Western historians who condemn the USSR for the deaths under Stalin’s dictatorship should shed a spotlight on the millions who died under British rule, including those in engineered famines across the Indian subcontinent.
The UK general election is a week away and a significant chunk of the country’s media, three-quarters of which is reportedly owned by a few billionaires, is hard at work digging up dirt on Jeremy Corbyn to prevent a Labour Party victory at all costs. However, this uphill task is becoming harder as recent polls show the frequently cited Conservative lead over Labour is rapidly decreasing. The possibility that Mr Corbyn will be Britain’s next prime minister, perhaps at the head of a minority government, is now grudgingly acknowledged.
When Corbyn launched Labour’s manifesto at the end of November, he pledged to conduct a formal enquiry into the legacy of the British Empire “to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule” and set up an organisation “to ensure historical injustice, colonialism, and role of the British Empire is taught in the national curriculum.”
The idea of teaching a population about the unsavoury aspects of its history, and in Britain’s case revealing how several of today’s geopolitical crises are rooted in the past folly and avarice-fuelled actions of its ruling class, is commendable.
It would be prudent to inform UK citizens about the British Empire’s divide and conquer tactics across the Indian subcontinent and Africa, the stirring up of Hindu-Muslim antagonism in the former, or the impact of the Sykes-Picot agreement that precipitated instability across the Middle East which continues to the present day. Doing so might enable the public to gain a better understanding of how past actions affect present realities, in turn making them more eager to hold contemporary politicians to account so past mistakes are not repeated. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Some right-wingers may be quick to dismiss Corbyn’s manifesto promise as self-indulgent politically-correct onanism. Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage commented: “I don’t think I should apologise for what people did 300 years ago. It was a different world, a different time.” Yet, some of the violence perpetuated in the name of protecting the empire’s interests is not exactly ancient history, having occurred within living memory for some. The Malayan Emergency, Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising, the Suez Crisis, or the deployment of British troops to Northern Ireland are a few examples.
Segments of the intelligentsia may also feel unease at Corbyn’s manifesto promise, namely those academics who still view the British Empire as the UK’s legacy and ‘gift’ to the world. This includes those who, by extension, consider modern Britain (and the West in general) as bestowed with a cultural superiority that makes it the unchallenged arbiter of global affairs and the indisputable defender of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’, regardless of what these laudable terms have been corrupted into justifying. The invasion of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, and the civil wars in Syria and Ukraine are a few manifestations of Western intervention.
Some Western historians fall over themselves condemning the USSR for the millions who died under the dictatorship of Stalin, with a significant proportion of these victims perishing during famines. The people of the former Soviet Union need to come to terms with their history, just like any other country. In the meantime, Western historians should shine a spotlight closer to home. Engineered famines across the Indian subcontinent reportedly killed up to 29 million in the late 19th century and a further 3 million in 1943.
The Indian subcontinent was only one of the regions under British rule and the deaths mentioned above do not include those violently killed by occupying forces. Unlike the USSR, which kept oppression confined within its borders and those of neighbouring countries under its sphere of influence, Britain together with the American Empire (to which it handed over the baton of imperialism after WWII) has interfered on pretty much every continent except Antarctica. In modern times we see the UK, now a vassal of the US-led NATO empire, condemn nations that refuse to submit to Western hegemony.
Apologists for Empire claim it brought ‘progress’ such as railways, infrastructure, education, cricket, as well as free trade and order (i.e. Pax Britannica). Irrespective of whether such ‘gifts’ were appreciated by occupied nations, this line of reasoning opens up a dangerous precedent. For example, supporters of Stalin overlook his despotism by crediting him with rapidly industrializing an underdeveloped nation that later played a major role in defeating Nazism, bestowing upon him an honour that instead belongs to millions of rank and file soldiers, officers, and commanders of the Red Army.
During the time of the British Empire, as was the case with other European empires and many dictatorships, the majority of working people were not personally enriched by the plunder of imperialism and their descendants are not to blame for the actions of the former ruling class. Nevertheless, learning one’s history is the first step to understanding the present, ensuring today’s leaders are held to account, and preventing the same mistakes from being repeated.
In two separate cases, a woman and a man in Aceh passed out on Thursday after being publicly caned as a punishment for violating the province’s Qanun Jinayat (Islamic criminal code).
In East Aceh regency, a 22-year-old man found guilty of extramarital sex was beaten unconscious after a sharia officer punished him with 100 strokes in a flogging.
