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Iraqi Scholar Sinan Antoon: Anti-Government Protests Have Led to “Reclaiming of Iraqi Identity”

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In Iraq, more than 340 people have died since anti-government protests began in early October. More than 15,000 Iraqis have been injured. Tires were set on fire Monday, and main roads and bridges were blocked in the cities of Basra and Nasiriyah. Over the weekend, security forces opened fire on civilians in Baghdad and other cities. Demonstrators are protesting corruption and lack of jobs and basic services, including clean water and electricity. In Baghdad, many university students are taking part in the demonstrations. To talk more about the protests in Iraq, we are joined by the Iraqi poet, novelist, translator and scholar Sinan Antoon. He was born and raised in Baghdad, and his most recent novel is titled “The Book of Collateral Damage.” “What’s really important is the reclaiming of Iraqi identity and a new sense of Iraqi nationalism that transcends the sectarian discourse that was institutionalized by the United States in 2003,” Antoon says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Iraq, where more than 340 people have died since anti-government protests began in early October. More than 15,000 Iraqis have been injured. On Monday, tires were set on fire, and main roads and bridges were blocked in the cities of Basra and Nasiriyah. Over the weekend, security forces opened fire on civilians in Baghdad and other cities. The demonstrators are protesting corruption and lack of jobs and basic services, including clean water and electricity. Falah Hassan took part in the protests in Basra.

FALAH HASSAN: [translated] Our protests are peaceful. We are taking to the streets to take our rights back. We will never surrender, neither today, tomorrow nor even after one year. By doing so, the authorities make themselves tired. The security forces are our sons, our cousins and our brothers. Why do they hit us? Whenever they get out of their vehicles, they open fire on us.

AMY GOODMAN: In Baghdad, many university students are taking part in the demonstrations.

PROTESTER: [translated] When we are protesting, we don’t aim to dirty or destroy streets. Our goal is to achieve our demands and to live in a homeland with peace and security. God willing, and with the determination of our brothers, the protesters, we will achieve our aspirations. We are university students. We left college and joined the protesters. God willing, we will have success.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the protests in Iraq, we’re joined by the Iraqi poet, novelist, translator, scholar Sinan Antoon. He was born and raised in Baghdad, now an associate professor at New York University here in the city. His most recent novel, The Book of Collateral Damage.

Sinan, it’s great to have you with us. Three-hundred forty Iraqi protesters dead right now since the protests have just recently begun. Can you talk about the situation there? Talk about the level of violence and also talk about what are the demands. What caused this latest round of protests?

SINAN ANTOON: I mean, this started out in October, on the first day of October. And unlike previous waves of protests, on October 1st, they were very spontaneous and mostly from the working-class, impoverished neighborhoods in Baghdad. And the unprecedented lethal response of the regime by killing many of these peaceful protesters fueled the anger of so many other Iraqis, who then came out in bigger waves, especially on the 25th of October. And what has started out as a protest from a certain class and group of people has become now really widespread in that so many different sectors have joined these protests. It’s unprecedented in the modern history of Iraq that so many people from so many different backgrounds come together for this set of demands. And it’s basically the culmination of 16 years of corruption and inefficiency and failure on the part of the political class to deliver anything, basic services, as you mentioned.

And so, the demands now are that — the dissolution of the Parliament, that there should be a new election law, that there should be a new constitution that is drafted. These are the demands. And unfortunately and not surprisingly, the regime has not really responded, except with violence and death. And it doesn’t seem to understand the level of seriousness. It’s also a huge gap in so many ways between the political elite ensconced in the Green Zone, living their luxurious life, and the rest of Iraqi society, which lives outside.

It’s also a generational gap. I mean, Iraq is a very young population, and the great majority of these protesters are people who were born in the ’90s and who have only seen the corruption and the failure of this political elite, even its inability to protect its citizens and what happened with ISIS occupation and so on and so forth.

