Militiamen in Iraq do not only carry weapons, they also wield religious, moral and economic power over their social environment. They play the role of neighborhood governors in times of peace and murderers in times of war.
Mohammed, a member of a well-known Shiite militia in Iraq, insisted on being called "Sheikh Mohammed," by which the residents of his area in Baya, south of Baghdad, know him. Speaking to Al-Monitor, he said he does not normally carry weapons without receiving orders from within his circles. What happened in the Baya neighborhood was a response to the bombing of a cafe, in which one of the neighborhood’s residents was involved.
While he spoke, the young sheikh tried to express a high degree of religious conservatism: “We are not involved in killing, as our religion prohibits us. We simply fend off certain negative influences and try to protect the residents of the area.”
Mohammed denied committing any crime that would be punishable by law. What he does is a mere self-defense, even if it comes in the form of an assassination. The residents of the neighborhood, however, depict the "sheikh" in a different light. According to one female worker, he is seen as practically the governor of the neighborhood. When someone wants to sell his house to escape threats, Mohammed specifies the price and buys the house himself as a final settlement. No one dares to offer a higher bid.
In the Sunni Amiriya neighborhood, the scene is no different. The "sheikh" there is not only the religious guide and preacher but also the governor of the neighborhood. He does not hesitate to enforce the law by militant means if need be.
“The residents know that the sheikh is involved one way or another in the killing and support of armed groups. Although he has not been seen carrying a gun, he maintains a terrifying power over the people, justified by the rumors spread about a group of youth being threatened, attacked and killed due to their lack of religious commitment,” Ali, an Amiriya resident, told Al-Monitor.
When not carrying weapons, militiamen play roles in governing the lives of residents of the neighborhoods where they work. Sometimes, however, they seem particularly concerned with scrutinizing the movements of women. They do not hesitate to talk to the father or husband of a woman if her attire or hijab are dissatisfactory to them. Usually, female employees and students wear the niqab (full-face veil) when going into or coming out of a neighborhood that is under the control of militiamen.
“Sometimes I feel that Sheikh Mohammed is scrutinizing me. He constantly sits in front of his house and does nothing but monitor the residents. I feel as if he is implicitly telling me, 'We will get you, sooner or later,'” Marwa, a woman who lives in the Baya neighborhood, told Al-Monitor.
Some former militants, especially those who have been jailed on charges related to sectarian violence, are known in their neighborhoods. The residents do them favors to avoid trouble. Some pay them salaries and give them financial aid, while others ask for their guidance to settle familial or tribal problems. Gradually, the former prisoner is transformed into an unspoken leader, imposing his influence on the people and deciding their fate.
Militiamen practice their influence whether or not they take up arms. In the absence of the rule of law, residents are increasingly relying on militias to provide security.
Historian Sinan Abdulkhaleq said that this situation brings to mind the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century in Baghdad, where every neighborhood had a “'bad guy' governing its affairs. The 'bad guy' relied on his physical power to instill fear among residents or the 'bad guys' of other neighborhoods. They gradually became a social class that essentially controlled the affairs of the city’s various neighborhoods.”
Reviving the phenomenon of "bad guys" through militiamen, militants and new clerics seems on the face of it a natural reaction to the lack of security and law in large areas of Iraq. On a deeper level, however, and if it proves to be persistent, this phenomenon denotes a recession of the concept of the modern state, which will necessarily usher in regressive social values the modern era has already moved past.
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