Revolution for Everyone, Even the Joker
From the Series: Global Protest Movements in 2019: What Do They Teach Us?
From the Series: Global Protest Movements in 2019: What Do They Teach Us?
On October 13, 2019, Ahmad Shwqy, a young Iraqi graphic designer in Baghdad, posted a series of altered images online. The images, which quickly went viral, showed the Joker—played by Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s 2019 movie—amid a fog of flames and smoke, running with the protesters. Shwqy’s editing skills were flawless, the phantasmagoric digital insertion of a fictional anti-hero on the streets of Baghdad seemingly all too real. For Iraqis protesting, it made sense that the Joker was there. In an interview, Shwqy affirmed this affective connection: “When the protests began in Baghdad, it was very reminiscent of Gotham City. It was dark, there was the frequent sound of gunfire and the sky was filled with black smoke from the burning tires used to block the roads” (Bedirian 2019).
Shwqy’s viral images can be read as a visual citation where the social breakdown and precarity of the fictional and the real settings were conjoined to display a shared substance (Nakassis 2013). Indeed, during a series of protests that erupted across the globe following the release of the movie—in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Spain, Bolivia, and Chile, as well as Iraq—protesters deployed the figure of the Joker as a symbol of resistance by protesters against their respective political elites (Kaur 2019). By the time Shwqy posted the images, the protests in Iraq were almost two weeks old. The protests had begun as a small gathering in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to protest in part the sacking of Abdul-Wahab Al-Sa’edi, an army commander lauded as an anti-corruption and anti-sectarian hero in the operation against ISIS in Mosul. By the end of the first day, the protest had evolved into a mass movement calling for the complete overhauling of Iraq’s ethnosectarian political system.1
Protesters initially coalesced around grievances resulting from failing infrastructures, a collateral effect of U.S. sanctions on Iraq, protracted war, invasion, and armed conflict (Dewachi 2015). Since 2011, frequent electricity cuts and lack of access to clean water in the oil-rich southern provinces had sparked regular protests, most notably in Basra in July 2015. Contentious politics grew into a vocal challenge of the muḥaṣaṣa system when in February 2016 the Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr voiced his open support for the protests and called for a sit-in surrounding the Green Zone. The 2015 protest movement appeared to lay the foundations for a tangible alternative to the ethnosectarian system under the banner of a “civic state” (dawla madaniyya). It brought a wide range of actors in Iraqi civil society—NGOs, unions, communists, Sadrists—into relationship in varying capacities. In 2018, the political movement the weekly protests generated materialized in the Ṣā’irūn Alliance (taḥāluf al-ṣā’irūn) between Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Iraqi Communist Party. The coalition achieved some success in the 2018 federal elections, yet failed to transform this success into structural political change. In the summer of 2018, mere weeks after the election, massive protests against failing public services and infrastructure exploded in Basra, where most of the country’s oil production takes place. In October 2019, thousands of Iraqi citizens went out in protest in nine southern provinces, organized sit-ins, formed barricades, stormed government and political party offices, and tried to march onto Baghdad’s Green Zone where government buildings and foreign embassies are located.
Demonstrators were met with brutal violence. Armed forces—most masked and clad in black—stormed media offices, smashed equipment, and shut them down. Meanwhile, government authorities cut off access to the internet across central and southern Iraq and imposed an information blackout. In ten days, over 150 people were shot and killed by security forces with M99, M651, and M713 military-grade tear gas canisters. Often, protesters were shot directly in the head (SITU Research and Amnesty International 2020). Horrific images and videos of the crackdown, which continued when protests resumed at the end of October and through the beginning of 2020, include teargas canisters piercing the skulls of peaceful protesters. Unsure whether they could receive my messages, last October I was anxiously reaching out to my friends to inquire about their well-being. Amid my worry, however, I noted to myself at the time how beautiful and macabre the protests were. In all the cities where the protests took place, protesters adopted the slogan “Salmiyya! Salmiyya!” (Peace! Peace!), to distinguish their political will from the car bombs, extrajudicial killings, and kidnappings that have characterized everyday Iraqi life since 2003.
