My first run-in with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army came on March 31 in Baghdad. The US occupation chief, Paul Bremer, had just sent armed men to shut down the young cleric’s newspaper, Al Hawza, claiming that its articles comparing Bremer to Saddam Hussein incited violence against Americans. Sadr responded by calling for his supporters to protest outside the gates of the Green Zone, demanding Al Hawza‘s reopening.
When I heard about the demo, I wanted to go, but there was a problem: I had been visiting state factories all day, and I wasn’t dressed appropriately for a crowd of devout Shiites. Then again, I reasoned, this was a demonstration in defense of journalistic freedom–could they really object to a journalist in loose pants? I put on a head scarf and headed over.
Demonstrators had printed up English-language banners that said, Let Journalists Work With No Terror and Let Journalists Do Their Work. That sounded good, I thought, and started doing my work. I was soon interrupted, however, by a black-clad member of the Mahdi Army: He wanted to talk to my translator about my fashion choices. A friend and I joked that we were going to make up our own protest sign that said, Let Journalists Wear Their Pants. But the situation quickly got serious: Another Mahdi soldier grabbed my translator and shoved him against a concrete blast wall, badly injuring his back. Meanwhile, an Iraqi friend called to say she was trapped inside the Green Zone and couldn’t leave: She had forgotten to bring a head scarf and was afraid of running into a Mahdi patrol.
It was an instructive lesson about who Sadr actually is: not an anti-imperialist liberator, as some on the far left have cast him, but someone who wants the foreigners out so he can shackle and control large portions of Iraq’s population himself. But neither is Sadr the one-dimensional villain painted by so many in the media, a portrayal that has allowed many liberals to stay silent as he is barred from participating in elections and to look the other way while US forces nightly firebomb the civilian population of Sadr City, where the fighting recently knocked out electricity in the midst of a Hepatitis E outbreak.
The situation requires a more principled position. For instance, Muqtada al-Sadr’s calls for press freedom may not include the freedom of women journalists to cover him. Yet he still deserves to have his right to publish a political newspaper–not because he believes in freedom but because we supposedly do. Similarly, Sadr’s calls for fair elections and an end to occupation demand our unequivocal support–not because we are blind to the threat he would pose if he were actually elected but because believing in self-determination means admitting that the outcome of democracy is not ours to control.
These kinds of nuanced distinctions are commonly made in Iraq: Many people I met in Baghdad strongly condemned the attacks on Sadr as evidence that Washington never intended to bring democracy to their country. They backed the cleric’s calls for an end to occupation and for immediate open elections. But when asked if they would vote for him in those elections, most laughed at the prospect.
Yet here in North America, the idea that you can support Sadr’s call for elections without endorsing him as Iraq’s next prime minister has proved harder to grasp. For arguing this position, I have been accused of making “excuses for the theocrats and misogynists” by Nick Cohen in the London Observer, of having “naively fallen for the al-Mahdi militia” by Frank Smyth in Foreign Policy in Focus and of being a “socialist-feminist offering swooning support to theocratic fascists” by Christopher Hitchens in Slate.