extremely tense, and there’s a real danger of a social explosion there.
HM: Yeah, when you look at Kirkuk, it has always been diverse, as I said. There was a diversity. But Saddam’s regime was a fascist regime. They started ethnic cleansing of Kurds; they have expelled a lot of Kurdish people from Kirkuk and replaced them with Arab families. After the occupation happened, the Kurdish nationalist parties wanted to do the same thing..
BW: Remove the Arabs and bring the Kurds back in…
HM: Exactly. The same model. You know, people have no hand in this. It’s always the political people who are in power, they try to put the seed of hatred among the people. But in reality, Kirkuk has been stable for awhile, just because of our campaigning and ongoing intervention …
BW: So this neighborhood in Kirkuk, you call it Solidarity. The name in Arabic is..?
BW: Which means Solidarity. So you have these armed patrols to keep the ethnic and the sectarian militias out, but your strategy of resistance is one of civil resistance, rather than armed insurgency…
HM: Yes, because when you look at Iraq, now you have all these armed militias attacking everywhere—suicide bombers, terrorist attacks on civilian targets. That won’t take us anywhere, it will just drag the society into much more chaos. I am not against armed resistance in principle. I am against this kind of so-called resistance that is going on in Iraq. What I believe is that you can organize people, you can mobilize people in a mass movement. But just turning people into killing machine—is that all what so-called armed resistance is about? Or is it about bringing about a better future for people as well as fighting in this battle? I think it’s important to return the civil life to Iraqi society, because all the civil infrastructure has been destroyed, the state is not functioning anywhere—it’s dysfunctional, because it’s a puppet regime. People are shattered. People just want to see freedom, they want to see peace, and they want to live in a stable society, they don’t want chaos and terrorism. And that’s why we are different, we call ourselves a civil movement that believes in organizing people and mobilizing them—although using arms to protect people, for self-defense. Because at the moment, if you don’t have arms, even as an individual, you are at risk. So that is what the philosophy is behind this issue.
FEDERALISM VS. SELF-DETERMINATION
BW: Alright, so what is your program for what a free Iraq would look like, and what is your strategy on how to get there?
HM: Well, it’s a difficult one. It’s not an easy task. It’s a very, very difficult and dangerous battle in my opinion. Our alternative is for returning the power of people to have a say and choice and direct intervention into setting up any kind of society. We believe in, secularism, equality between men and women, abolishment of capital punishment, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of protest and strikes, labor rights, worker’s rights. In our program, if the Kurdish people want independence, they should be able to. They have the right to determine this by themselves, not to have this dictated upon them by political parties.
BW: And yet, you oppose the Kurdish nationalist parties.
HM:: Yes, because the Kurdish nationalist parties are using the issue of Kurdistan. I’m from there, and I know that the majority of Kurdish people want independence, they don’t want to be part of Iraq anymore—because they have suffered so much ethnic cleansing and oppression, and it’s always a threat. Now, the Shiites in power just say Iraq is a Muslim country, Iraq is an Arab country—so when you say that, of course, Kurdish people will feel threatened, because that’s exactly the same statement that Saddam was making: Iraq is an Arab country. So all the others are second-class citizens. People don’t want to go back to that, because in 1991, when the uprising took place, a lot of people were killed. It was a big uprising, with so many people sacrificing their lives just to be freed from Saddam.
BW: And this is a cycle that had just repeated itself for the past 20 years before that in Iraq. There was the campaign against the Kurds in 1988 and then in the 1970’s as well.
HM: So, yeah, that is one of the IFC’s programs as well. If we manage to get into power, the Kurdish question needs to be solved.
BW: But do you see the potential for some kind of solution short of separatism for Kurdistan? You say, in fact, that you oppose a federalist solution for Iraq and that you prefer to see it as a unitary state.
HM: Federalism is a reactionary solution. Because that means that [local authorities] in their own areas can do whatever they want. If the Sunnis have their own area, the Shiites to have their own space, and Kurds in the North, they can just carry on with oppression of women, or killing workers, and killing socialists and activists, and just carry on with Islamic Sharia law and say, well, this is my culture and this is my area. I’m not for that, I’m against it. In my opinion, the best solution is to have a secular, egalitarian state system, whereby people—everybody, every person in Iraq—are considered equal citizens regardless of whatever their origins are. Then people will not feel so much degraded. You are not divided or classified as a second-class citizen because you are Sunni, or because you are Shiite you have more power. This is the problem, this is what creates inequality and problems.