Despite the excessive state and militia violence, the protesters remained radically unflinching in their demands and using their bodies to assert their presence and political will. They refused to accept anything but a revolutionary overhauling of the political system. From the beginning, the protests were leaderless. When the Iraqi government asked the protesters for a list of figures with whom to negotiate, they provided a list of martyrs, saying, “These are our leaders.” Rising out of years of civil conflict, deprivation, and precarity, I thought the protesters must be tapping into some unfathomable source of energy to persevere. In this context, the sudden appearance of the Joker made sense. The Joker did not wear a mask to remain anonymous like the shooters that had already killed scores of civilians. On the contrary, the Joker’s mask disrupted, unsettled, and stripped bare what the state is doing—how it steals, dispossesses, manipulates, and coerces.
The Joker is, of course, the ultimate trickster. For anthropologists studying political revolutions, the appearance of the trickster during a revolutionary moment is unsurprising. Insofar as political revolutions are conceived as liminal situations where social norms and ordered sequences of behaviors are suspended (Turner 1967), tricksters thrive in these moments. They possess an unrehearsed, idiosyncratic capacity to lead, provide ungrounded but acceptable explanations to events—an ultimately ridiculous power (Thomassen 2012). This power is commonly associated with figures and elements of the counterrevolution. Identification with the trickster could empty the revolutionary moment of creativity, as well as pave way for the rise of counter revolutionary figures. As Walter Armbrust (2019) points out, contemporary populist strongmen like Donald Trump, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, or Recep Tayyip Erdogan are modern day tricksters. It was revolutionary, I thought, that the protesters would self-identify with the Joker/trickster, upending a structural expectation that could lead to a hijacking of the revolution by foreign elements or the subsumption of its elements into the gears of the system. And perhaps this is why the imagistic identification with the Joker didn’t hold much water. The social media army of Islamist parties and militias immediately disseminated the theory that there are “gangs of Jokers” (‘aṣābāt al-joker) violating “acceptable norms of protest.” Social and mainstream media portrayed makeshift resistance tactics such as blocking highways, barricading streets, and burning tires as equivalent to the violence from security forces. The discourse was promptly moved from what Shwqy intended as a criticism of the political elite to a questioning of the means of resistance and their violent/non-violent nature.
Watching political discussions on pro-government Iraqi TV, citizens were confronted with the same seemingly inquisitive narratives over and over again.2 There was a new mode of politics emerging alongside new demands. This created an air of ambiguity, which TV hosts queried: From where did this movement originate? What might be its intentions? After affirming the “Iraqiness” of all the actors involved, hosts would slowly make jabs at the guests until they reveal the truth: The origins are outside of Iraq, in the United States or Iran. Such TV shows sought to circuit the revolutionary moment by arguing that “good Iraqis” were being corrupted by false agendas. Through this narrative structure, many mainstream media outlets attempted to put the protesters and the security forces on an equal grounding. The word jokeriyya, which can be translated as jokerdom or jokership entered the Iraqi public sphere to evoke a host of tropes (abnormal, extremist, sinful, dangerous) (Nadhmi 2020), equated with childishness (za’ṭuṭiyya); and the jokers were contrasted with “tails” (dhuyūl), a term used to refer to those whose loyalties were thought to lie with Iran.
Attempts to discredit the will of protesters might be seen as a common tactic of counterrevolution. But such efforts also shed light on social and material tensions embedded in Iraqi state–society relations. Difficulties describing the Iraqi state stem in part from the ways in which imposed neoliberal transformations since 2003 have rolled back state protections for millions while enriching a coterie of ethnosectarian elites. Ordinary Iraqis and activists I have spoken to throughout my fieldwork often described an Iraqi state whose operations are principally funded through oil and operate through a bloated bureaucracy and a clientelist distributive system tied to the muḥaṣaṣa system and protected by a coterie of state security forces and militias. This mode of governance created a massive urban precariat, chronically unemployed, despite the fact that the public payroll has significantly expanded since the U.S.- and UK-led invasion and occupation of the country more than seventeen years ago. A survey conducted among protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the center of the protests, showed that 39 percent of the protestors had university degrees or higher, while 49 percent of them were unemployed.
We can understand this Iraqi precariat as the cognate of the social body Marx once described as the lumpenproletariat, except it is now located not outside, but at the tail-end of the distributive scheme the muḥaṣaṣa system provides. The majority of the protesters were men between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, pouring into the city center from slums (called ‘ashwa’iyyat) and the outskirts of Baghdad. Anyone living in Iraq since 2017 could observe the emergence of a stereotype of unemployed young men sitting in cafes, smoking shisha and playing a mobile first-person shooter game called PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). Dubbed the “PUBG generation” (Jeel al-PUBG), this rapidly growing millennial urban precariat with university degrees was derided as being mentally corrupted and incited to violence by such video games, leading the Iraqi Parliament to ban the game inside Iraq in April 2019. The visibility of young men in the protests indirectly allowed the government supporters to concoct an aimless, dangerous social mass out of the protesters, which the label jokeriyya was supposed to connote. Those using the label in this way unwittingly borrowed from a coterie of diverse characters Marx lists in the Eighteenth Brumaire, a list that includes the trickster (Marx 1937, 38).3 This came at the cost of rendering invisible a plurality of actors that composed the precariat and were also out on the streets, including rural families who migrated to peri-urban areas, university graduates with little returns on their degrees, women, and activists.
