They say freedom means they can do what they want. This is not freedom. Freedom does not mean you can transgress traditions. There are traditions and rules in an Eastern society that are different from a Western society. Every Iraqi has a right to act against these transgressions.
-- Heider Jabari, spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr
They focused on the women. They were beating them viciously.
-- Basra student Osama Adnan
(Anthony Shadid, Washington Post)
Thus the reaction from Moqtada al-Sadr's religious goon squad to a gathering of some 700 students in a Basra park on March 15. Outraged at the sight of young people picnicking, listening to music and freely intermingling--worse, many women were not wearing hejab--between 20-40 of Sadr's blackshirts attacked the Springtime fete with guns, sticks and heavy electrical cables, injuring and robbing several, hauling at least 10 away in pick-up trucks.
The assault triggered several days of protests by students and their families, who demanded an apology and the disbanding of the school's morality police. Surprised at the public outcry, Sadr's office issued an apology--of sorts. "There was a mistake in our execution, but we had the right to intervene," said Mr. Jabari.
Mr. Shadid notes that despite the fright and injuries the students suffered in the melee, they have
managed what no local party or politician has yet done: They interrupted, if briefly, a tide of religious conservatism that has shuttered liquor stores in a city that once had dozens, meted out arbitrary justice and encouraged women to wear a veil and dress in a way considered modest.
"The students broke through the barriers of fear," said Ali Abbas Khafif, a 55-year-old writer and union organizer jailed for 23 years under former president Saddam Hussein. "This was the first mass response to religious power."
Still, unlike what we've seen across the Middle East (I refer you to my piece in Monday's National Review Online), the Basra students' rebellion against tribal Islam may be fleeting "in a city," Mr. Shadid writes, "where Islamic activism and guns go hand in hand. Even in their moment of triumph, many secular students acknowledge they are fighting a losing battle; some suggest it is already lost."
(Beginning next month I will be in Basra, where I will observe and report on these developments first hand.)
But let's parse these events and see what we can make of them. Oppression thrives in secret; exposure to the light of public scrutiny reveals the true face of illegitimate power and constellates perhaps the most potent and revolutionary reaction to its brutality--revulsion. No doubt many Basrans and Iraqis view Sadr's actions as necessary, if not admirable. But most, I'll wager, interpret the sight of masked armed men publicly beating helpless students--helpless female students--as despicable, contemptible, pathetic. The noble and strong do not act this way; the craven and cowardly do. Cravenness, cowardice--these are taboo, psychic stains to be avoided. Despite being armed with guns, truncheons and public sentiment that was hostile to civil rights, the reactionaries lost on the day that Bull Connor unleashed his dogs on peaceful marchers of Birmingham. Moqtada al-Sadr has taken another step into the barren wastes of Connor Country. It will take time, but he, like the Alabama sheriff and his ilk, will shrivel and die as well.
Nor should we overlook the fact that his Al Mahdi Army seized the opportunity to exercise their righteous might on females. More than a vile display of bullying, these actions expose the misogyny that lies at the base of religious oppression. The image of the park, the spring weather, the relaxed and natural fellowship among young people and the intimations of erotic interplay between them--disrupted suddenly by black-clad men brandishing weapons and spouting religious slogans: it is, in a microcosm, the very essence of the patriarchal psyche that structures its existence, power and raison d'etre on the suppression of the female spirit. They call it tradition, they call it religious piety, but strip away the moralistic cant and intimidating rhetoric and its true nature becomes clear: fear and loathing of women.