The authorities continued with the flogging – even after he had fainted before later awaking – and he was only rushed to the hospital for medical treatment after the punishment finished, AFP reported.
Also on Thursday, the Aceh Tamiang Prosecutor’s Office head of general crimes, Roby Syahputra, said one woman who was one among 33 people being caned in Aceh Tamiang regency fainted after she completed her sentence of 30 strokes, a punishment she received after she was allegedly caught being too close to a man.
Another woman reportedly could not stand the pain after the executioner hit her 39 times in front of hundreds of people and officials in the front yard of the Aceh Tamiang Islamic Center building.
The 35-year-old woman was found guilty of adultery with a 59-year-old man, who was also punished with 100 strokes on Thursday.
“She only received 39 strokes out of 100 strokes. The rest of the punishment will be carried out in the next process next year,” Roby said on Thursday as quoted by Antara.
Aceh is the only region in Muslim-majority Indonesia that implements sharia. The provincial administration has fully enforced Qanun Jinayat since 2015.
In addition to being a punishment for adultery, public flogging is also administered against those found guilty of gambling and homosexuality.
Rights group Amnesty International has once again slammed the public whippings as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” punishments that are a “shameful and vicious public spectacle”.
“The fact that two people were beaten unconscious today, in two separate incidents, is a damning indictment of the authorities who let his happen on their watch,” Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid said.
“No one deserves to face this unspeakable cruelty,” he said. “The authorities in Aceh and Indonesia must immediately repeal the law that imposes these punishments, and bring them in line with international standards and Indonesia’s human rights obligations under its own Constitution. (hol)
The family of a missing Iraqi doctor and activist say they have received no word from officials or security forces nearly a week after she was abducted in Baghdad.
The Iraqi Human Rights Commission said Saba Al Mahdawi, 37, was abducted on Saturday night while returning home from treating wounded anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square.
“We don’t know why she was kidnapped. The people who did it are unknown,” Dr Al Mahdawi’s brother, Yousef Hamid, told The National. “She was a normal person. She saw people and wanted to help.”
Iraq’s Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Her friends placed the responsibility for her disappearance on the government.
“Who would kidnap her? The enemy of the people,” said Mohamed Fadhel, a poet and activist who worked with Ms Al Mahdawi in Tahrir Square, Baghdad’s main protest site.
“Who is the enemy of the people? It’s the government. The government is responsible for her kidnapping and it’s responsible for her release.
“The corrupt people’s goal was to reduce the number of young Iraqis protesting but there are people who came here because Saba was kidnapped.
“They wanted to scare us, but our voice will be stronger than before.”
Since October, tens of thousands of people in the Iraqi capital and across the south have taken part in protests that began with demands to end corruption, improve living standards and provide employment.
The protests have since turned their anger against foreign influence in Iraq, particularly by Iran.
Security forces have killed more than 260 protesters in two waves of demonstrations since October 1.
The government says it needs time to enact the reforms and changes but the public says it is too little, too late.
Sohaila Al Assam, a women’s rights activist, said dozens of people have been coming out in central Baghdad in solidarity with the abducted doctor.
“There are no words to describe what has happened to Saba,” Ms Assam said.
“We are still waiting to hear back from the government about her situation.”
Women fall victim to threats and intimidation during difficult times, Ms Al Assam said.
Saba ‘laughed in the face of the pain we live in’
Activist Dina Al Tai, 34, said she met Dr Al Mahdawi in Tahrir Square on October 25, a day after the protests resumed.
“Saba was walking alone and we were part of a larger group of girls and we had some boys with us,” Ms Al Tai said. “So we said, ‘Why don’t you come with us?'”
Iraq’s younger generation “want to help each other out so the uprising will continue”, she said.
Ms Al Tai said she was one of the last people to see Dr Al Mahdawi before her disappearance on November 2.
They were both working all day in the square preparing food for the demonstrators.
Dr Al Mahdawi also collected donations for medicine and helped protesters with severe injuries to be taken away for treatment.
“Saba was severely tear gassed and had to brought back to the tent,” Ms Al Tai said.
She said that despite the difficult circumstances, Dr Al Mahdawi stayed strong.
“She laughed in the face of all of the pain that we are living in here. It’s not easy to work here as a volunteer,” Ms Al Tai said.
About 10pm, Dr Al Mahdawi’s’s friends suggested she go home to rest.
