What Is Missing from the Conversation about Iraqi Elections and Extremism?

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

On January 15, a terrorist attack hit my hometown of Baghdad, Iraq. About twenty-six people were killed and many were injured. Attacks such as this are unfortunately to be expected, as national elections will be held in June and contending political parties are employing hyperbolic language to engage their audiences.

This is the fourth parliamentary election to be held in the war-torn country, which just claimed that ISIS has been defeated.

Yet many Iraqis are coming to realize that ISIS cannot be defeated fully unless the ecosystem that allows groups such as ISIS to grow can be stamped out.

It is sometimes forgotten that many victims of terrorism inside Iraq happen to be Muslim—or at least born Muslim—but many are having an adverse reaction to establishment politics since the war, which serves only to perpetuate the dying.

As a result, a new sort of reactionary politics is manifesting itself in a call for a strong secular state, one that will destroy the ecosystem that allows civil war to fester. This reactionary politics, while undoubtedly reactionary, is not necessarily negative on net. It may be the best opportunity to forge a future for Iraq that transcends the endless confrontation between dueling sectarians.

Yet something is missing from the conversation about Iraq’s future. What is missing is popular support for emerging parties that call for a secular government and civil society and that lean away from the sectarian partisan parties that are ruling the country. Many Iraqis are sick and tired of the Islamist ruling parties that preserve the status quo, but they are not being heard.

As a result, potentially promising parties and political movements lack support, because it’s far easier to start a sectarian terrorist group in Iraq than to start a liberal one.

If you would like to start a Sunni Islamist party, you can get media backing from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states. If you would like to start a Shia party, you would get support from Hezbollah and Iran. (In part, this reflects the ongoing proxy war between the two major states: Iran and Saudi Arabia.)

It’s time for actors in the West and the international community to support these “reactionary” politicians and encourage them to see that they—and we—share a common cause.

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is as powerful as the Soviet Union once was. Cold-war–style balance-of-power politics don’t apply anymore—nor will they help to create a useful balance of power.

There is only one choice the West can make to defeat extremism in Iraq. It involves declining to support either of the regimes that fund it.

What is sometimes forgotten is that stopping the next terrorist attack in Baghdad might very well prevent the next terrorist attack in the West—say, in Manhattan. Why? Because what happens in Baghdad, unlike Vegas, doesn’t stay in Baghdad.

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is an Iraqi-born human rights activist and president of the newly launched organization Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB). The mission of IBB is to promote the free exchange of ideas and defend human rights to counter extremist naratives and authoritarian institutions.


Iraq needs a future beyond the dueling sectarians.

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