But what’s really important is the reclaiming of Iraqi identity and a new sense of Iraqi nationalism that transcends the sectarian discourse that was institutionalized by the United States in 2003 and that so many of these political parties used to maintain their power over large sectors of society. So, so many Iraqis, despite the death and the pain, so many Iraqis are really hopeful to see the creativity and the resilience of these protesters, and what they are doing all across Iraq in these sites where they are trying to reinvent the meaning of the country, but also in their ability to, for example, in Tahrir Square, to transform this place, which has been the buildings and the tunnel and the square, that is so important symbolically, was completely ignored, and they have managed to clean up the place and to use art, to cover the walls with graffiti that represents unity and hope, to start a cinema inside Tahrir Square.

So, I mean, the main slogan that started these protests was “We want a homeland,” which is very simple, yet it’s very powerful, which reflects that the political class and the system that was installed after the occupation has failed to give citizens any sense of meaning or to deliver any services. And sadly, as the time goes by, the regime’s forces and the militias continue to kill these peaceful demonstrators.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — you mentioned the efforts of the young protesters to go beyond the ethnic and religious divisions that have been exploited by the political class now, whether it’s Sunni or Shiite or Kurdish or Israeli. I wanted to — the United States also has emphasized for so long, first, the threat of Saddam Hussein, then ISIS, and of course always of Iran, as Iran being the great threat behind what’s the problems besetting the Iraqi people. Could you talk about the impact of this continued U.S. effort to demonize particular groups in the Iraqi — in the world of the Iraqi population?

SINAN ANTOON: Well, I mean, Iran has so much influence inside Iraq and has infiltrated so many of the institutions and backed so many of these militias. But all of that is a product of the U.S. occupation and invasion of Iraq. So, while Iran is one of the targets of these protesters, but it’s important to remember that a lot of the signs and the placards that the protesters have in Tahrir Square and elsewhere say no to any foreign intervention. So they say no to Iran, no to Turkey, no to Israel and no to the United States.

But, of course, the United States, because of its geopolitical interests and its ongoing confrontation with Iran and so many countries, focuses only on this one dimension, which is Iran. No one denies that Iran backs many of these parties in Iraq, financially and otherwise, and has infiltrated, as I’ve said, Iraqi society in so many ways. But of course there are all of these other dimensions. And sadly, mainstream media in this country and even in Europe is very myopic and only sees in these protests that they are against Iran and they are a threat to Iran and its influences, of the regime, of course.

And that’s true. But Iraqis want to reclaim a country, and they want sovereignty, and they are against all types of interventions. And Iraq, since 2003, feel that the state is very weak, in a way. And we have Turkish troops in Iraq in the north. We have American troops. And so the protesters are really very conscientious of all of this, and they really have a deep understanding, at least judging from what they say when they appear on the media, of that, you know, the interests of Iraq and Iraqis come first, and sovereignty is very important. Of course, it’s not going to be taken back overnight, but they realize that Iran is not — the Iranian regime is not the only threat and not the only sponsor of certain forces inside Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to Vice President Mike Pence, who made a surprise visit to Iraq this weekend.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: With regard to our conversations with Prime Minister Mahdi, we spoke about the unrest that’s been taking place in recent weeks here in Iraq. He assured me that they were working to avoid violence or the kind of repression that we see taking place even as we speak in Iran. And he pledged to me that they would work to protect and respect peaceful protesters as a part of the democratic process here in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Vice President Pence in that surprise visit. Your response to what he said about Iraq, about the protests? And also, President Trump said he’s pulling troops out of the area when he was talking about Syria, and then it turns out he was putting them into Iraq.

SINAN ANTOON: You know, I mean, look, this is the language that a lot of these protests are also going out against. Pence calls it the democratic process. And this is the real hoax, actually, in Iraq, since 2003, using the term “democratic process.” What has this democratic process brought to Iraqis? Six hundred and fifty billion dollars has disappeared from the coffers. And this is a very rich country.

And, you know, Pence calls it unrest. And it’s not really unrest. These are peaceful protesters that are being killed. So this language is meaningless. Neither Pence nor Trump has any credibility in Iraq or in the region, nor does the U.S. administration. I mean, it has a very long-established history of supporting dictators and dictatorships, and rehabilitating. I mean, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is just one example. So, of course, I mean, the U.S. is in a way in collusion with the Iraqi regime.