BW: OK, so you do see the potential for a solution for Kurdistan short of secession.
HM: Well, with this current setting, in this puppet regime, there’s no solution at all, and people are always threatened. There’s a lot of protests in the North, in Kurdistan, and people are really angry…
BW: Big protests in Halabja recently, against the Kurdish nationalist party which is in power there [The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani]…
HM: Exactly. They are very unhappy with the way they are dealing with the issues of Kurdistan and using the oppression of Kurds just to stay in power. So I don’t see any solutions with them. They have never represented the desires of Kurdish people anyway.
BW: But it the IFC achieves its aim of a secular state, you believe in the possibility that the state could include areas in the North?
HM: Yeah, but there should not be any force to keep them in Iraq. They just have to go ahead with it, and have a free referendum for the independence of Kurdistan. And that’s what I think is the best solution, basically.
SHARIA AND THE NEW CONSTITUTION
BW: Let’s talk a bit more about some of the member organizations in the IFC and what they’ve achieved. The Organization of Women’s Freedom—OWFI—is the group you’re most closely associated with of the IFC member organizations. They led a campaign which was successful against the measure in the interim constitution which would have imposed Sharia law. But now there are similar measures in the new permanent constitution which was approved by a popular referendum in December.
HM: Yes, This so-called constitution is very reactionary. It’s totally based on Islam. It even says that the judges should have high command of Islamic Sharia law. This was never a requirement before. And even before writing up the constitution, they were practicing Islamic Sharia law—in Najaf and Karbala and Mosul and some parts of Basra…
BW: The local authorities were imposing it…
HM: Yeah, the Shiites in power are just imposing it, conducting everything on the basis of Sharia law. It is the forced Islamization of Iraq. And they just are trying to institutionalize women’s oppression, and all kinds of discrimination against women. And that’s what we are really up against.
BW: What does the new constitution actually say in regard to Sharia?
HM: Well, I’m sure people are very well aware if they know the history of OWFI, that two years ago, when they tried to pass Resolution 137 to implement Islamic Sharia law, we led a world-wide campaign against that, and so it was defeated.
BW: Right, that was in the interim constitution.
HM: Exactly. But in this new constitution they are not so openly calling for full Sharia law. They say the constitution and the laws of Iraq are based on Islam; Islam is the official religion of the country. When you say the country is based on Islam, that means Islamic Sharia law to us. So we kept going on and we keep opposing that constitution. We boycotted the referendum for the so-called constitution, because we thought this is just a piece of paper to legalize women’s oppression, nothing else.
BW: So the constitution which is in place now sort of dodges the question, or it’s a little bit vague on that point.
HM: It’s vague on many points, actually; it’s contradictory in many parts. And in reality, when you start reading the constitution, it looks like you are reading the Koran. It’s written in a very religious way.
BW: How so?
HM: It starts with the name of Allah. A constitution is about law, not about religion. So why do they have to bring in these things about Islam? It’s funny, and strange at the same time. And sad, of course.
BW: So even though the constitution is sort of ambiguous on this, you still see the potential for imposition of Sharia law in the courts at the local level.
HM: Yes, and as I said, in so many parts of Iraq it’s already happening.
BW: Just recently, on March 8, International Women’s Day, OWFI had a gathering in Baghdad, in spite of the extremely dangerous atmosphere there.
HM: Yes, it was held at our headquarters, in Baghdad. Almost 100 women took part; we had a press conference and an exhibition of art painted by women themselves, who have been imprisoned, who have been tortured, who have seen the torture of children, rape of women…
BW: By whom? By the local militias?
HM: By the local Iraqi police, as well as by the American soldiers. So it was a very important gathering, because recently, as you know, there has been a lot of sectarian religious warfare, and there have been curfews in Baghdad, a really, really chaotic situation. But the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq is determined to make women’s voices heard all over. So they had a successful event to celebrate International Women’s Day.