Mr Fadhel said he accompanied her to Nasser Square, near the entrance to the street leading to Tahrir Square.
The streets were full of traffic so she took a bus to get to her car, which was parked a few streets away, he said.
They were in contact with Dr Al Mahdawi until she got to her car. But about an hour later, Mr Fadhel received a phone call from her family asking about her whereabouts.
“We said she left,” he said. “They said we haven’t heard from her for more than an hour and she still hasn’t come. So we began to feel anxious.”
They went to Sheikh Zayed Hospital to check if she had gone to get treatment for tear gas inhalation but she was not there.
“I saw that her personality was beautiful, she had power and was brave,” Mr Fadhel said.
“So this of course threatened the corrupt people. Her support was the reason for her kidnapping.”
The mother of Saba Mahdawi, a doctor and activist who had been providing medical aid to protesters, said she has been kidnapped by “armed, masked men on pick-up trucks” as she headed home from demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square late on Saturday evening.
“We don’t know where she was taken,” she said, adding that an hour before, she had told her she was on her way home.
“She did nothing wrong, I swear to God!” said Mahdawi’s mother.
“She’s just a civil activist. She is not affiliated with any party, anywhere. It’s just that she and her friends made a group – even us at home helped them. And she got taken,” she added.
Eyewitnesses have confirmed that armed men seized Mahdawi in central Baghdad, driving her away while she screamed and called for her mother.
Authorities have been criticised for inaction, as witnesses claim to have reported the license plate of the car that drove Mahdawi away.
Fellow activists have launched a social media campaign to bring awareness to Mahdawi’s abduction, using the hashtag #وين_صبا (#Where_is_Saba).
The Iraqi Human Rights Commission confirmed on Sunday that Mahdawi had been abducted the previous evening, but did not say who had seized her.
The Commission urged security forces to investigate the matter and other “organised kidnapping operations” in recent weeks.
It called Mahdawi’s abduction “a mark of shame for the whole of Iraqi society”.
The crackdown on Iraq’s anti-government protesters has been brutal, with at least 265 protesters killed and over 11,000 injured since October 1.
This protests are fuelled by grievances around unemployment and corruption, mainly directed at the political elite, but they have also challenged Iran and its perceived out-sized influence on national politics.
Iran backs various armed groups in Iraq, including the powerful paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also known as the Hashed al-Shaabi.
Many activists fear violent reprisals from these heavily armed pro-Iran groups if the rallies continue to counter the Islamic republic’s influence.
Meanwhile Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dismissed the protests in both Iraq and Lebanon as US, Israeli and Saudi conspiracies.
Activists have been targeted since the beginning of the protests, with observers saying that the tactics are meant to intimidate and put pressure on activists, bloggers and media figures to stop supporting the demonstrations.
Belarus kept old factories, jobs, and social services alive after communism. Now that model is under threat from Russian gas price increases
Andrei Suslenkou, director for ideological work at the Minsk Tractor Factory, is proudly showing off the benefits his company offers, at low or no cost, to more than 30,000 workers and retirees. At the plant’s health clinic, 560 doctors and staff use sleek Western equipment to provide care from routine checkups to surgery, including laser eyesight correction. A Palace of Culture opposite the factory’s ornate, Stalin-era gates includes a plush theater wired for light and sound. It just hosted a concert in honor of the “Day of Machine Builders.” Outside the capital, a woodland sanatorium provides cures, vacations, and summer camps for 300 employees’ kids at a time. “They were smart professionals back then who set up these social services,” says Suslenkou, adding that he audited the system Soviet planners made for the factory and found little “excess” to cut.
Call it the Belarus exception. Almost 28 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this deeply cautious nation of 9.5 million—rolled over through the centuries by Moscow’s wars with other parts of Europe—has kept alive many of the industrial jobs and social ecosystems that centrally planned factory budgets once supported across the bloc.
In the West, Belarus is probably best known as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Less recognized is that its transition from command to semi-market economy, delivered at the speed of a mud-bound tractor, has by some economic measures made this a better place to live than any other former Soviet republic, barring the three Baltic States that joined the European Union. Belarus scores better on inequality than any EU nation (including the likes of Denmark), and has a smaller percentage of people living on less than $5.50 per day, a World Bank measure of poverty, than any other part of what was once the Soviet Union, half of the EU’s 28 member states, or the U.S.
