Karbala is home to some of Shiite Islam's holiest sites.
Karbala is one of the most conservative and religious cities in southern Iraq, as well as home to some of Shiite Islam’s most important shrines and sites. So it was disturbing to locals, when in 2015, demonstrators demanding reform, started chanting slogans like this: In the name of religion, thieves have stolen from us.
The protests had results. Over the ensuing years, religious leaders have been less enthusiastic about appearing publicly, if there was any chance they could be attacked by angry locals, as did actually happen several times.
Some even blame Islamic parties for an increase in atheism among Iraq’s youth.
Now those same Islamic politicians have started campaigning for upcoming elections. One of the first things they did was hang banners around the city warning against harming the sanctity of the pious city, and banning things like listening to music in public, wearing indecent clothing or displaying women’s clothing in shop windows.
Antagonistic demonstrators reacted with their own campaigns on social media, accusing the politicians of trying to use religion for political purposes. They called upon the authorities that run Karbala to provide state services and collect garbage rotting on streets instead of worrying about what was haram (not allowed) and halal (allowed).
In the 2014 elections, most people in Karbala voted for parties with a religious foundation. But now, thanks to the security crisis and financial issues, voter attitudes have changed.
In response, those close to the Islamic parties say that the criticisms are unfair. They believe that secular organisations or possibly members of the Arab nationalist Baath party – outlawed in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was overthrown – are behind the protests. Anyway, they say, they have not been in control of the country all by themselves. They have been working with all sectors of Iraqi society so they cannot be blamed for things going wrong. After all, they say, if we had really been in control, it would no longer be possible to buy alcohol in Iraq and women would all be veiled.
Fuad al-Drouki, a local member of the Shiite Muslim-majority Dawa party, argues that a number of positives must be attributed to Islamic politicians from his party, including the defeat of the extremist group known as the Islamic State, a better financial situation for Iraq and improvements in living conditions for many. “Even if we have a Shiite prime minister, he cannot make decisions without the approval of other politicians,” al-Drouki points out.
And al-Drouki remains confident about voters in Karbala: “The street in Karbala and in central and southern regions of Iraq has an Islamic identity that it will not abandon,” he notes.
Not everyone is as positive. “What some parties consider achievements in Karbala are actually failures,” says Raed al-Asali, one of the activists who participated in anti-corruption protests in Karbala. Because, he says, all they were actually doing was fixing problems they created themselves.
Additionally some locals even blame the Islamic parties for an increase in atheism among Iraq’s youth. They have lost their faith as they see parties with a religious foundation become involved in corruption and mismanagement.
Then again, the organisers of the protests have not been able to stand up any significant political competition against better-established religious politicians.
This may be why other secular parties, like the local Communist party, see the potential rejection of Islamic parties as an opportunity. Former branch leader, Kiffah Hassan, is optimistic, saying that his party is among the cleanest in Iraq when it comes to corruption – but this may well be because they never had much time in office.
“We have history and a good reputation,” Hassan says. “But only if we compete in the elections independently and keep away from other parties that previously participated in government.”
However, as has also been pointed out, just because the Islamic political parties appear to be less popular, that doesn’t mean that secular parties will get those votes. In fact it is also likely that many voters, disillusioned after years of corruption and security problems, may opt out altogether. And that means that those Islamic parties that do manage to mobilize their followers will win again.
A low turnout will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Iraqi elections, warns Khaled al-Ardawi, head of the Euphrates Centre for Development and Strategic Studies. He believes there is far less public support for the entire political process than previously which could translate into low turnout.
“This increase in the number of people who are angry at political parties could drag the country into more problems,” al-Ardawi told NIQASH. “Especially as none of those parties seem to have any kind of plan to deal with Iraq’s crises, many of which will just get worse. Eventually there might even be clashes between those on the street and the ruling authorities,” he cautions.