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Everyday Islam: Interview with Hayder Al-Mohammad

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Everyday Islam," and reflects specifically on the featured author's 2012 article "A Kidnapping in Basra: The Struggles and Precariousness of Life in Postinvasion Iraq."

Kathryn Zyskowski: Your article focuses on ethnographic accounts of postinvasion Iraq. How does an understanding of the “everyday work undertaken by Iraqis to maintain their own lives” give insight into the everyday realities of Iraq that are different from mainstream media accounts?

Hayder Al-Mohammad: The mainstream media and its supposed antithesis in the forms of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Bill Maher’s Real Time, among others, have been an absolute disaster in their reporting and engagement with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent catastrophe. But let us not also forget to give a friendly pat on the back to the tens, if not hundreds, of academics who moved into writing on Iraq on the back of the scantest knowledge and understanding of the country and the region.

The explosion of the guff on Iraq very quickly turned into a mire even by 2002, before the invasion, when certain key themes and categories already dominated discussions of the country: sectarianism, Jihad, tribalism, Islam, terrorism, etc. For an example of how bad things became, indeed still are, take the case of Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who is the chap who threw his shoes at George W. Bush during a press conference in Bagdad in 2008. (I always wonder where these great heroes were during the Ba’thist’s reign from 1968–2003? He said he was ready to be “martyred for the Iraqi nation.” Maybe he was not so keen on martyrdom before 2003? Maybe all was swell before then?) The media and academics managed to find “culture” in this cheap macho posturing by continually repeating: throwing one’s shoe at someone is considered offensive in Iraqi culture! This was a “cultural insight”; it spoke to the cultural formations and worldviews of Iraqis themselves. I’m not going to become all Levi-Straussian and claim shoe-throwing to be the universal taboo, but could someone please give me an idea of where in the world throwing a shoe at someone’s head is not offensive? Is there a tribe somewhere in the world where throwing a shoe at someone’s head without warning is considered an act of veneration?

What this example highlights is how almost everything that was taking place in Iraq, for example, acts of aggression and conflict, were rarely the things under analysis; rather, the Islamic/brown-skinned logics which underpinned them were the things that really required elucidation—I think some quarters might call it the “cultural dimension.” Iraq was dripping with culture; everything Iraqis said or did was cultural, they just did not know it.

Furthermore, everything one might want to say about Iraq was already caught up in the hot air of anti-Bush and Blair sentiment. The more brown people died, the more “Islamic” the causes behind the violence, the more or less right and culpable Bush/Blair became. But by 2005 I realized there was a domain that the blathering had not touched, indeed, did not and could not touch. That was the domain, or domains, of everyday life in Iraq. “Ordinary” Iraqis. Shop-owners, government workers who had as much to do with the Saddam regime as they had to do with the Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama regimes, the unemployed, the drunks, the philanderers—yes, they have sex in Iraq!—the petty thieves, the religious leaders, the good and bad poets; in short, the whole mish-mash of peoples found in the cities, towns, villages, and streets in Iraq.

If the brown folk were not being tortured and photographed while being so, or getting killed in the thousands every month to support sentiments outside Iraq, the invasion was a failure—one gets the unnerving feeling the deaths of a few thousand Iraqis would not have been taken as a disaster; no, it needed to be in the hundreds of thousands if not in the millions to be a real “policy failure.” It did not seem everyday life in Iraq was that important. A struggling pianist in Baghdad, or bloggers and documentary filmmakers who struggled as much as anyone in Iraq, were some of the examples of the ultimate repercussions of invading the country. Sure, maybe a few observers dipped into the “ordinary” to show Iraqis as misogynists, homophobes, and so on, but the everyday really did remain relatively untouched by academics and journalists.

Such an untouched space is crucial if one is to try to say something about Iraq that does not require the almost endless qualifications, clarifications, and corrections needed to write about any of the domains the academics and journalists were fascinated by.