In place of the potholed roads, rundown buildings, and the depopulation found in some other struggling ex-Soviet nations, President Alexander Lukashenko, now 65 and in charge since 1994, has turned Minsk into something of a Soviet theme park. It’s a vision of how he believes things might have been without the communist empire’s 1991 collapse. Statues of Lenin and other Bolshevik heroes still dominate cityscapes. Stalin-era buildings and boulevards are immaculately maintained and painted; parks are manicured and pavements swept clean. After Lukashenko visited the tractor factory in 2015, managers restored communist-era friezes removed during the campaign against “architectural excesses” that followed Stalin’s death, in 1953.
“I think Belarus does have a unique path,” one that has had some under-recognized benefits such as stability, says Alexander Pivovarsky, the EBRD’s country manager, in an interview at his office in central Minsk. “But we believe the economic model of Belarus is unsustainable.”
Indeed, Lukashenko’s exception is now under threat, for the same reason it would be hard for others to emulate: It was made possible by billions of dollars’ worth of de facto annual Russian energy subsidies, in the form of large quantities of crude oil which Belarus buys at a discount. Russia is withdrawing those subsidies through a so-called tax maneuver, which will eliminate an exemption that benefitted Belarus. Its refineries already pay 80% of the world price for Russian oil—up from 50% five years ago—and as a result of the tax change they will pay full price by 2025, at a cost, says the government, of $10 billion over those six years. (Belarus also pays as little as half as much as Western European countries for Russian natural gas. Negotiations to continue that discount are ongoing.)
Without compensation for these lost subsidies, Belarus may have to restructure its legacy state-owned factories, losing many of the jobs and welfare systems they sustain. “What you have to remember is that Belarus is an oil economy. It doesn’t look like an oil exporter, but it is, because all the time it has been getting cheap oil from Russia,” which it then refines for re-export to Europe, says Sergei Guriev, a former chief economist for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. “That’s about to change, and we have this hour of reckoning.”
The Kremlin is making any compensation to soften the blow contingent on a deal to integrate the two countries. That’s forcing Lukashenko to navigate a choice he has long sought to avoid: Cut a deal with Russia, at the risk of being seen to sacrifice sovereignty, or put the nation’s heavy industry on a commercial footing and turn westward for support, risking retribution from Moscow. An agreement resulting from months of intense negotiations is due to be signed on Dec. 8.
Until now, Lukashenko has managed dealings with Russia in a way that other ex-Republics have been unable to achieve. In part thanks to the resulting stability, Belarus’s per capita gross domestic product is, in U.S. dollar terms, about twice as high as in fellow ex-republics Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine. Those three countries have experimented more with market economics, democracy, and a pro-European direction, which brought clashes with Moscow. Instead of cheap energy, they got Russian sanctions, political interference, and territorial dismemberment. The price Belarusians have had to pay for that stability, in terms of lost human rights protections and political freedoms, has been exorbitant. The domestic security service is still called the KGB. A 2018 United Nations report cited abuses that ranged from police torture to restrictions on the freedom of expression.
Yet a lot has changed since Belarusians voted in a referendum to keep the Soviet Union intact by a margin of 84% to 16%, shortly before it collapsed in 1991. On coming to power, Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, took advantage of that nostalgia to turn the clock back on liberal reforms made in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Among other measures, he abolished some direct local elections, limited the right to buy and sell farmland and restored Russian as an official language. He also moved Independence Day to mark the Soviet liberation of Minsk from Nazi occupation, in 1944, instead of Belarus’s 1990 declaration of sovereignty from the Soviet Union.
He wasn’t shy about his views on private enterprise, either. “In 10 years, I’ll shake the hand of the last entrepreneur,” he said in 1995, according to local media reports. “Entrepreneurs are lousy fleas, there is no need for them!” Four years later, he signed a deal with Russia to merge the two countries’ political and economic institutions to form a partially reunified state that he seemed—in the days before Vladimir Putin took over in Moscow—a viable candidate to head.
Today, Lukashenko pins medals on entrepreneurs’ chests and casts himself as defender of Belarus sovereignty. About 50% of the economy is in private hands. In downtown Minsk, numerous bars, restaurants, and private shops have sprung up among the city’s Stalin-era buildings and the sprinkling of stores that still advertise their wares, Soviet-style, as just “Shoes,” “Books,” or “Groceries.” And for all his reluctance to privatize big, state-owned employers, Lukashenko has used targeted tax breaks and regulatory dispensations to encourage the growth of a vibrant private tech sector. This has helped produce the makers of the global hit video game World of Tanks, as well as IT outsourcing company Epam Systems Inc., listed on the New York Stock Exchange with a market cap of more than $11 billion.
