‘We are the hope’
Voices from the secular resistance movement in Iraq
Sara Burke, Sam Diener, Joseph Gerson and Paul Shannon are
staff of the American Friends Service Committee’s New England regional
office. They met with Samir Adil on May 10, 2006 to hear his presentation
and to ask him questions about his experiences and the growing secularist
movement in Iraq.
Samir Adil is a co-founder and president of the Iraq
Freedom Congress, a coalition of labour unions, women’s groups, student
organisations, advocates for the rights of the unemployed and the
homeless, and individuals.
While the IFC is not committed either philosophically or
practically to non-violence, it is working hard to reduce the violence
actually going on in Iraq. The IFC is working toward an end to the US-led
occupation, a secular, non-nationalist, democratically elected government
and the abolition of the death penalty. These changes would open up the
possibility of a healthy, free Iraqi society in which non-violent
movements could grow.
Can you tell us a little about
yourself, how you ended up in Saddam Hussein’s prison, your exile and your
return to Iraq?
I was born in 1964 in Baghdad, went to university in Mosul
and joined the Iraq Communist Party in the 1980s. In 1990 I left the
party, with six others, because of its refusal to protest Saddam Hussein’s
invasion of Kuwait. In 1991, I became involved in the uprising against
Hussein in Kirkuk and was captured in 1992 with several comrades. I was
held for six months and tortured for 25 days.
Our release came about because our friends outside
organised an international campaign for our freedom. The Canadian Labour
Congress sent a letter on behalf of its 2,200,000 members and an
international women’s democratic organisation based in Sweden also sent a
letter to the Hussein government. I did not know this was going on and
didn’t know why the colonel in charge of the prison started calling me a
"famous person" and seeing to it that I received tea, cigarettes and
newspapers during my captivity.
After six months, government officials offered to release
me if I would work with them. I refused. Later they told me I could leave
but that my comrades could not. I refused to leave without them. Finally
they did release us all but then they called me every day to ask me to
work with them. When it became clear that I wasn’t safe, I escaped to
northern Iraq and from there to Turkey where I lived as a refugee for two
years. From Turkey I moved to Canada. After nine years I returned to live
in Iraq in 2002, four months before the US invasion.
What is the Iraq Freedom Congress
and what are its activities?
The IFC is a mass, democratic, independent organisation
established on March 19, 2005, the second anniversary of the war. Our aim
is to end the occupation, rebuild civil society and establish a secular
and non-nationalist government in Iraq.
We have held two big conferences in Basra on federalism
and the division of Iraqi society. Five hundred Basra residents came
together to show their opposition to ethnic divisions.
On September 24, 2005 we organised demonstrations against
the occupation, as people all around the world were doing. In Baghdad, 600
came out, and in Basra, thousands. We knew that Al-Jazeera and other
Islamist media would cover the event because it was anti-occupation but
that they would not want to give credit to our secularist group. We made
sure to bring so many IFC banners that it would be impossible to film the
event without documenting our presence!
And on an ongoing basis, we continue to open offices in
different neighbourhoods, helping people organise to resist ethnic
divisions and violent incursions. We have a presence in four areas in
Baghdad, some mostly Sunni, some mostly Shia; we have opened an office in
Al-Tathaman, where there are divisions between Turkmens and Kurds. We
educate people and announce that under our flag, in our offices, all
people are welcome and no one is to talk about ethnic differences.
Lack of safety from violence is people’s most urgent
problem. People are killed for their ethnic or sectarian identity (on one
day, 14 men named Omar, a name associated with Sunnis, were killed – in
another area, men with the traditional Shia names Ali and Hussein were
killed) by suicide bombs and in random mercenary murders. Because of the
fear people live with, nearly every home has a gun in it now. We tell
people not to use their guns on their neighbours but to organise
neighbourhood patrols to defend their streets against ethnic cleansing,
insurgents and kidnappers.
Can you tell us about the
complexity of Iraqi identity and how it has been manipulated in the past
several years of conflict?
The history of Iraq is a civilised history. For many years
people have loved and supported each other regardless of ethnic and
sectarian differences. Until four years ago you would be ashamed to ask
someone if they were Sunni or Shia. My five brothers and I are from a Shia
background – all are married to Sunnis. It was the US which apportioned
power along religious and ethnic lines and now these appointed leaders
look out for their own interests and support their own militias.
Saddam Hussein’s allegiance was to the pan-Arab
nationalist movement, not to Sunnis. When he attacked the Shias in the
south in 1979-80, it was not because they were Shias but because so many
of them were communists. Many of his leaders were themselves Shias,
including 35 of those named in the Pentagon’s infamous "Most Wanted
Iraqis" deck of playing cards. By 1980 he had wiped out most of the
communists and his major remaining enemies were Iranian-supported
However, Hussein’s Ba’ath party was not truly secular.