To answer the question you posed, turning to the “everyday work undertaken by Iraqis to maintain their own lives” was the only way I could begin to show, without framing it in just negative terms, that the picture of Iraq floated by the media and academics, by the left and the right, really did not touch almost any of the problems most Iraqis faced, and continue to face to this day. It was a way out for me, to not become entangled in debates being had by people who know very little about Iraq but had much to write and say. I knew early on the outrage machine would move onto other issues and areas in the world soon enough. If I remained focused, if I remained parochial, I could weather the storm. Now Iraq is no more than an example of the excesses of the United States and United Kingdom’s foreign policy—it sounds very polite when framed in that way—and also the inherent and primordial split between Sunnis and Shia.

Of course, I have things to say about wider global processes. I too can cite Foucault, Deleuze, and Agamben. But I am not sure we are in a place and time currently when things can be said or heard about Iraq. I spend too much time in Iraq for me just to rattle out articles, saying the right things, for me to just to ignore the carnage and murder wrought on Iraq. Wrought on Iraq by Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims themselves, but also masterly by Bush Sr., the saxophone-playing Bill Clinton who averaged a bombing of Iraq every-other-day from 1997 onwards, and a bombing almost once every three days throughout his reign. Bush Jr. and Obama, well . . . we can leave that for some other time.

Knowing the carnage and murder that has taken place in Iraq, the trouble is knowing where on earth to begin? How to proceed? What the payback of any of this might be?

The only way to respond to these sorts of questions was to be there with my friends and family in Iraq. Not just physically, but also in what I write about and how I write. There are more theoretical reasons for turning to the “everyday work undertaken by Iraqis to maintain their own lives.” but let us leave theory alone . . . just for now. 

KZ: How might an “anthropology of events” bring new understandings to the anthropology of war and anthropology of Islam?

HA: I have this image in my head, which is in large part the reason I started to focus on events, moments, brief encounters, etc. I was born in Baghdad in 1982. For reasons irrelevant to this discussion, several months after my birth, my family had to leave the country. There was a very small window of several hours for us to flee as a family or my parents would have been in a spot of bother. Had we not made it out of Iraq then in all likelihood I would have been raised in Basra and not in West London, where I actually grew up.

If I had been raised in Iraq, I imagine the sight of a young man or woman, not from the country, strolling down the center of Basra, al-ashaar, after the invasion of 2003 by some years. Maybe they would pull into whatever shop I might be working in at that time. Maybe they strike up a friendly conversation in that broken Arabic that most anthropologists of the Middle East pick-up in the language schools of Cairo. Maybe that friendly conversation turns into several conversations and then into the beginnings of a friendship. Maybe a few years down the line an article is published, one I know nothing about, in which parts of those conversations become quotes lost in the citations of Agamben and Foucault. Maybe I’m the homo sacer the article keeps citing? Maybe I’m the person whose life needs constant referencing to portions of the Qu’ran and the Traditions, so shot through am I by Islam and the Islamic. Maybe, if I happened to be married, the friendly conversationalist might report back to the journals in the USA and Europe that my wife does indeed have agency and it is of the order of the Foucauldian self-tyranniser, the self-ethicist. Maybe if the friendly conversationalist had only told my wife she does indeed have agency we might have reveled in the news!

The problem is in those brown eyes back in Iraq, I see me, what could have been me. Call it narcissism, call it empathy, call it Derridean or Povinellian violence, but those brown eyes do not hide a world of Islamic histories speaking through them, or speaking and constituting them as Islamic subjects. Those are not the eyes of a “Muslim” but the eyes of friends, family, relatives, acquaintances, enemies, debtors, and strangers.

