As 2012 came to a close, massive nonviolent demonstrations took place in Iraq, with thousands of Sunni demonstrators in Anbar province marching in protest of the allegedly sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Al Jazeera English (AJE) has carried live reports this past week showing tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly self-declared Sunnis, as they demonstrated along a main highway leading to Syria and Jordan. Local councils called for civil disobedience because, they said, Sunnis are being sidelined in Iraqi politics, and pronouncements asserted that sit-ins would not end until protesters’ demands were met. AJE’s reporter commented that the challengers had a stated commitment to nonviolent action, and that local clergy had joined in the call to such action.
Marchers in Iraq repeated a slogan heard elsewhere in the Arab Awakening — “The people want the downfall of the regime” — calling to mind the period two years ago when AJE acquired increased international legitimacy for its reportage as the Arab world stirred with popular defiance, notwithstanding the network’s limited reach in the United States. With correspondents throughout the Middle East, including Israel, AJE has become the primary source for coverage of the region. The recent protests in Iraq are yet another example of what political analysts now speak of as the “Al Jazeera effect” — the network’s ability to influence global affairs by circumventing the official, governmentally-controlled news organs in the region.
Demonstrations occurring along the western highway near the city of Fallujah on December 28 were named the “Friday of Honor,” and similar scenes were broadcast from the city of Ramadi. In the northern city of Mosul, approximately 3,000 demonstrators marched, denouncing what they called the sidelining of Sunnis in Iraq and demanding the release of Sunni prisoners. In several parts of the country, sustained rallies accused the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of discriminating against Sunnis and targeting them for arrests. Thousands assembled in the northern Sunni towns of Tikrit and Samarra, where reports quoted the Salahuddin provincial spokesman, Mohammed al-Asi, to the effect that legislators and provincial officials had joined their ranks. There, too, Sunni marchers claimed marginalization by the Shia-dominated government.
From Ramadi as 2012 ended, Omar el Saleh reported for AJE that the multi-city campaign had been sparked by the arrest 10 days ago of nine bodyguards of the finance minister, Rafie al-Issawi, in Baghdad. “They’re not only protesting against the arrest of the bodyguards,” Saleh explained. “They’re also now protesting against the imprisonment of Sunnis. They say the Sunnis have been targeted by the Shia-led government. So they’re demanding the release of female prisoners; they’re demanding the release of male prisoners and also they want an end to what they say is marginalization and discrimination against Sunnis.”
Prime Minister Maliki has denied all of the protesters’ allegations. Just as many other politicians have in the face of the Arab Awakening, he charges that the protests have a hidden agenda, that foreign countries are involved. He also condemns any demands to end the regime.
Maliki, however, might be wise to take the protests seriously. Thousands of Iraqi Sunnis who feel wronged appear to be turning to nonviolent resistance, fighting with nonviolent methods rather than the IEDs and suicide bombings that have prevailed in the recent past — especially in media representations. Anbar province was the hub of the deadly Sunni insurgency that broke out after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. After Saddam Hussein came down, internecine violence in Iraq resulted in more than 100,000 deaths in what nearly became civil war.
The images that flash across AJE’s reports suggest that at least some portions of the Iraqi population offer support for civil resistance, which, despite the country’s carmine history — or perhaps because of it — can be used to press for social and political change in acute conflicts. It would seem to be good news that war-torn Iraq discloses the possibility of widening awareness of the field of nonviolent struggle. Al Jazeera’s coverage may give this development a chance to take hold in a way that it otherwise might not have, considering decades of trauma.
The British captured Baghdad in 1917 during World War I, and Iraq became a state in 1920, with the League of Nations granting a mandate to Britain to govern it, which Britain did until 1932. British influence remained dominant until 1958, when the monarchy that Britain had helped to install was overthrown in a military coup d’état. In the decade after 1958, a series of bloody coups and military regimes kept the country in turmoil. In 1968, the Arab Socialist Baath Party took coercive power, and for eight years during the 1980s the country was at war with neighboring Iran. Two more major wars were to follow, in 1990–91 and 2003. Only by 2007 did violence begin to subside, and in 2011 the United States formally diminished its presence.
Thus far, the Western news media has given little attention to the demonstrations in Iraqi cities. AJE’s increasing influence, however, may raise problems of its own. The network is owned by the conservative Qatari monarchy, which has a strong relationship with the U.S. military. Also, Boston Globe columnist Juliette Kayyem recently expressed concern that “Al Jazeera risks losing touch” after the emir of Qatar put a member of the royal family as head of news. Can a network based in Qatar that implicitly represents an essentially Sunni regime report about a situation like the protests in Iraq without betraying a stake in this conflict from a sectarian perspective?
The exact outcome that these demonstrations will have remains unclear. Even so, the organizing of focused public rallies — a combination of direct action with disciplined turnouts and the making of collective claims on authorities — may be a good sign in an ancient society that has seen so much violent insurrection, invasion and war. The false pretenses put forth for the U.S. Invasion of Iraq — nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s reputed alliance with Al Qaeda — have subsided. At least for the moment, no one is driving these Sunni claimants in a violent direction, although elsewhere in the country as the new year began AJE reported conflicting accounts of bombings at 10 sites, symptomatic of a resurgent Al Qaeda.
The media can sometimes make or break a grassroots mobilization. As this latest wave of protest continues to unfold in Iraq, we should be attentive to the ways in which AJE not only reports the news but may help to make it as well.