When Hussein was defeated in 1991 and he no longer had the support of the
US or other Arab nations to push back against the Islamists, he picked up
the banner of political Islam to try and find a new base of support. "Honour
killings" (the ritual murder of women and girls by their male relatives
for perceived sexual impropriety) and other faith-based campaigns were
allowed, Hussein began to invoke the Koran in his speeches and
Islamist groups were permitted to organise openly.
After the 2003 invasion, the armed Islamist insurgency
initially called for a united, Muslim Iraq. But in September 2005 Zarqawi
issued a fatwa (an Islamic legal pronouncement) calling for the killing of
all Shias, so now there is a split between the nationalists and the
Islamists. This February a nationalist group approached the IFC and asked
to join. We set as conditions of their entry that they oppose ethnic
cleansing and that they not foment any division or engage in armed
resistance, and they agreed to these terms even though this meant the loss
of some of their members.
People in the US have been told
by the press that the December elections for a new government were fair.
Can you share your observations and the IFC’s vision for elections under a
How could the elections be fair? There is no civil law now
in Iraq, only a religious constitution and law by militia. Some people
were threatened, "If you don’t vote for us, you’ll go to hell." The few
international "observers" watched the elections from across the border in
If the IFC comes to power, it will hold elections within
six months, with no militias, fair distribution of funds and airtime to
all parties, and a real presence of international observers.
Can you tell us about the
international dimensions to the Iraqi struggle for secular self-rule?
Together, all the forces of political Islam in Iraq –
Zarqawi, al-Qaeda and the Iran-supported Shia groups – are using what I
call the "chaos strategy". Knowing that they cannot force the US troops
out through military confrontation, instead they issue fatwas on Sunnis,
on Shias, and bring about instability in many other ways as well, to make
the US forces fail and leave. If the US wants stability and democracy,
they make sure these won’t be accomplished. They are aware also that the
longer the occupation goes on without success, the more opposition to the
occupation builds in the US.
Paul Bremer and President Bush have said that the US is
fighting terrorists in Iraq so it won’t have to fight them in the US.
Zarqawi and the other Islamists, too, consider Iraq just one more arena in
a war being fought around the world. Iraqi society has been turned into an
international battlefield between the Islamists, supported from across the
border by Iran and some Arab states, and the US. Iraqi civilians, the
victims of the September 11 attacks, the Spanish citizens killed in the
train bombing, all are victims of the same forces.
What are your expectations of the
US peace movement?
We, too, must look outside Iraq. We are part of a global
anti-war movement and we cannot defeat our enemies without help from our
movement in the West. But the slogan "End the Occupation" is not enough.
After the occupation, what then? The anti-war movement must think about
the future of Iraq, not just for us but because it is crucial to the whole
Middle East. The second half of the slogan must be, "Support the Secular
Movement in Iraq". That is the hope for ending the sectarian violence and
I believe also for bringing more Americans into the anti-war movement.
Bill Weinberg, editor of the online journal World War
4 Report (ww4report.com), interviewed Houzan Mahmoud on March 21, 2006
on WBAI radio and Peacework editor, Sara Burke corresponded with
her by email in May. Portions of both conversations are included here. To
learn more, visit OWFI at www.equalityiniraq.com, or visit Houzan
Mahmoud’s blog at http://houzanmahmoud.blogspot.com.
Houzan Mahmoud is the head of Iraq Freedom Congress-Abroad
and one of the leading figures of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in
Iraq. Women’s organising has been key to the development of Iraq’s secular
resistance, as women know that they are the most vulnerable to persecution
and repression in a militarised, Islamist nation.
BW: 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
Iraqi society is already being smashed down – 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.
There are 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 these criminal acts. Having the occupation there is not solving
any of this, actually. It is 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 soldier leave Iraq. And these armed militias – what
other excuse will there be to terrorise people or to kill them or to
kidnap them? What other excuses will they have? It is occupation. So
therefore I think it is wrong, that notion that pulling out will create
more problems. I think it will not. It won’t be worse than this, in my
BW: So you think a US withdrawal
will actually open more space for the existence of some kind of secular
I think it will then be us and them.
BW: And who are the "them" that
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.
BW: You say it would just be you
and them. Is that necessarily a good thing? No mediating force?
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 the
Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq from having a demonstration
against the rapes and abductions. 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 with 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
about 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.
I myself have been told so many times abroad in various
meetings and seminars, "Why are you not allying with the so-called
resistance and fighting together against occupation?" I think this
question is either very naïve or it is 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 Organisation of
Women’s Freedom in Iraq, go into alliance with the enemy of women in Iraq?