I have skin in this game, to invoke an idiom I am rather fond of. I’m an Iraqi. I consider Basra my home and not London where I have spent more than twenty years. The problem is, then, where can I turn to that has been relatively untarnished by the theorizers and fly-by-night Iraq specialists? What I noticed was that events, local happenings and moments, are too small for the young bucks, trying to make their name in this racket, to get their hands dirty in. They also did not have access to such experiences, nor did they have a grasp of the background knowledge and ways of life of ordinary Iraqis, hence struggled to notice the significance of certain events. Many have conducted interviews in the north of Iraq in Erbil, or outside Iraq in Amman and Cairo with Iraqi refugees, but essentially, everyday life in Iraq has been beyond the reach of the machinery.

In my work, I am not really trying to argue for a position. Rather, I am trying to show something; I am trying to make available, slowly and tentatively, a different picture of Iraq. Turning to events and moments has been very useful as a tactic in trying to think about brown folk in a different way, but without scaring the machinery into action: why hasn’t he cited X? Where are the religious conflicts and tensions? If throwing a shoe at someone’s head is cultural, then just walking down the street is cultural and Islamic!

KZ: How does an investigation of local iterations of religion help us to understand the form or meaning of a global religion?

HA: A certain version of that question is what motivates so much of what friends such as Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity on the right, but also figures such as Bill Maher and David Aaronovitch in the UK, amongst many others, have to say about Islam and the Middle East. The racial dimension of this should not be overlooked; we are essentially talking about those with darker skin tones and how when they act locally there really is a fundamentally universal dimension—call it the foundation of an Islamic Umma, call it Jihad, or whatever word is currently exciting intrigue about Islam in the global West/North /first world, etc.

The rhetoric in Islam might sound to Western ears as being universal, but as someone who has grown up in an Islamic household, and spent much time in “Islamic worlds,” my ears are very sensitive to the sheer amount of people who self-identify as Muslims but who are not recognized in the global calls of Muslims. 

First, the number of Islamic centers is in the hundreds if not in the thousands. Saudia Arabia, Qom in Iran, Najaf in Iraq, Al-Azhar in Cairo. Then you have the centers of local cults and belief systems. Second, you have the racial dimensions to deal with. Many Arabs, for instance, see themselves as the “original” Muslims. The Muslims in Africa, the Far East, Central Asia, and the new converts in Europe and North America are not necessarily seen by all Arab Muslims as their equals. The tensions also cross-cut between non-Arab Muslims as well. For instance, I do not know how many Muslims would recognize me as one, let alone as an equal, due to my being a Shia.

I am afraid this global Islam is the figment of the imagination of some foreign policy experts who have invented a globally coherent religion out of Islam to scare the heck out of their country’s voters. Muslims seem much more prepared to kill other Muslims than they have non-Muslims—look at Chechnya, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon’s civil war, Jordan and the massacring of Palestinians, etc.

It is also an idea which excites academics and intellectuals. I am not sure it exists as a “lived reality” outside the intrigue of these actors and might say much about their psychology and how they perceive folk living in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Far East and so on, than anything else.

If there is a global and universal dimension to Islam—which I actually think exists—it will not be one located in some geographic reality where each Muslim is hailed to act for the well-being of the Islamic Ummah. Rather, it requires a reconceptualization of just what is taking place in acts, beliefs, indeed in the very constitution of a Muslim as Muslim, to open up the universality of religiosity itself.

KZ: In what direction do you see anthropology of Islam moving, and what analytic tools do you think may be useful for this shift?

HA: If things keep going the way they are then we will see an even greater number of citations of the works of Foucault and Agamben—maybe the anthropology of the Middle East will fall in love with Deleuze soon as well, who knows?

I do not think things are going well at all with what is called the anthropology of Islam. There are great works written on this topic, which is not coherent enough to be a topic, but some of these works go almost untouched and unread. In the major anthropology conferences I attend, I can safely say I have not found one anthropologist of Islam who is remotely happy with the way things are and have been so for quite some while. Nor is one remotely excited about the future.

