Young Iraqis find inspiration in past to fight injustice today
Karbala (Iraq) (AFP) –
Frustrated by corruption and a lack of jobs, young Iraqis are finding inspiration in Imam Hussein, a seventh-century religious figure seen as embodying the struggle against injustice.
"Most young people are tired and frustrated, because they study for years at university then can't find jobs," said Karrar Abdulamir, 31, who volunteers with a youth-led group that distributes free pizza during the Ashura commemorations.
"So maybe religion isn't a priority for them, but the spirituality around Ashura is different."
Millions of pilgrims converged on the shrine city of Karbala this week to mark the death of Imam Hussein, killed in battle with Umayyad Caliph Yazid's troops nearby in the year 680.
Hussein's death, the defining moment in the schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, is also seen by the latter as a rallying cry against injustice more generally -- something that chimes with Iraqi youths' frustrations today.
To mark his sacrifice, black-clad pilgrims mourn for 10 days, holding nightly processions through the shrine city of Karbala near the site of the imam's death, shouting prayers and eulogies.
This year the climax came on Thursday, when despite the coronavirus pandemic, some six million people took part in a vast procession to the mausoleum of Hussein.
Many young Iraqis see his life as an inspiration, one that took on new meaning in 2019 when mass protests against official corruption and incompetence swept Iraq, particularly Shiite-dominated regions.
The state response was brutal: officially some 600 people were killed and 30,000 wounded in connection with the movement.
Many have been kidnapped and some leading figures assassinated in killings that have almost entirely gone unpunished.
- Revolutionary slogans -
Ali, a 24-year-old who took part in the protests, says that while he is not particularly religious, Ashura has meaning for him.
"It's really important for me to take part in these events, to honour the Imam Hussein and the values he represents," said the engineering student, who hopes to leave Iraq to work for Apple in the US.
He said that Ashura mourning is a pressure valve for the sadness felt by many young Iraqis.
The pilgrims here organise themselves in groups, each led by a "radud" who leads the chanting during processions. Sometimes those chants have a distinct political flavour.
Amir Mohammed, 26, is a radud for one of the oldest groups in Karbala, the Abbasid Group.
"The Abbasid group is particularly known for its revolutionary slogans which talk about the suffering of the Iraqi people, corruption, wars and kidnappings, through revolutionary eulogies to Hussein," he said.
At the group's modest headquarters, adorned with black flags of mourning, Amir's teacher Kazim al-Wazani remembers how Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein banned all public expression of Ashura.
Since Hussein was toppled in an American-led invasion in 2003, "we have won some freedom. But those who dominate the political system waste their time stealing and couldn't care less about the suffering of the people."
Wazani's verses echo those sentiments, shared by many Iraqis sick of official graft and a lack of jobs and basic services.
"My people! Don't trust politicians, all they care about is keeping their posts!" runs one slogan.
Wazani, 63, sees an explicit link between Ashura and today's politics.
"Imam Hussein was a political man who came to bring a change in the regime at the time," he said.
"We are trying to inspire change through our political slogans."
© 2021 AFP