WORKERS LIBERATE POWER PLANT FROM OCCUPATION
BW: Another inspiring example that you mentioned earlier tonight is how in areas where there is insufficient electricity, the workers have in some cases actually taken over the generation plants, and got them going and supplied power.
HM: Yeah, that’s true. There was a power station that was actually being used by the occupying soldiers, at al-Musayib just outside Baghdad. And the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions led a protest of the workers in that power station—hundreds of workers, among them women. And they were treated very badly, they were assaulted by the soldiers because they were protesting. So it took a long time—they were on strike and in protest for several days. We had a campaign for them internationally to make the issue known, and Falah Halwan, the president of the Federation of Workers Councils, had a very important role in leading this. And the workers in that power station, found that they can deliver electricity to the people, 24 hours a day. It was just because the occupying soldiers were there, they were not allowing them to go and do their work, and as a result, people had just five hours a day of electricity. So you can see the occupying soldiers are turning the factories and working places and the schools into a military zone.
BW: What were the US troops doing there? Were they supposedly providing security for the plant?
HM: Not at all. They were just there…
BW: Just using it as a barracks, so to speak?
BW: And they finally did leave?
HM: Yeah, because the strike continued and there was a lot of pressure, and even the man who was in charge of the police forces in al-Musayib town was very grateful, because he could never ask the US to leave that power plant. It was our federation who actually brought this about.
BW: And when did they finally leave?
HM: Just a few months ago the whole thing happened. I think the soldiers left around September, October…
CALL FOR INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY
BW: I should ask you some Devil’s advocate questions now—because these are the questions which a lot of activists here in the United States are concerned with, in terms of the notion of supporting a civil resistance movement in Iraq. And one is the fear that after the US pulls out, it’ll just be like a house of cards and society will collapse into ethnic and sectarian warfare. A lot of people are afraid to take a position of immediate withdrawal of US troops. They’re afraid that will plunge Iraq into the abyss. So, I’d like to hear your response to that.
HM: I think it’s already there. Iraqi society is already being smashed up—by the occupation itself, by the chaos that has been created, by the lack of security and stability for the Iraqi people, by imposing a puppet regime on the Iraqi people which is heavily divided on the basis of sectarian lines. And you know, so many of them are criminals, they have to be brought to justice, but instead they are actually being imposed on us. And you have all these armed militias on the ground, they have just brought a civil war, a sectarian civil war, a religious war. We have seen the occupying forces there for the last three years. Every day we see the situation is getting worse; I think we haven’t seen any week or any day in a month that there haven’t been hundreds of people killed—suicide bombings, terrorist attacks—and they are using occupation as a pretext to justify those criminal acts. Having the occupation there is not solving any of this, actually. It’s just deepening the problems, just deepening the division among people. So therefore, I think the withdrawal of troops, actually, is going to ease a lot of problems. The majority of Iraqi people want to see every troop to leave Iraq. And you know, these armed militia—what other excuse will be there to terrorize people or to kill them or to kidnap them? What other excuses will they have? It’s occupation. So therefore I think it’s wrong, that notion that pulling out will create more problems. I think it will not. It won’t be as worse than this, in my opinion.
BW: So you think a US withdrawal will actually open more space for the existence of some kind of secular civil alternative?
HM: I think it will then be us and them.
BW: And who are the “them” that you mean?
HM: Armed militias and Islamists, terrorist networks, who basically have no other excuses to be there, apart from using the occupation as a justification for their criminal acts, as I said.
BW: Well, again playing Devil’s advocate—You say it would just be you and them. Is that necessarily a good thing? No mediating force?
HM: The US and the occupying powers, in my opinion, are protecting terrorist networks, rather than secular, progressive movements inside Iraq. The occupying forces were the first to prevent Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq from having a demonstration against the rape and abduction. We were told that we are not allowed to have a demonstration without their permission. The first Union of the Unemployed in Iraq sit-in strikes in Baghdad, in the very beginning of the occupation—its leaders were arrested by the US occupying powers. So they don’t want to see any progressive, militant, secular, egalitarian movement inside Iraq which have a vision for a better future, for an alternative, for a government that is not a puppet of the US They just want to put puppets there, they don’t care what’s happening to the society… what they care is just their own interest. We are not protecting their interest, we are protecting the interest of the Iraqi people; that’s why they don’t want us to grow and they won’t be any support to us at all.