At the moment, the Middle East, for instance, is a dumping ground for European and North American theories. Hence, where we will be going as a sub-discipline seems to be less determined by what is happening in, say, the Middle East, than what new texts and theories are considered the ones one should be citing and developing on in the Western academy. If the anthropology of Islam was focused on Islam and those who practice the religion, how can I judge where we will be further down the road? That surely will be determined by what problems and issues will come up.

There is also a very serious methodological and practical limitation in what forms the research and fieldwork for much work on Islam. Anthropologist Michael Gilsenan ironically noted that when he wanted to conduct fieldwork in Egypt in the 1960s, he needed to find a village small enough to do so. Well, the joke is no longer so funny—in fact, it’s rather sad. The village ethnography was swapped for ethnographies of sufi cults, mosques, small, supposedly clearly-delineated groups and spaces such as hospitals and prayer groups. Anthropologists have spent more time with religious scholars it seems to me than they have with the person on the street whose job it is to somehow keep a family housed, clothed, and fed, and still pray five times a day and attend to all the other things he or she is required to do as a Muslim.

The reason why anthropologists have turned to institutions, cults, groups, and scholars is because of the obvious difficulty in locating one’s fieldwork. Not being natives of the region where they are working in, most anthropologists have few doors open to them. But what starts off as a difficulty in locating where one should, and actually could, conduct fieldwork has a very serious impact on what is studied and how it is studied. Clearly, working with religious scholars and Imams will give you a very limited picture of Islam as it is lived. Working with groups who are committed to prayer and interpretation of religious texts will also give another picture. But most Muslims in the Middle East can spare no more time than going to mosques for Friday prayers, if they are men, and watching religious leaders and scholars on television in the evenings or at work, if they have access to a television.

Most anthropologists do not make clear at all how extraordinarily artificial the pictures they draw of Islam and the life of Muslims are because of the limitations of where they do their fieldwork. So artificial indeed that I have on many occasions sat with my ethnographies of Islam and translated it into Arabic to small crowds in Iraq for most to eventually breakdown into fits of laughter. The comments I hear on many occasions tend to be: “They must think we are really stupid in the West.” (Rest assured, I point out they should be saying “global North,” but you know how these natives and their ontologies can get!) There is a movement, call it “living Islam,” which anthropologists have been pushing for quite some time now. Locating our engagements and analyses in how Muslims actually live their lives, we might not be so removed from the problems Muslims face across the world.

KZ: What direction is your own research moving toward?

HA: Against my better judgment, I am moving onto what happened in Iraq after the first Gulf War/Massacre. The year 1991 is hailed by some, maybe many, as the first time a clear political Shia consciousness was formed in the aftermath of the massacres of mainly Shia Iraqis in the South and the sacred cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa. I think the religious elites in Iraq have tried to take this massacre as somehow being theirs and theirs alone. I also think that 1991 is a wonderful insight into just how murderous European and North American democracies can be, particularly when the weapons are not being fired by their own hands—though the drone attacks show that Western democracies are not that shy in pulling the trigger when the mood takes them. Furthermore, I think the Iraqi government and the Western democracies involved in the 1991 War/massacre, clearly, for the first time, begin to explicitly use the language of sectarianism to shutdown the uprising.

What we can see is that a lot is happening in 1991: Western imperialism; Ba’thism; Shi’ism; martyrdom; massacres of tens of thousands of Iraqis; the transformation of labels from secular uprisings into a Shia Jihad, both by the Ba’thist regime and the British and Americans; the erasure of complex local and personal struggles by religious and political elites for political gain. It is here that Islam seems to me to be very important, both as a discourse used to minimize and control political conflicts, but also the very private and personal sacrifices made by tens of thousands of Iraqis, which history seems to have forgotten. If, as many have said, 1991 was a prelude to 2003, we might need to look at that whole messy affair.

In terms of method I am staying with focusing on personal accounts, events and moments from people we rarely hear from such as shop owners, laborers, street vendors, nurses, and so on. The histories from their accounts are certainly very different from those reported in the academic literature.