IRAQI SOCIAL MEDIA AT WAR: Divisive rhetoric is the last thing murdered Iraqi researcher, Hisham al-Hashemi, would have wanted

Iraqi researcher and analyst Hisham al-Hashemi could have left the country long ago. His life was in danger – literally, for years – and he knew it. And as a leading researcher and well-respected analyst, he had the right connections to be able to depart for another, much safer city than Baghdad. But he chose to stay because he believed that helping to make Iraq a better place required him to stay at home, aiding dialogue between opposing parties of all kinds.

By Mustafa Habib

He hoped for the day that Iraq could be a safe and prosperous country. Unfortunately, he did not live to see that day: al-Hashemi was murdered on the doorstep of his home in Baghdad’s Zayouna neighbourhood on Monday, July 6.

As the news of his assassination spread, Iraqi social media erupted, with users publishing their versions of events, depending on which side of Iraq’s long-lasting foreign policy divide they were sitting. There are those who defend Iranian influence in the country and others who decry it and defend US interests. The intensity of the commentary around al-Hashemi’s death is perhaps to be expected because among these groups, there is no middle ground: Either you are with Iran and against America, or you are with America and against Iran.

The result has been a tidal wave of hate speech. Those pushing such inflammatory agendas managed to control social media trends for Iraq over the past few days and many young Iraqis began participating in this process, enthusiastically using certain hashtags without any real awareness of what they were actually supporting.

You don’t usually hear a lot from the moderate and quieter Iraqi majority on social media, those who do not take any side but Iraq’s. They would say that we are all Iraqis and that many of the country’s problems are the result of conflicts between those two allies, Iran and the US, but that they can be resolved if we focus on our own land. Al-Hashemi was one of those people.

Unfortunately,  the outraged minority is louder and plays a divisive role online. Dozens of Iraqi journalists and researchers who live abroad wage hate campaigns against those they see as their enemies, encouraging Iraqis inside the country to act against other Iraqis, without considering the complexity of the situation on the ground.

For example, there are those anti-Iran antagonists, who paint all Iraqis inside the so-called Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU – former volunteer militias called up to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State, as one homogenous and criminal enemy. This is not true. Then there are those anti-US adversaries who say that any Iraqi working with the army or the anti-terrorism forces is a traitor to the country. This is also not true.

Both sides in this debate have wanted to win al-Hashemi over to their side. But the slain analyst was happy to meet leaders of the Shiite Muslim forces and political factions one day, and heads of Sunni Muslim or Iraqi Kurdish parties and troops the next, as well as talking often with anti-terrorism forces and army generals. Al-Hashimi believed that dialogue was the only way to solve the country’s various crises.

Anyone inside Iraq who studies these topics is only too well aware that dialogue between those opposing parties is the only real solution. Neither one group nor another – the PMUs, the Iraqi military, the various political factions – is going away. Insiders know that Iraq will only become a safe and sovereign nation by bringing more balance to its own foreign policy, based on their country’s own interests rather than the interests of others.

Many Iraqis living abroad cannot understand the heavy price that citizens who stayed behind have paid for decades – during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and then under US sanctions in the 1990s. Many of those now working in this field elsewhere often only see Iraq’s problems through the prism of their own, often tragic, personal histories and the problems that forced them to emigrate in the first place, rather than the country’s present day reality. Based in Iraq, Al-Hashemi was best placed to see how things in Iraq work today. Just another reason why it is so sad that he is no longer with us.

Of course, there are suspicions but right now, nobody knows exactly who killed al-Hashemi. One thing is clear though: If the man himself was still here, he would be saddened that his murder had unleashed such dark forces online, when all he himself ever wanted was for his people to exchange opinions, rather than grudges and hatred.

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