“These are real success stories,’’ says Guriev, now a professor of economics at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Still, both tech companies moved their headquarters out of the country as soon as they grew big—Epam to New York and Wargaming Group Ltd. to Cyprus. “Entrepreneurs are not protected from the KGB,” Guriev says.
What made Belarus different from its neighbors was Lukashenko’s refusal to privatize the economy in the 1990s, preventing the emergence of the powerful so-called oligarchs who snapped up vast state assets in Ukraine and Russia, according to Pavel Daneyko, director general of the IPM Business School in Minsk. Rather than acquire Soviet-rooted companies like the Minsk tractor factory, known as MTZ, would-be entrepreneurs in Belarus had to build businesses from scratch in greenfield sectors such as IT and retail. The owner of a chain of supermarkets, Eurotorg LLC, now claims to be the nation’s largest private company by number of employees.
For a long time, Lukashenko’s hostility to private enterprise made that development difficult. “In 2005, the KGB told me to leave the country for a couple of years,” says Daneyko. The business school he ran at the time was being forced to close. “I went to Moscow, and I thought Russia was a kind of paradise for business, compared to Belarus,” he says. With the emergence of a relatively benign, oligarch-free, if limited form of capitalism, Belarus has, according to Daneyko, turned the tables.
Belarusians are no longer as keen as they once were to be ruled from Moscow. A recent opinion survey by the non-government polling agency BAW found that 75.6% of respondents wanted Belarus and Russia to remain independent, friendly states. Even as it tries to limit the coming deal with the Kremlin to economic integration, the government is also trying to sign a trade agreement with the EU and to boost trade and investment ties with China. “Belarus has always acutely sensed the breath of the geopolitical wind,” Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said, during an October conference in Minsk. “Recently, we have been living under constant storm alert.”
The problem for Belarus is that “while they have achieved the impossible—preserving all the advantages they had—so that they now have a future,” that strategy has left the country dependent on Russia to an extent that trade data underestimate, says Vasily Kashin, a defense specialist and senior research fellow in Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
For example, MTZ exports more than 90% of the 32,000 tractors it makes every year, with Russia—by far the largest market—buying about a third of them. Belarus’s other big machinery plants are at least as dependent. A quarter of exports to Europe, meanwhile, are petroleum products, dependent on discounted crude coming from Moscow. “Russia could shut them all down within months; the economy would collapse,” says Kashin.
Belarus’s burgeoning tech sector, in part a legacy of the country’s specialization in producing the electronics at the smart end of the Soviet military machine, is far less Russia-dependent. The government offers tax and regulatory relief to companies accepted into a virtual Hi-Tech Park; that help is essential precisely because the competition is global and comes from the likes of India, as well as Russia, Europe, and the U.S., says Yury Pliashkou, founder and chief executive of IdeaSoft, a small IT outsourcing company in Minsk.
Tech, however, isn’t enough. The economy as a whole has grown at a snail’s pace since the global financial crisis (an average 1.7% per annum since 2009, compared to 7.5% over the previous decade). According to one estimate, that slide has coincided with a drop in Russian energy subsidies to between 5% and 10% of Belarus’s GDP, from a pre-crisis high of 20% of GDP. A top official at state oil company Belneftekhim said at the end of October that Belarus refineries lost $250 million over the first nine months of this year, a result of the latest changes to Russia’s tax code.
The government has been racking up debt to keep its economic model afloat. The economy has also begun to look less egalitarian, with wealth concentrating in tech-heavy Minsk as most other regions fall behind. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that unless Lukashenko can secure compensation from Moscow, the change to Russia’s tax rules for its energy companies will cost the country a further 5.2% of its annual $60 billion GDP by 2023. The solution, according to the fund: Either restructure, privatize, or close those big, legacy Soviet factories to cut government spending on subsidies, much as was done elsewhere during the 1990s.
“We are moving to liberalize, but gradually, we are not going to do it in a shock manner,” says Anatoly Glaz, spokesman for the foreign ministry. “You see the situation in a number of countries, including those near us; social stability is important to us.” Glaz also pushed back against the whole concept of Russian subsidies, arguing that Moscow is obliged to sell energy to Belarusian companies at the same price as to Russian ones under the integrated market rules of the Eurasian Economic Union, to which both countries belong. “It is not a subsidy, it is a question of equality, of equal prices. They can even be world prices, but they must be the same, otherwise we cannot compete in the same market.”
