Iraqi sociologist Faleh Abdul Jabar passed away on February 26, 2018 in Beirut, Lebanon. His last words, on Al-Hurra’s “Iraq in a Century” program, emphasized his concern with the prospects of rebuilding the Iraqi state after many years of foreign interference, yet also hinted at an optimism derived from shifting political dynamics and a positive move towards issue-based, rather than sectarian, politics on the Iraqi street.
The news of Faleh’s sudden death made its way to the forefront of all major newspapers and broadcasts in Iraq, as well as into major regional and international outlets. In Baghdad, a debate emerged on the nature of his legacy. Many commentators compared him to the renowned Iraqi political sociologist Ali al-Wardi (1913–1995). Most agreed that Faleh was one of the top Iraqi intellects of his time. He leaves behind not just important texts, but also a generation of researchers, activists and politicians who have been inspired by his life and work.
Faleh was born in Baghdad in 1946. He began his university studies in engineering at the University of Baghdad, but dropped out expressing his dissatisfaction with the subject. Instead, he chose to study English literature, based on his love for reading novels. At a young age, Faleh became politically active in Arab nationalist and then leftist movements. He travelled to Lebanon in the 1970s and supported the Palestinian cause. In the early 1980s, he went to the mountains of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and joined the communist partisan fighters there in opposition to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. He eventually moved to London in the 1990s, where he switched his focus to academia and began his doctoral studies in sociology at the School of Politics and Sociology, Birkbeck College.
First and foremost, Faleh was a deep thinker. He authored several fundamental texts about Iraq. He is best known for The Shi‘ite Movement in Iraq (2003), where he investigated the history of Iraq’s previously understudied Shi‘i population and the development of Shi‘i political activism. He argued that simplistic concepts such as “the Shi‘a” are not sociologically or politically sufficient, as the group is far from monolithic. Moreover, he described how in Iraq, the guild, clan, city, region and tribe have guided social cohesion just as much as religion or sect. This book was definitive for the academic narrative about Iraq after the 2003 US invasion and demise of the Ba’ath regime, and has been particularly important for the study of sectarianism. Other key contributions to academic literature include his edited volumes such as Post-Marxism and the Middle East (1997), Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues: State, Religion and Social Movements in Iraq (2002) and Tribes and Power: Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Middle East (2002), all published by Saqi Books in London. He was also a valued contributor to this magazine. With his publications, Faleh inspired a generation of scholars who applied the same methodologies of political sociology in different contexts across the region.
One of Faleh’s greatest frustrations was the dismal state of the social sciences in Iraq. As one of the founders of the Iraqi Cultural Forum in 1993 in London—which after 2003 moved briefly to Iraq and then Lebanon and was renamed the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies—he pursued his vision to improve the capacity for independent political thought inside Iraq. At the height of the civil war in the mid-2000s, he organized seminars and workshops to teach methodologies, theories and the art of critical thinking in his offices in Beirut. Many of his students have gone on to lead research departments and projects across Iraq.
To connect Iraqis with foreign academia, he also directed the Iraqi Institute in an extensive translation campaign to make influential social science texts available in Arabic. Translated works included Das Kapital by Karl Marx, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, The Federalist Papers, Models of Democracy by David Held, La Revolution Moderne by Marcel Gauchet and The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States by Terry Lynn Karl. Walking through the book markets of Baghdad’s famous Mutanabbi Street, one can find many of the institute’s translated works, now available to the Iraqi reader at a bargain price. These translations allowed Iraqis and Arabic speakers to access and engage with key debates in philosophy and the social sciences.
Faleh was not only an academic, but also a political engineer. Respected by political elites across party lines and frequently asked to provide advice, he often found himself at the center of power. In early 2016, for instance, Faleh began advising popular Iraqi Shi‘i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In meetings first in Beirut and then in Baghdad, he helped to provide Sadr with a theoretical understanding of the concept of technocracy in order to ensure that Sadr’s political movement was compatible with democracy and the political process in Iraq.
Faleh also became one of the key architects of the alliance between the Sadrists and the leftist, secular and civil society groups that make up the protest movement that emerged in 2015 and called for the reform of Iraq’s post-2003 political system. The protesters eventually swept through the heavily-guarded Green Zone in April 2016 to demand change in government. Then, in the lead-up to the 2018 elections, the Sadrists and Iraqi Communist Party decided to run together on a single list—making strange bedfellows of Islamists and secularists. Faleh’s final post on Facebook shows that he remained committed to this cause. He continued to defend the necessity of working with a variety of political actors across the board in order to improve the political system in Iraq by combatting corruption and ending the post-2003 ethno-sectarian quota system known as muhassasa.
Faleh was an activist. He too picked up the banners and took to the streets. Although many demonstrators, frustrated with the slow nature of change, stopped going to Friday protests, he continued to protest almost every week, whether in Beirut or Baghdad. As a writer, teacher, political engineer and activist, Faleh will be remembered for his drive to support bottom-up change in Iraq. He has equipped the next generation of thinkers and politicians with a vision for moving toward issue-based politics and has helped to create space in state-society relations for both religious and secular citizens to build a civic state—an unusual formula in today’s Middle East.