by Omar Alhashani and Yousif Kalian
The Hashd al-Shabi brand themselves as united to tap into multiple populisms
In a video with over 3,000,000 views on Youtube, Abu Tahseen, a stocky senior of about 60 years old wearing a hand-knitted camouflage beanie, slowly walks up to his station. The hills and rivers of Iraq surround him. “I am relaxed”, he says. Nothing seems to reassure him more than being in his position high above the conflict, raining sniper rounds onto unsuspecting so-called Islamic State (IS) militants miles away. “They [his superiors] gave me a month off before I started again, but I only took 12 of those days before this deployment”. He pulls out a walkie-talkie and begins to listen in on IS’s frequency. “Look!” he scoffs, “Only Afghans and Chechens! Perfect”. He looks down his scope and, for the next half of this video, calibrates his immaculate shot.
Abu Tahseen is one of the thousands of Iraqi militiamen who joined the fight against IS. His brand of Iraqi national pride echoes in the countless videos produced by the Hash’d al-Shaabi – or the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). As IS stormed across Iraq and closed in on both Baghdad and Erbil in 2014, Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling for Iraqi citizens to join the army and “defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places”. Instead, thousands responded to his call and formed the PMUs: currently, a non-state militia umbrella organisation. Today the PMUs number around 140,000 fighters and are a source of national pride for many Shia Iraqis who see them as the real defenders of Iraq – especially since the Iraqi national army, or the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), abandoned its positions easily during the IS onslaught.
In a sociopolitical landscape saturated with sectarian rhetoric, the PMUs claim not to fight for a single group, but for Iraq as a whole, giving them significant credibility in the country. By branding themselves as true nationalists who have risen above ‘petty’ identity politics, the PMUs have effectively tapped into a distinct flavour of Iraqi populism. We show that despite the diverse makeup of the organisation, the PMUs appeal to a sense of unity through narratives of nationalism, victimhood, cross-sectarian solidarity, and fighting a single barbaric, demonic enemy – IS.
But similar to IS, the PMUs produce high-quality videos for an English-speaking audience, replete with English titles and subtitles. Whereas IS’s media campaign was successful in branding the organisation to the global public as terrifying, notorious, and counter-cultural, the PMUs have successfully garnered widespread support by branding themselves as overcoming sectarian tensions and unearthing the power of Iraqi unity. By deconstructing their brand through close readings of their YouTube videos, we attempt to describe the nuance of Iraqi populism, which in turn provides insight into the future of Iraq, the PMUs, and the battle for political and social influence in Iraq.
No Borders on Nationalism
There are a plethora of tropes in the PMUs’ media that resonate with Iraqis. These visuals and narratives compose the ‘brand’ of the organisation, conveying particular labels to individuals and communities in Iraq. For example, although young, Shiite Iraqi men are overwhelmingly featured, the content released by the PMUs implies transcendence of age, class, sect, sex, and nationality. In a country divided by sectarian tensions wrought by both IS and foreign state-backed organisations, it is no coincidence that the PMUs focus on nationalism over prioritising certain sects to move away from the label of a ‘foreign proxy’ fighting force. By choosing to concentrate on their fight with IS – widely seen in Iraq as the greatest evil active in the world today – they are appealing to both nationalistic Iraqi populism and Western liberal values to gain political legitimacy at home and abroad.
For instance, one video features a 78-year-old architect/veteran sniper they call “Jidu” (grandfather in Arabic). Jidu volunteers to leave his two daughters and wife to fight IS on the front lines “to defend Iraq, all the holy sites of all the faiths of Iraq and most importantly to him, to defend the honor of the Iraqi woman”. In the video, Jidu, filled with passion, declares, “Ramadi and Amara are one! Basra and Mosul are one! We do not differentiate. But they [IS] have black hearts!”
In many ways, Jidu is supposed to represent the PMUs’ mission and the Iraqi people’s frustrations. By showing that not even his age can stop him from protecting Iraqis of all faiths from the evil IS, his character appeals to Iraqi nationalist sentiment and cross-national respect for the honour of women, Iraqi culture, and religious plurality. His reference to the cities clearly implies that he (and the PMUs) do not have sectarian reasons for fighting and will fight for all sects, as he pairs Mosul and Ramadi, which are mostly Sunni cities, with Basra and Amara, respectively, which are predominately Shiite cities.
Another video tells the story of the now famous middle-aged Tikriti woman Umm Hanadi, who reportedly lost two husbands, three brothers, and her father to IS – and now leads a special task force of the PMUs. In her video, she is in command over a battalion of men – an anomaly in the masculine Iraqi military. Likely inspired by the Iraqi Peshmerga’s broad recognition on the international stage for their famed women-fighting forces, the PMUs demonstrate that their cause is so important that even traditionally poor, widowed women are assuming leadership roles to fight IS. While there are few reports of female fighters in the PMU’s ranks, Umm Hanadi’s ‘character’ quickly drums up nationalist support amongst local and foreign audiences attracted to the feminism she embodies, simultaneously driving recruitment amongst those who perceive themselves as more able-bodied to fight.