BW: The second argument which I frequently get, is that we have to support the insurgents, because the insurgents are the actually existing resistance to US imperialism. That supporting a civil or secular movement is a distraction, and that we have no right to tell the Iraqi people what form their resistance will take.
HM: I myself have been told so many times abroad in various meetings and seminars, “Why you are not allying with the so-called resistance, and fighting together against occupation?” I think this question is either very naive, or it’s actually stupid, just to think about that. They are Islamists who are killing women and beheading them for not wearing the veil. How can I, in any sense, as the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, go into alliance with the enemy of women in Iraq? Or, those Islamists who have no eye to see a secular person, who consider anyone who is secular as infidels who therefore they have to be killed? How can I form any alliances with these kind of people? And plus, what is their social program? You need to have a social program to agree on—is just fighting occupation everything? I have to sacrifice women’s rights, I have to sacrifice workers’ rights, secularism, I have to sacrifice my rights as a human being to fight the occupation? I don’t. I think it’s a historical mistake and it’s suicidal for my movement inside Iraq to go that route, just to please some marginalized leftists in the US or Europe, for their fantasizing or romanticizing the issue of resistance against imperialism.
These Islamists have no sense of anti-imperialist vision. They have no sense of working class struggle or any kind of anything like that. They are people who have primitive notions of running societies, you know? The Talibanization of Iraq, that’s what they want—I don’t want to be part of that destructive agenda. The best thing in Iraq that has ever happened are these movements that we are leading. I think if we are progressive people, if we are from an egalitarian point of view, we have to promote something that is for women’s rights, for workers’ rights, that promotes secularism—and we shouldn’t support bigots, we shouldn’t support reactionary movements who are oppressive in any way.
BW: Well you say that the leftists who are taking this line are marginalized, but unfortunately, they’re not all that marginalized. I mean, they’re in positions of leadership in some of the major anti-war organizations in this country.
HM: But in reality again they are marginalized in daily politics, in the struggles that are going on in society. Where are they when the workers are going on strike? Are they doing anything? Do they have any women’s movement? A lot of violence is going on in this country against women as well, it is not only intrinsic to the Middle East. There are a lot of working class struggles here too, that they have nothing to do with. These leftist organizations have turned so far right that they ally with Islamists, under the umbrella of multiculturalism, cultural relativism. They actually betray their own principles…
BW: I would take issue with the notion that multiculturalism and cultural relativism are synonymous. I support multiculturalism in one form or another, but I would not support cultural relativism in the sense in which you’re using it. Those are distinct things.
HM: I agree with you. But for example, let’s take the case of London. London is a multicultural city, people are living here with different cultures. But I don’t want to see backward cultures. I don’t want to see oppressive cultures. It has to be challenged. That is my difference on this issue. It’s racism to say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter—honor killings, for example, is part of the culture for Middle Eastern people.” It’s not a culture, this is a political, criminal act. Beating up your wife in public—this is your culture? No, anybody has to stand up against this. So I look at it as racism. And for people who call themselves socialist—they shouldn’t be like this. They should stand up for freedom, for human rights, for everybody.
BW: Another concern which has been raised is that your call for international solidarity could paradoxically hurt you in Iraq, that you could thereby be portrayed as not truly indigenous, as the pawns of outside forces.
HM: No, that’s not the case. Why don’t they say that about the government being installed by US and UK? Why don’t they say that about Zarqawi, bin Laden, Moqtada al-Sadr? They have all this support from people in Europe…
BW: I would imagine al-Sadr would have more support from Iran, and Zarqawi from Saudi Arabia…
HM: But still…these are not from Iraq. Why not see them as that? And plus—if there are any movements in any part of the world, there is international solidarity coming in from different people across the world. This has been part of the history of our universalist movements. They say unconditional support for the so-called resistance? Why are they not saying the same to the progressive movements in the Middle East, why not unconditional support for us?
BW: Well, it’s different people who have raised this criticism. People who are not supportive of the insurgents in Iraq have also expressed to me concerns that international solidarity could paradoxically harm your cause.