On the production line back at MTZ, workers currently assemble 120 models and modifications of tractors, up from four in the Soviet days, from tiny 8-horsepower machines to 350-horsepower, computer aided monsters that can cost upward of $120,000. Computers allocate the required parts and operate the 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) of conveyor belts that supply production lines. It’s a commercial operation now, says Suslenkou, as paying tourists file into the main production hall before moving on to a gut-wrenching, strap-in tractor race simulator and finally, a gift shop selling everything from toy tractors to a branded ax. As for worker benefits, “we’ve noticed that the companies that closed their social services are the ones that are now having trouble retaining workers,” he says. The medical clinic alone costs MTZ $4 million a year to run, according to its chief doctor.
Published annual accounts suggest MTZ turns a profit. If that’s accurate, it’s likely thanks to a basic $12,000–$14,000 tractor model that remains popular across the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Asia because it’s inexpensive and simple enough for farmers to fix themselves. Others among Belarus’s legacy industries have struggled harder to keep markets or find new ones.
Daneyko, the business school director, was recently hired to advise on a turnaround plan for one of these, the state-owned combine harvester maker OSJC Gomselmash. Restructuring such ex-Soviet behemoths, he says, will inevitably lead to privatization. And with that could come the end of Lukashenko’s post-Soviet dream.
Struggling for decades to find its voice, the Iraqi Communist Party is helping shape the battle for the nation’s soul
Supporters of the Iraqi Communist Party chant slogans during a rally marking Labour Day in the capital Baghdad (AFP)
Compared to the ostentatiously huge buildings afforded to some of the parties in Baghdad, the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) are relatively humble.
The building comprises a shop, offices and a small function room decorated with modernist art and depictions of communist martyrs, including former executed leader Yusuf Salman Yusuf.
Iraq’s oldest continuously existing political party is no longer the mighty force it was in the mid-20th century when it was arguably the largest mass membership party in the country – and the largest communist party in the Middle East. But with the nation gripped in the kind of social upheaval that cries out for Marxist analysis, the party is in its element.
Iraqi protests: Iranian consulate torched in Najaf as death toll mounts
So far, the ICP is the only party to have fully withdrawn from the Iraqi parliament in response to the government’s fierce crackdown on protests which began last month, which has so far seen at least 355 people killed and tens of thousands injured.
Mass public anger has largely been focused on the country’s political parties, accused of cronyism, corruption and connections to violent armed groups.
According to Raid Fahmi, the ICP’s general secretary, the party is the only one which is not treated with total scorn by the protesters.
“Different communists are there as individuals, they are among different groups,” he explained, speaking to Middle East Eye.
“We respect the general rules of the protest movement – but they know who the communists are, present within them, and they accept the communists. Other parties are not accepted.”
A widespread perception exists that Iraq’s political parties are largely confessionalist and clientalist – all follow a cleric or a tribal leader, or represent a religious or ethnic minority, and are basically seen as working to see that their particular interest group has access to state services, jobs and funds.
The ICP has long presented itself as the only genuinely non-sectarian party in the country – although conversely this has also coincided with a perception that its members are atheists, a drawback in a deeply religious country.
Visibly enthused about the demonstrations, Fahmi – one of the ICP MPs who resigned on 27 October – said that the authorities had “misread” the situation in Iraq and the potential scope of the protests.
“They are still betting on its fatigue or that it will dwindle down gradually,” he said. “Which is wrong, because it keeps getting new impetus and new momentum from new forces and new forms and we can see the different forms in different provinces.”
Fahmi cited the use of general strikes, which he described as “the most effective since 1921, since the creation of the Iraqi state”, and the expansion of the protests into the student population, into the middle classes, into a wide spectrum of Iraqi society, as proof of the protests’ malleability.
The ICP has, since 2018, been in political alliance with the popular Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – in the May elections of that year, their Sairoun alliance took the largest number of seats in parliament, off the back of a campaign based on opposing corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq.
Although formalised in 2018, there has been tacit cooperation between the two groups since at least 2015, which saw Baghdad and other regions rocked by protests against corruption – albeit not on the scale seen in 2019.
