University students, religious seminaries keep flame of Iraq protests burning

As the Iraqi parliament fails to appoint a new prime minister, thousands of university students and religious seminary students join the protests.

al-monitor University and college students attend the ongoing anti-government protests, Basra, Iraq, Dec. 3, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani.
Mustafa Saadoun

Mustafa Saadoun


Topics covered

iraqi government, najaf, ali al-sistani, seminaries, protests, iraqi youth, demonstrations, students

Dec 6, 2019

Thousands of Iraqi university students took to the streets Dec. 1 in solidarity with the victims of violence during the ongoing protests in the country. Since Oct. 25, few students have attended classes, remaining in Baghdad's Liberation Square and squares in other provinces.

It is the first time since 2003 that organized protests depart from Iraqi universities and contribute to keeping the numbers of protesters in the streets high. Even during the two main protests in 2011 and 2015, universities did not have an official presence or participation, even if remotely, and protesters criticized them for not getting involved.

Participation has not been limited to university students in the protesting provinces, as students from universities in Kirkuk, Ninevah, Salahuddin and Anbar joined the protests in mid-November. Civil society activists and students from Anbar told Al-Monitor that the University of Anbar took risks with its solidarity protest, after having received vague threats from security authorities not to take to the streets in support of the protest wave.

Despite the tight measures of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to forbid students from partaking in the protests, they stood their ground to maintain the momentum, and they risked their educational future. The ministry had announced that it would “take attendance records of students in lectures and departments to free the ministry and educational institutions of responsibility toward what could happen to students during the protests.”

A student in the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Baghdad spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity for fear of being punished. He said, “I have been in Liberation Square in Baghdad since Oct. 25, and I only attended a few days [of classes] at the university or a week at most.”

He added, “This is our golden chance to save our country. If we are a few months behind in our education, it is not the end of the world. The end of the world is when we slacken in protesting and ignore the risks facing the country if we remain silent. I might be dismissed from school or punished, but I do not care. I only care about the success of our revolution.”

Higher education students, not just undergraduates, at the University of Baghdad participated in the protests. This constitutes a risk for the ruling class, as they had bet in past years on universities recoiling from engaging in public issues, since Iraqi political parties controlled their security staff and administrations.

However, the biggest shock for the ruling Iraqi parties, especially the Shiite ones, was the participation in the protests of religious seminary students in Najaf and Karbala, in support of the protesters in the rest of the country. On Dec. 2, seminary teachers in al-Muthanna province showed their support for the protests in press statements.

On Nov. 2, hundreds of seminary students in Karbala demonstrated in support of the protesters in other provinces. The majority were Shiites who follow Iraq's top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who also voiced his support for the protests in Iraq.

On Oct. 28, Shiite seminary students in the holy city of Najaf participated in a similar protest. The students carried banners in support of the protests calling for the protesters’ demands to be met.

The religious seminaries are the center of study for Shiite theology students. Najaf — alongside Qom in Iran — is a stronghold of these students who come from all around the world, not just from Iraq.

Shiite cleric and board director of Annabaa Information Network Mortada Maash told Al-Monitor, “The October protests represented a young popular movement that aimed at eliminating oppression and injustice against the Iraqi people. Sharia binds religious institutions, authorities and clerics to stand by the oppressed and defend their legitimate rights and human dignity.”

He added, “The religious authorities — especially Sistani — urge to build a nation based on freedom of expression, a legitimate government evidenced by the people’s satisfaction, transparent elections, laws serving citizens, political independence and self-sufficiency. But some politicians and groups turned against people’s legitimacy by manipulating the electoral process, monopolizing privileges and power, exploiting influence and ingraining subordination.”

On Oct. 27, the seminary in Najaf suspended classes, announcing, “With its great authorities, esteemed teachers and respected students, and in solidarity with Iraqi protesters, out of loyalty for the blood of innocent people and in support of the rightful demands, the seminary has decided to suspend classes in the coming days.”

Maash noted, “Suspending classes in seminaries is a clear message that the protests are legitimate and corruption and tyranny should be condemned. It is a step to show solidarity with the protesters’ calls for freedom, dignity and building a decent nation.”

Political parties in Iraq are facing public and institutional ire. The participation of university and seminary students in protests means that they side with the people, despite parties’ yearslong attempts to distance these two institutions from public affairs, especially those related to social justice and freedoms.

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