As the protests waged on, it became increasingly difficult for elites to claim discursive hegemony that would implicitly frame jokeriyya as lumpenproletariat. In late October, the Iraqi Teachers’ Union called a strike, as thousands of students and teachers from universities and high schools joined the protests. The General Federation of Iraqi Trade Union, the General Federation of Workers’ Union, local trade chambers, unions of lawyers, workers, and oil workers all joined the protests. Schools and government offices closed in Hilla, Diwaniya, and Kerbala, and partially in Najaf and Baghdad. Tradesmen closed shops, the port of Umm Qasr in Basra—one of the biggest sources for imports in Iraq—was blocked by protesters. Despite the aforesaid, apparent “maleness” of the demography of protesters, women played a very important part in the protests. They actively opposed accusations of moral indecency that came from parties and militias. Two large, women-led marches—one in Baghdad on February 13 and one in Najaf on February 19—adopted the slogan, “No authority over women,” to protest public and social media abuse and harassment of women as a response to those who denounced the sit-ins in Tahrir Square as harboring moral indecency when women protested alongside men. The second protest in Najaf was especially significant, as it was a reaction to a call by the Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for gender segregation in the protests in this city with a spiritual importance in Shi’ism. Women’s marches provided visibility to feminists and women’s activists who were murdered prior to the revolution, as well as women who were kidnapped, tortured, and killed for participating in the protests. Iraqi feminists were also instrumental in carrying over a language for the struggle against class and gender oppression from the pre-2003 era to wage a critique of the current political class.4
This large and mixed civil society of NGOs, artists, writers, activists, doctors, employees, urban professionals, craftsmen, and religious and tribal figures coalesced around the slogan “We Want a Homeland” (Nurīd Waṭan). It is important to note the aspirational nuance that underlies this slogan. Watan can be translated as “nation,” but probably more accurately refers to a patrie that in the Iraqi context referred to territorial belonging more than pan-Arab nationalism (qawmiyya). The slogan was therefore a performative invitation to those who are pushed out of the patronage networks of the muḥaṣaṣa system. It was the symbolic distillation of a desire for “a hearth or home” (Marx 1969, 219), an assertion of popular will against historical and material loss.
Another common slogan, “I take my right” (nȧzil ākhudh ḥaqqī), implied that the protestors did not want to wait for the political elite to step down, make compromises, or delegate their vision of an alternative future to drawn-out reform processes led by technocrats. So far, these aspirations achieved piecemeal success in extending to areas outside of the Shi’ite South. The predominantly Sunni provinces of Anbar, Salah al-Din, and Mosul were silently in support of the protests; most of their residents stayed home, fearing security forces would violently quell any local protests under the pretense of rooting out remnants of ISIS in the territories the group once controlled. People in Mosul and Anbar have instead shown support for the protesters in the Shi’ite provinces by organizing vigils for the martyrs of the demonstrations—whose numbers had reached 669 by January 2020—and through celebrations for Iraqi National Football Team’s wins during World Cup qualifications. Meanwhile, the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government did not openly support the protests. But Kurdish intellectuals and civil society activists voiced their support and paid solidarity visits to Tahrir Square. The revolution also incited young Iraqis living in diasporic communities in Jordan, the UK, and Europe to feel, perhaps for the first time in their lives, a connection to a homeland. It is only more than historical irony that it was the supposedly politically alienated social body that crippled the state and the security forces in the cities, produced elaborate art on the streets, formed mutual aid networks and paramedic units on TukTuks, and actively put in practice the foundations of a society that could be a radical alternative to the muḥaṣaṣa system.