One of their most famous videos, entitled “Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units promise Mosul’s church bells will ring again”, shows an armed PMU soldier breaking the lock on a church and allowing Christian women and children to come in and pray. This video appeals to many around the world with its promise to undo the massive persecution Christians have suffered under IS, but also to Iraqi nationalism. In many ways, this video portrays the PMUs as fighting for even the weakest members of Iraqi society – religious minorities. By tapping into Iraqi regret over the situation of Christians, this depiction combats accusations that the PMUs have particular sectarian allegiances.
In presenting themselves as overturning traditional attitudes towards age, sex, and religion, the PMUs emphasise that their fight against IS supersedes attitudes and traditions. But despite being comprised of conservative and religious members, they have attempted to brand themselves as progressive saviours through values such as feminism and pluralism.
Foreign Attractions: The Politics of Shininess
While publicly rejecting IS’s ideology and tactics, the PMUs have nonetheless used their production techniques to solidify their brand. Some have written on IS’s media apparatus and how this standardised high-quality communicates legitimacy in itself. For example, their aforementioned ‘Mosul’s Church Bells’ video uses HD video camera footage, slow motion effects, military attire, a choreographed script, dramatic music, and excellent video editing and composition. The narrative of the video, communicated without a single word, is that the PMUs are clearing the path for Christians to return – taking on the mantle of Iraq’s protectors. To many Westerners frustrated with the oppression of Christian communities, the video’s production quality communicates that the organisation is professional, trustworthy, and organised. As the argument goes, an internally conflicted and insurgent militant group could not possibly have the capacity to produce something so visually impressive and inspirational; unless, of course, the group received foreign assistance in building these capabilities.
Scrolling down to the comments section of this video shows an abundance of English-language responses – nearly all in praise of the PMUs’ noble mission. In many ways, these comments are the clearest indication that the PMUs have successfully garnered a major European and American public following: from Germany, Spain, Poland, and Texas. In fact, one of the highest rated comments applauds the production quality and praises the PMUs for teaching youth the necessary skills to manoeuvre in the digitally-centred world: “Stunning piece of art. Perfect in every way. The faces, the editing, the photography, and of course the message. Wow. When the fighting is over, everyone involved in this project has a bright future”.
Similarly, in one video entitled “Iraqi soldiers do the mannequin challenge on front lines against IS in Mosul”, uploaded on November 2016, PMU soldiers are seen performing the Mannequin Challenge: a trending meme where a song by Rae Sremmurd – a famous trap hip-hop duo – overlays footage of multiple people frozen in a single position as the camera pans around them comically. While regional militant organisations’ media campaigns have a history of using Western visual tropes, this is the first instance where an armed militia vying for institutionalised sociopolitical power in the Middle East recreates an American-originated meme. Moreover, the title itself implies that this bit of ‘spontaneous fun’ occurred during the battle against IS, humanising a type of people typically associated with unrelenting violence – the Iraqi soldier.
Finally, drawing from a history of militant media tropes, the PMUs have an extensive repertoire of ‘on-the-ground’ battle footage split between two types: militant spotlights and equipment demonstrations. Fighters, like Jidu, are given heroic spotlights where they are interviewed and romanticised, typically through speeches about defending a united Iraq. Equipment demonstrations also come in two types: low-quality, granular combat footage replete with loud noises and shaky camera-work, and high-tech equipment footage, such as the use of Iraqi army’s armed drones, Abrams tanks, and a Mi-28 helicopter. These videos typically perform ‘government legitimacy,’ including background communication, static, and other elements conveying that the group is a legitimate military – not a militant organisation.
With these videos, the PMUs still appeal to those who enjoy the spectacle of violence, thereby remaining authentically masculine, united, and legal in its brand while simultaneously simulating a progressive feminist, ‘melting pot’, and grassroots identity.
Despite the image of unity, the PMUs are internally divided across sectarian, partisan, and foreign-state patronage. The disconnect between their brand and their material reality is not only evident in their political machinations, but also in their videos.
For comparison, IS has multiple media outlets in each province (wilayah) that maintain relatively close communication with the Ministry of Media – the organisation’s central media apparatus. While each of these wilayat media outlets operates with relative autonomy, the Ministry of Media sets the acceptable levels for video quality, narratives, and language, screens each product, and adds small finishing touches, such as symbols and logos, for consistency.
In contrast, apart from the first and last sections of each video, the PMUs’ videos do not rely on a standardised production template: the actors and characters vary, the video quality differs, and the scene construction is heterogeneous. Whereas a strict and regulated set of production techniques and visual styles indicates a centralised production structure while an extensive and random set indicates a decentralised one, it can be inferred that, relative to IS, the PMUs do not have a highly centralised media apparatus.