The alliance has been criticised by some on both sides, who see the secular communists’ arrangement with the religiously conservative Sadrists as a sellout to Islamism.
The ICP has defended the move on the basis that both groups seek to represent the poorest and most marginalised groups in society.
In terms of an economic programme, the ICP’s current platform may also surprise those used to equating communism with mass nationalisation.
Arguing that Iraq is still in a stage of “capitalist development”, Fahmi suggested that a mixed-economy “social market” was the most reasonable way forward, along with the building of institutions such as trade unions and social security.
“People are insisting on social justice, that means they are against ultra-liberalism – those who call for a free-market economy, in our condition that means polarisation of wealth and poverty and lack of development,” he explained.
“You may have islands of development but you will have not social and economic development.”
Many of the protesters’ demands chime with those of the ICP – an end to corruption, an end to the distribution of government positions on a sectarian basis, and the implementation of secular governance.
The desire for social justice has also been at the forefront of protesters’ demands, even if there has been little sketched out in terms of an economic plan.
But Fahmi is critical of a number of other positions – in particular, the repeated demand by activists for the creation of a presidential system in Iraq and the reduction of the number of seats in parliament.
“We believe a presidential system in Iraq is not appropriate,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t look into how you redistribute powers between the presidency and the parliament, probably you can make some kinds of amendment, but without putting into question the parliamentary system.”
He warned against the “retreat towards more centralisation at the expense of freedom and liberties”, adding that it was important to maintain the country’s federal system in order to reflect the “diversity of Iraqi society”.
‘Symbols of the revolution’
Numerous stalls litter Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which has become the focal point for Iraq’s uprising.
Many cater for culture, medicine, communication and a whole host of other issues surrounding the months-long demonstrations.
In the centre, one stall proudly display pictures and quotes by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Nawal el-Saadawi.
This abashed display of communist heroes – and one Egyptian feminist author – was not set up by the ICP, however, but by the smaller Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI).
Followers of Mansoor Hekmat, the late Iranian Marxist, the party distinguishes itself by its assertion that neither the Soviet Union nor the People’s Republic of China were ever socialist, as well as its ultra-secularism.
“They are symbols of the revolution, they are symbols of the social protest,” said Aamar Sharif, a WCPI member, referring to the banners.
He said that there needed to be more than cosmetic changes to Iraqi society, which would require more than just a reform to electoral laws or the arrest of a few corrupt individuals.
“The government should be replaced by a people’s government, not another corrupt parliament,” he explained.
Sharif said that democracy did not consist of “choosing one person every four years” and then sitting at home.
“People must practice their rule everyday,” he said.
In addition, he argued, the need for secularism had become more apparent than ever.
“There is no freedom without secularism – the sectarian system in Iraq has done so many crimes against people,” he said.
“Now people actually demand that – even the religious people, they don’t want a religious government.
“That’s why we support the secular system in Iraq, so that everyone, religious or non-religious, can live equally in the country.”
Hekmat, one of the WCPI’s founders, is now buried in Highgate Cemetery in north London, metres away from the enormous bust atop Karl Marx’s grave.
Alongside him lie numerous other Iraqi communists, such as Saad Saadi Adi and Jamil Munir Abdul-Hamid – victims over decades of repression by various monarchists, Ba’athists and Islamists.
Once a powerful force in Iraq, the history of the left since the 1970s has largely been one of exile, arrest, murder and, worst of all, irrelevance.
The overthrow of their longtime enemy Saddam Hussein in 2003 only marginally improved their fortunes.
Iraqi Communist MP who resigned over protest violence now calls for government to step down
Gripped for so long by war and sectarianism, the space for discussion about social change and the material concerns of the people of Iraq has been severely limited.
In this sense, the latest demonstrations represent a new opportunity and, said Fahmi, make “certain things possible that were not possible before”.
“We believe that the protest movement, which has developed into some kind of uprising, needs to maintain the initiative, and in order to maintain the initiative they will gradually need some kind of leadership – and this leadership needs to come from within, not from without.”
He said that though it was unlikely the protests would subside, the question of social and economic change would eventually need to come to the fore alongside the question of political change.
“[Demonstrators] say we need social justice, we need public services, we see that education and health have been more or less not accessible to ordinary people,” he explained.
“So these are demands – what system will provide [an answer to] these demands, what is the priority, what is the role of the state? These issues are debatable.”