And so, none of this really matters to the protesters on the ground. They are resilient, and they’re going to wait and try to snatch whatever is possible. But I want to say that irrespective of what happens, I think the new language that these protesters have reclaimed and the new sense of belonging is going to go on, and they’re not going to give up on their demands, no matter what the regional and the international response is. But, you know, I mean, there are always calls to save the Iraqi people, but most of these protesters realize that, in a way, they are alone. There is symbolic support internationally, but they know that neither the U.S. government nor any of the regional regimes are on their side.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You’ve mentioned a couple of times the changes since 2003, obviously, of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The protesters now, the young protesters, were basically children at the time of that invasion. But the question of how the elders of Iraq, the older population, judge the difference between the society they had under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, yet it was a modern and relatively well-off population, compared to what the situation that has existed for the past 16 years?

SINAN ANTOON: I mean, it wasn’t a well-off population. I mean, I think the problem — I know one of the many negative and disastrous effects of the U.S. occupation and installing this new regime is to push people to sometimes make these comparisons. And I don’t think 2003 is the actual break, even though I use it myself. But we have to remember that in 1991, the first Gulf War, after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, is really the moment when, to quote Jim Baker, back then, he said, “We will return you to the preindustrial age.” So the degradation of Iraqi society in terms of its institutions and its infrastructure started out in 1991.

And then we had the sanctions for so many years, that really also further destroyed — it continued the war by other means, killing 1 million, driving 3 million out of the country. But what matters is to look at what 2003 had done. Really, it was Act III in a very long process of dismantling the Iraqi state, irrespective of Saddam Hussein, destroying social fabric, destroying — not allowing the regime even to rebuild the country. That’s what really matters.

But I should say that the majority of these protesters, they are unencumbered by all of these old questions, and they really don’t care much about comparisons between pre-2003 and post-2003. They want to live a good life in accordance with the resources that the country has. They know that the country is very rich in resources. They are well aware, through social media, through their access to information, that this political class is a group of crooks. They know because there are so many scandals and there are numbers and figures. And that’s what they really want, actually. It’s about the future; it’s not about the past. What vision does this political class have for the country? Nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Sinan Antoon, talk about the role of women in these protests.

SINAN ANTOON: Yes. I mean, you know, women in Iraqi society have a long history that many people don’t know. The first woman minister in the entire region was actually in Iraq in 1959. So, what’s great about this wave of protest is that, as I said, so many people from all backgrounds are participating. And women, from various generations, from various backgrounds, are participating in the protests, are there not only in supportive roles, but really spearheading all of the efforts to stand, to defend the spots in these squares, and a sense of volunteerism and a sense of coming together.

So, I’m usually a pessimist, but what’s really making me more optimistic about this is that it’s really changing also the relationships between people of different backgrounds and making people come together for the country. So, everywhere you look, you see women on the ground. You see women at the forefront. You see a change in the sense of people fighting against authority and against patriarchy.

There are so many moving scenes. There was a scene of a young boy who was taken inside a police car for raising an Iraqi flag, and schoolgirls from 9 or 10 years old crowded around the police car and started protesting and chanting, and forced the police to release this boy. So this is the new sense of empowerment that people feel, whether men or women, people of different generations, which is really amazing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also that there are very few of the — any of the political parties or regular organizations involved. To a large degree, is it a leaderless uprising?

SINAN ANTOON: I mean, it is a leaderless uprising. And, of course, there have been attempts to hijack and infiltrate, and they’re ongoing as we speak, but, once again, the protesters have shown a sense of awareness in that. For example, when the regime asked them to present a list of figures to negotiate with, they sent the names of the martyrs, the people who have died, saying, “These are our leaders.” It’s very poetic, but it’s very powerful, which it means that unless they are held accountable for the crimes that they have committed, there will be no negotiation.

Of course, this is a sense of strength, not having a leadership, but it’s also, of course, tricky, because, sooner or later, there have to emerge a sense — a certain structure and a leadership to be able to translate these demands and to go on. But we don’t know yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Sinan Antoon, so much for being with us.

SINAN ANTOON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Poet, novelist, translator, scholar, born and raised in Baghdad, now here in New York, an associate professor at New York University. His most recent novel, The Book of Collateral Damage.

When we come back, we look at the life and legacy of Toni Morrison. Last week, literary luminaries, social leaders from around the country gathered in New York at Cathedral of St. John the Divine to honor her, including Oprah Winfrey. Stay with us.

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