On January 16, two weeks after Iranian General Qasim Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Forces Commander Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis were killed in a U.S. airstrike outside of Baghdad Airport, ‘Ala’ Sittar, a civil society activist appeared on Al-Dijlah channel. The killing of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis had led pro-Iran groups to call for kicking out the U.S. presence from Iraq. As an extension of outrage directed toward the assassinations, pro-Iran groups began open accusations toward protesters as spies and foreign agents. Jokeriyya, the other guests suggested, had penetrated the protests. ‘Ala’ pointed out that it was the political class that armed the Iraqi Security Forces with American weapons and fed Turkish and Iranian products to the Iraqi citizens. Who, then, invited foreign agents but the political class? “I, as a protester,” he continued, “gave 679 martyrs. I demand from the authorities, intelligence services, and all security forces, please show in your folders, where are these 679 martyrs? Where did you meet them? In the [American] consulate? In jokeriyya as you call it? The poorest people were killed, show me one informant who was killed!” ‘Ala’ was pointing out that those who were accused of being tricksters were in fact martyrs. The impulse of the October Revolution has momentarily succumbed to an unhappy compromise, as embodied in Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s government. Protesters have refused Al-Kadhimi as Prime Minister, despite his acts of good faith that included promoting ‘Abdul-Wahab Al-Sa’edi to a senior position in the counterterrorism forces.
Today, the protesters agree that they have reached an ideational accomplishment. They continue to express this ideation through two narratives: First, there is a disrupting, unsettling, unflinching attitude that is uncompromising in its challenge against the political class that I have identified in the fleeting image of the joker. Second, there is a complex martyrology that commemorates the civilians killed by security forces and sustains the energies of the protest movement. The existence of these two figures depends on continued liminality: the trickster as between two normative social orders, the martyr as between life and death (Armbrust 2019). The protesters in this leaderless movement refuse to be co-opted into political parties, express themselves through pop culture, and assert themselves in the urban geography through makeshift tools. They are a source of frustration to the Iraqi political class as well as those who remain frustrated by the work of precarious populations and their capacity to ignite popular passions. A new revolutionary political subject is emerging in Iraq, and not in the way the celebrants of public reason would want it to. The challenge is to sustain and carry on the revolution for everyone, including the joker.
1. Established after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the muḥaṣaṣa ṭa’ifiyya (which can be translated as “sectarian apportionment”) was designed to prevent another authoritarian takeover of the Iraqi political field in the vein of Ba’athism. The system relied on a particular apportionment of political seats—ministerial seats were divvied up across ethnic and sectarian identities. The position of the prime minister was given to the Shi’a constituency; the speaker of the parliament to the Sunnis, and the presidency to the Kurds. More than a political distribution of seats, the muḥaṣaṣa system also structured access to jobs, positions, means of coercion, and parameters of political belonging of communities in Iraq.
2. I should note Iraq is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, with 189 journalists killed since 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The proliferation of numerous privately funded media networks proliferated in Iraq after 2003 and operated along partisan and ethno-sectarian lines. During the protests alone, three journalists were killed, eight media offices were closed by the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission for covering the protests. The narratives pushed by the pro-government media cannot be understood without considering the atmosphere in which journalism is being practiced in Iraq.
3. Marx’s (1937, 38) famous description lists “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.”
4. I thank Enas Ridha for this point.
Armbrust, Walter. 2019. Martyrs and Tricksters: An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Bedirian, Razmig. 2019. “Meet Ahmed Shwqy, the Man behind Baghdad’s Viral Joker Battle Images.” The National, December 1.
Dewachi, Omar. 2015. “Blurred Lines: Warfare and Health Care.” Medicine Anthropology Theory 2, no. 2: 95–101.
Kaur, Hrmeet. 2019. “In Protests around the World, One Image Stands Out: The Joker.” Cable News Network, November 3.
Marx, Karl. 1937. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Translated by Saul K. Padover. Moscow: Progress.
———. 1969. “The Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850.” In Selected Works, vol. 1, translated by Louis Proyect, 186–299. Moscow: Progress.
Nadhmi, Fares Kamal. 2020. Man huwa al-joker? Wa man hum al-jokeriyya? YesIraq, January 23.
Nakassis, Constantine V. 2013. “Citation and Citationality.” Signs and Society 1, no. 1: 51–77.
SITU Research and Amnesty International. 2020. “Smokescreen: Iraq’s Use of Military-Grade Tear Gas Canisters to Kill Protesters.” Interactive website. Accessed May 13, 2020.
Thomassen, Björn. 2012. “Notes Towards an Anthropology of Political Revolutions.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54, no. 3: 679–706.
Turner, Victor Whittier. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, 93–111. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.