Instead, the PMUs most likely have a few dedicated individuals operating with significant autonomy (yet ultimately under the tutelage of leading members of the organisation), who solicit certain types of video footage from soldiers and camera operators on the ground, then package that footage for their YouTube channel. This way, their videos – both in content and organisational structure – ultimately reflect their “salad-bowl” identity, while keeping the political ambitions of the organisation’s leaders away from the spotlight. They effectively brand themselves as an organic grassroots movement when, in fact, they more closely resemble a small group of ‘Astroturfing’ warlords. As the multitudinous organisation reveals its genuine interests during its absorption into the Iraqi political infrastructure, only time will demonstrate the sustainability of such a media campaign. Moreover, when IS is defeated, how will the PMUs rebrand to stay politically relevant?
While we have made some comparisons between the IS and PMUs media campaigns, there are of course fundamental differences between the organisations. Despite the fact that some Iraqis in the PMUs have been foreign fighters themselves in Syria, the PMUs are not trying to recruit foreign fighters (at least not yet), nor create and maintain a caliphate in opposition to the current system of nation-states. The PMUs have shown dedication to entering Iraqi politics legally. Indeed, their goals seem to centre around the April 2018 elections. However, as they draw closer, how will the PMUs’ media presence translate into the political arena?
Establishment Politics: The Next Enemy
Unlike previous organisations entering Iraqi politics, the PMUs do not tout a patronage model. Instead of subsuming interest-sharing financial benefactors into their network, the PMUs rely almost solely on foreign funding and social populism. Though not explicitly, the PMUs have suggested a new political model: populist nationalism.
While this model is not a guaranteed success, it could be. Many Iraqis feel that the established model of governance has failed miserably. Many – both locally and internationally – see the Iraqi government as failing its people with regards to security. Even though the ISF have fought more battles, liberated more cities, and suffered morecasualties than the PMUs and the Kurds in the fight against IS, many Iraqis – especially minority groups who faced discrimination – cannot forget that the ISF failed them at the onset. These sentiments, coupled with the fact that the PMUs media campaign did not target Kurdish or Sunni support, suggests that the PMUs are vying for the backing of the Shia patronage network, albeit through populism.
Once IS is out of the picture, the PMUs will most likely rebrand to stay politically relevant for the parliamentary elections in April of 2018 – or risk becoming a mere extension of the military. To do this, the PMUs may turn to their next enemy to maintain their populist support: the current Shia establishment in Iraq. Such rebranding could be an effective move by the PMUs, which would then be able to appeal to all demographics who feel marginalised by the current establishment – namely the Kurds and Sunnis. The PMUs can also leverage their nationalist narrative in areas disputed between the KRG and Iraq, such as the Nineveh Plains and Kirkuk – this time, painting the KRG as the threat to Iraqi territorial unity. With such a broad, populist, and nationalist support base, any of these moves could snowball the PMUs’ popularity to new heights, leaving little room for the Abadi government to oppose their future actions.
Questions over the upcoming elections have generated heated discussion surrounding the future of these militias. Although predominantly Shiite, the PMUs contain Sunni, Christian, Yezidi, and Shabak forces. Amongst these many are groups that are outright Iranian proxies formed before 2003, units loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, al-Sistani and Iraqi politicians, and units linked to the Iraqi army. Recently, however, the PMUs were officially integrated into the Iraqi Armed Forces with salaries and benefits included – and these forces will shape the future of Iraq.
Demobilising the PMUs or further folding them into the state security apparatus would be the best way to prevent their firepower from affecting the election results; however, many militias have expressed their desires to enter into politics. Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly stated that any militia that keeps its weapons cannot run in elections. However, given the PMUs’ populist support base, will this be enough? With buzzes of Iranian-backed PMUs possibly uniting into a single party or running on a single list, the future of Iraq as an independent state not beholden to any foreign actor is at stake.
Credit must be given where it is due: the PMUs defended Baghdad and were involved in many counter-IS operations. However, with a hunger for political power as the driving force for many PMU branches, Iraq and the international community as a whole needs to be aware that the PMUs may successfully enter local politics with the strength of their popularity amongst parts of the Shia population. The media campaign has helped the PMUs brand on the international and domestic stage, with the use of populist rhetoric that was infused with feminism, memes, and flashy media to gain legitimacy with diverse Iraqi and Western audiences. By investing in the PMUs, Iranian-backed groups might likely be able to use this popularity like a shield against its opponents.
Those seeking a non-sectarian future for Iraq need to be wary of this foreign influence and support in order to ensure Iraq’s PMUs do not transform into an Iraqi-IRGC force. After years of suffering, the Iraqi people deserve more than bowing to the rule of militias, who have already exerted considerable influence on Baghdad. Members of the PMUs who fought and died for their country deserve to be honoured and remembered; however, neglecting to keep these militias in check will undoubtedly lead to warlordism – this form of ‘meritocracy’ is practical in the context of war, but, in the context of peacebuilding, it only begets more violence – sowing the seeds of the return of IS once again.
This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 0. MEDIUM.
It was originally published by ICCT on May 4, 2017.