The Birth (Te tamari no atua), 1896. Found in the Collection of Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
Paul Gauguin is under attack from supporters of post-colonialism and feminism because of his erotic paintings of Polynesian girls and women. Is censoring art of long-dead artists for moral reasons constructive?
Curators of the current display of Gauguin portraits at the National Gallery in London have not included any of his famous nudes, even though they could be described as portraits. Gauguin is in the firing line because of his erotic paintings of Polynesian women and his life, while living in Polynesia from 1891 until his death in 1903. The attacks come from supporters of post-colonialism and feminism. Academic post-colonial studies treat colonialism and all its products as irredeemably unjust; feminism is deeply hostile to any sexualised depictions of women by men.
Some criticism of Gauguin has been vicious: “He was, in almost every way, an absolute prick.” “Exquisite art by the Harvey Weinstein of the 19th century,” adds another review. The exhibition seems part artistic assessment and part historical trial.
Gauguin in Polynesia
“Gauguin undoubtedly exploited his position as a privileged Westerner to make the most of sexual freedoms available to him.” So a wall text in the National Gallery, London declares. The truth of the matter is – as expected – more complicated than press and critics portray it.
Contes Barbares (Barbarian Tales). Found in the Collection of Museum Folkwang, Essen.
Two reasons for Gauguin to visit French Polynesia were primitivism and sex. He was searching for a “primitive” culture that he could use to revitalize European art. He was also interested in the native women. Tahiti appealed to Europeans because of its climate, wildlife, food and culture; it was also famed for the attractiveness and sexual availability of its women. By the time Gauguin arrived, Polynesian customs had been almost erased by missionary conversion of islanders to Catholicism and rule of French colonists. Sexual relations between Westerners and locals were a grey area, with European and Polynesian traditions overlapping.
By taking a Tahitian mistress, Teha’amana (aged about 13 when they first met), the (married) artist probably committed deception. We do not have the testimony of Teha’amana, who died around 1919. As Elizabeth Childs points out in a catalogue essay, the situation was not a clear-cut abuse of power. Such relationships between unmarried partners – and partners different in age and national background – were not uncommon in Tahiti and it seems her family may have approved of the relationship.
The weakness of museums
How far should we go in morally judging long-dead artists?
Imposing our standards on those who lived in different eras and societies demonstrates unwillingness to empathize. Self-appointed representatives of groups, who have increasing influence over what we are allowed to see, have a righteous intolerance to anything that conflicts with how they view the world should be. Rather than examine ethical matters in a dispassionate manner, their response is ruthlessly authoritarian. These moral arbiters act like tyrannical mothers protecting their children. Yet we are not children. We have our own moral standards and life experiences; we can decide what is acceptable. No one needs protection from Gauguin paintings, which are neither dangerous nor obscene.
We do not reject theories of scientists or mathematicians because their behaviour was dubious, but we view art as having moral stature and that makes us sensitive to artists’ personal morality. Yet many of us are capable of detaching art from artist. We can separate Picasso’s infidelity from his paintings. We can love Richard Dadd’s art without condoning him killing his father.
Revenge on history
We should be aware that another motivation for censorious gatekeepers is revenge. Censoring paintings is revenge against their creator. Why should this moral criminal have art in museums, when he has perpetrated moral crimes? Some art is suppressed, and curators feel they have to publicly castigate the artist in texts. The moralising in exhibition catalogues and captions (including a recent one about Gauguin, held at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) demonstrates that these actions are public performance, intended to show that the cultural elite abhors “historical injustice”. This is emotional theatre which demeans art, distorts history and patronizes audiences.
The idea of censoring art for moral reasons is counterproductive. What better way of prompting people to reflect on colonial experience than by showing Gauguin’s nudes in order to make us think about the lives of these women? By hiding evidence of colonialism, puritanical gatekeepers actually make it unreal. Gatekeepers want to have authority over what we are able to access. How long until all colonial material is removed from museums? When will classical art depicting rape be removed because it might upset victims of sexual assault? Already there are campaigns demanding such actions, and museums in the West are woefully weak at articulating the Enlightenment values of museum culture that would defend museum independence.
Threatened by campaigners and battered by critics keen to display their “woke” credentials, museums in the West are a soft target. Museum staff are unwilling to defend traditional goals of their own institutions. If matters continue this way, museums will be held captive by a tiny handful of activists forever moving the goalposts.
We must reject moralising pressure groups by asserting our rights as informed independent individuals to make our own judgments about culture and history.