Or with those Islamists who have no eye to see a secular person, who
consider anyone who is secular as infidels who therefore have to be
killed? How can I form any alliances with these kinds of people? And plus,
what is their social programme? You need to have a social programme to
agree on – is just fighting occupation everything? Do I have to sacrifice
women’s rights, do I have to sacrifice workers’ rights, secularism and my
rights as a human being to fight the occupation? I don’t. I think its a
historical mistake and its suicidal for my movement inside Iraq to go that
route just to please some marginalised leftists in the US or Europe, for
their fantasising or romanticising the issue of resistance against
These Islamists have no sense of anti-imperialist vision.
They have no sense of working class struggle or anything like that. They
are people who have primitive notions of running societies, you know? The
Talibanisation 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.
SB: Can you tell us about
organising for women’s rights in the context of the larger struggle
for a secular Iraq?
In Iraq we have Islamists who have been imposed and
empowered in the so-called parliament by the US government and are
implementing Islamic Sharia law. We have other Islamic armed groups who
are calling themselves a "resistance" but which are just another version
of the Taliban; they have turned Iraq into a battlefield and enslaved
women by veiling them and preventing them from attending university or
going to work. This is the situation we are faced with in Iraq under
In this context, the proper and active participation of
women in civil life is made almost impossible. Imagine how it is to
organise, when women cannot go out alone without an armed male relative
due to the lack of basic security and everywhere there is the presence of
reactionary, right wing political parties who do not consider women human
beings! It has taken away the confidence of women to take part in
In the Iraq Freedom Congress, we start from this point:
that the presence of women in our movement is a precondition for achieving
equality and freedom. Our movement is distinguished by its progressive
outlook toward women’s liberation and equality. The high rate of women
leaders and activists in our movement is very visible compared to all the
SB: How do women’s rights under
Iraq’s Islamist-leaning government connect with movements for change in
The occupation of Iraq is not a local issue; it has to be
viewed in a global scale. Whatever happens in Iraq will affect us all.
When the US government brings religious reactionaries to power and
violates women’s rights, this will not only affect our rights in Iraq but
the rights of women in the US too.
The US is bringing in many laws against the rights and
civil liberties of the people of the US under the pretext that "We are at
war" and "this is to protect Americans". So people in the US, and we in
Iraq, have been subjected to brutalisation, random arrests and
imprisonment, and the curtailment of women’s and workers’ rights under the
same pretext. It seems that not only Iraqis are a "threat" to "US
Therefore having international solidarity with secular,
progressive and pro-women movements is vital. Our movement in Iraq is part
of a wider international struggle against war, oppression and inequality.
So therefore we have the same route to go to fight in the same ranks to
SB: How are women organising
either within or outside the IFC programme?
IFC is striving for an egalitarian, secular society and a
state system wherein all humans are considered equal. So our women who are
active in the IFC and the women’s movement are considered the most
courageous women who are fighting for secularism and equality in the face
of growing Islamism and chaos in Iraq. Despite the danger, they are
organising and mobilising other women and men against both the occupation
and the ongoing sectarianism in Iraq. They work at all levels in the
community, in the schools and factories, to spread the word and promote
Iraq Freedom Congress
Iraq Freedom Congress, IFC, is a broad organisation
committed to establishing a free, secular and non-ethnic government in
Iraq – a government based on direct sovereignty of people of Iraq and
committed to guaranteeing their right to freely and consciously
determine the system of governance in Iraq.
IFC is independent, democratic, non-religious and
IFC has been formed to counter the civil abyss in Iraq.
Presently, the fabric of civil society in Iraq has been torn apart under
the US occupation and the domination of Islamic, tribal and political
gangsters. People of Iraq have been caught between the two poles of
world terrorism of our time – US state terrorism and political Islam –
forcing their mental and physical well-being to the verge of
IFC strives to establish the sovereignty of people of
Iraq. The only way out of this abyss is to mobilise people to take the
country, to whatever extent possible, out of the sphere of control of
both the US occupiers and the Islamic currents, and establish their
IFC mobilises and organises people within its local and
district organisations to establish the control and sovereignty of the
people at every level and to any extent possible. IFC safeguards this
sovereignty against any aggression. The sovereignty of the people in
this context is the implementation of the demands stated in the
manifesto of IFC as legislations.
Individuals as well as organisations (including
political parties, trade unions, people’s councils, associations and
institutions) who share the aims and objectives of IFC may join IFC, as
stated in the IFC’s constitution, provided their programmes and policies
do not breach that of IFC.
IFC’s operations and organisation are not restricted to
Iraq. IFC endeavours to gain the support of all free-minded individuals,
progressive organisations and institutions worldwide, who share its
IFC calls on all humanitarians to join its ranks.