HM: I think it’s just an excuse not to give support, that’s what I believe. It comes from prejudice against progressive movements in the Middle East. Because they just have this media portrayal of the Middle East and Iraq as ignorant, uneducated people who have no sense of struggle, people who have no history of a women’s movement, no history of working-class struggle. And that’s very untrue. In Iraq, there has been a very strong workers’ movement, there has been a women’s movement. It has been repressed, but then it comes back into force, you know, that’s how it works. And I think it has to be viewed in this way—that there are progressive movements, socialist movements, throughout the Middle East. People have to open up their eyes and accept the concept that yes, the Middle East is like any other part of the world, there are different movements…
Like in US, you have fundamentalist Christians who are blowing up abortion clinics; that’s not everybody in the USA who is doing that. And you know, in the Middle East is the same. I think supporting the so-called resistance is like supporting Christian fundamentalists because they are blowing up abortion clinics… I think people have to stand up to these reactionary ideas and to start thinking about bringing about a progressive movement, and reviving the sense of internationalism and unconditional solidarity for the progressive socialist movements throughout the world…
BW: Meanwhile, you are calling for international support for the Iraqi Freedom Congress. And you’re calling for people to join it, it’s actually an international organization….
HM: Definitely. Yes.
BW: So, what kind of concrete support are you looking for, and how can people join? What does that entail?
HM: Well, whoever is going to read our literature on our website will see how our organization functions, what its platform is, and how to become a member. They can have rights and participation in everything that’s going on in the IFC. It’s a transparent organization. And they can create branches, they can fundraise for our activities. Because one of the major problems that we are facing is lack of resources, to be able to expand our work throughout Iraq—and to have a media, to have a satellite television station, to be in every house, to mobilize people…
BW: That’s a very ambitious idea.
HM: And all these reactionary forces, they each have their own TV channels and they are trying to engineer the minds of people in this way. So as a progressive organization we need to have our own independent voice.
BW: So the Iranian state satellite network is supporting the Shiite forces in Iraq, and I suppose al-Jazeera is supporting the Sunnis…
HM: Exactly. All of them have their own strong media, and even the Western media is behind them in so many cases. But we need to have our own independent media whereby we can mobilize people. So we want people to support us politically, morally, and financially.
BW: Any other closing words, here just mere days after the third anniversary of the initiation of hostilities against Iraq? Any words on where the political situation in Iraq stands, and what are the prospects for bringing about some kind of civil alternative, some kind of secular democratic anti-imperialist alternative?
HM: I think these three years have been one of the most difficult times in our contemporary history. And this doesn’t only affect Iraqi people—the issue of the Iraq occupation is an international issue. It is very important for us to avert this dark scenario from going on, and to bring about our own alternative. Because that will have a very important impact on the Middle East and in the world as well. America, by attacking Iraq and invading it, and now occupying it for the last three years, wants to implement its own project and to impose its supremacy all over the world. Its models in Iraq, if they are successful, will have a very negative impact on the world. And I think the defeat of the occupation, the defeat of America in Iraq, by the progressive secularists, socialists, leftists in Iraq, is very, very, very important, to everybody in the world. I think if the political Islamists, these reactionary forces, defeat the occupation in Iraq it will be a major setback for progressive forces in Iraq and the Middle East. It will be another disaster for at least the next few decades to come. And I hope we don’t see this. We are determined in our movement to bring about our own alternative and to free the Iraqi people from this disastrous situation. I think this is important for people in the world, especially in the US, where the government is engaged in so much destruction in Iraq, and where the soldiers have no idea why they are there—soldiers who have been recruited because of poverty, the sons and daughters of the working class people in this country. Killing them will not solve any problem for me in Iraq. But the best thing is, to mount the pressure, to mobilize this international world-wide movement to end the occupation. And it’s important for people in the US to have a direct intervention in ending that. That’s what I want.
Transcription by Melissa Jameson
Iraqi Freedom Congress
Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq
Houzan Mahmoud’s blog
“From Baghdad to Tokyo: Japanese Anti-War Movement Hosts Iraqi Civil Resistance,” WW4 REPORT, February 2006
“The Civil Opposition in Iraq: An Interview with Yanar Mohammed of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq,” WW4 REPORT, Aug. 9, 2004
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, April 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution