There are an estimated 1.5 million African Iraqis in Iraq today but they are hardly ever seen in the country's political, and even its social and cultural, life. A former champion boxer, Salem Shaaban, heads the Movement of Free Iraqis, or Ansar Al Huriyah, an organisation that advocates for Iraqis of African origin. Shaaban talked to NIQASH about the challenges his organisation faces as it tries to improve the profile of Iraqi Africans and combat discrimination against them. And he outlines a change of strategy that he hopes will see the Movement of Free Iraqis join up with some of the country's larger political parties.
NIQASH: Can you tell us some more about your organisation?
Salem Shaaban: The planning conference for the Movement of Free Iraqis - the first organisation of its kind to defend the rights of Iraqis of African origin in Iraq and the Middle East - was in 2009 and it was held directly after Barack Obama's victory in the US Presidential elections. During that conference, we formulated our founding principles and announced the names of board members – this included two women board members.
NIQASH: We know that the organisation often sends candidates to campaign for election. What other things have you been doing?
Shaaban: The Movement has held a number of seminars and workshops to discuss issues related to the challenges faced in a society divided along factional and sectarian lines. But really, raising the morale and the profile of Iraqis of African origin and increasing their role in society is our most important task.
NIQASH: And what does the Movement of Free Iraqis want? Are your aims political?
Shaaban: We don't necessarily want to see more Iraqis of African origin in politics. We would rather develop some sort of mechanism that can address discrimination against us. A lot of people still call us “abed” [which means “slave”] and that is insulting. It's a way of thinking about us that is deeply rooted in this culture.
Our people are still suffering because they live in social isolation. This makes them reluctant to participate in public life because they know they're going to be abused. It keeps them uneducated and illiterate, in isolation. So it's difficult to even think about participating in politics or having people go to school with confidence, so they can work and gain positions that would increase their self confidence.
NIQASH: How would you assess the level of your success in electoral competition?
Shaaban: During the 2010 provincial elections in Basra, I was nominated to run, along with other members of the Movement of Free Iraqis. I think that because I am a well known athlete in Iraq I was able to win a lot of votes. I was an Iraqi boxing champion in the 1970s. My colleagues also won votes but none of us were able to get an actual seat on the provincial council. Other parties in Basra have a lot more resources and did a lot of campaigning as well as distributing money and aid to voters. We were unable to offer anything except our electoral promises.
I was also nominated to compete in the 2011 elections on the list for minorities. But the list is a Kurdish one and I didn't get any support from them. Additionally the amount of money that the electoral commission wanted as a financial guarantee was beyond me. Smaller parties and independents simple cannot compete with the bigger parties that have such tremendous financial resources.
NIQASH: have you considered building alliances with other, larger political parties?
Shaaban: Yes. If we had done this earlier we might have been able to win seats on the provincial council in Basra. In the future we will work with bigger parties. Partially this is also for protection. After Jalal Thiyab was assassinated [in April 2013; Thiyab, the founder of the Movement, was often referred to as “the Martin Luther King of Iraq”] a lot of people were reluctant to compete in the elections. Additionally the larger parties will help us with financial support. In this way we hope to overcome our biggest challenges.