Ashura Rituals In Iraq Highlight Environmental Crisis

With social issues increasingly at the heart of the event, activists are bringing the degradation of the land and water to the fore

Ashura Rituals In Iraq Highlight Environmental Crisis
Shiite Muslims re-enact the Battle of Karbala to mark Ashura in Iraq’s Dhi Qar governorate. (ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images)

Every year, millions from the Shiite community gather in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala to commemorate Ashura, which marks the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein. The event is a grand spectacle of sacred rites, worship and mourning. 

One of many elements of the rituals is the dramatic reenactment of the events that occurred 1,384 years ago. Community members take on the roles of either Imam Hussein and his followers or the attacking Umayyad forces. As the audience watches, their tears flow freely. Sometimes a member of the audience rushes onstage to “defend” Imam Hussein and his family. In other parts of town, some engage in the highly controversial rite of “tatbir” (self-flagellation), whereby men use swords and knives on their heads or elsewhere to emulate the suffering of al-Imam. Almost all mourners are dressed in black and beat their chests in a synchronized, repetitive movement to the rhythms of Shiite eulogy singers, who describe the sorrow and anguish of the day in moving detail. 

Because of these collective acts of worship and ritual performances, Ashura holds great significance. The unity, solidarity and shared consciousness among community members creates cohesion, and the event highlights the differences between good and evil as well as justice and oppression. Through its observance, the community reinforces its shared identity and strengthens its commitment to its beliefs.

However, the power of Ashura lies beyond its religious significance. My family is from Najaf City, and Ashura has been an integral part of our family story for generations. In one conversation with my late grandmother, she told me that we all mourn Imam Hussein on Ashura, but we also mostly mourn ourselves and those we have lost. She, like many Iraqis, had lost many during the decades of Saddam Hussein’s rule. The dead included her younger brother, who died in the Iran-Iraq War at the age of 24. She mourned these losses every day but never more than on Ashura, even in silence, because for 30 years Saddam’s regime banned the observance of Ashura and imprisoned many of those who practiced its rituals. 

To better understand the significance of Ashura in Iraqi society, we ought to think of the event not only as a religious gathering but also as an experience within the public sphere that exists outside of political institutions. In this place people can meet and form opinions on public issues, redraw the boundaries of solidarity in their community and develop and exchange political, social and economic ideas and values.

The public sphere in Iraq has taken many forms. One can argue that beyond the traditional sense of street-side coffee and tea houses, student unions and public squares, it also exists in rituals like those observed as part of Ashura. And while participation in public events remains restricted — with some parts closed to women — religious events like Ashura play a significant role in filling that gap in society. Furthermore, while Ashura is thought of as an exclusively Shiite event, members of other sects and religions have long participated in the day, even if minimally, through the communal preparation and sharing of traditional dishes like qeema, serving to reinforce the bonds among participants and deepen their sense of connection to one another. 

Ashura, then, allows for the formation of political ideas and social commentary, heightened by religious rituals and practices that carry the theme of rising against political injustice and oppression. This makes it one of the most significant social settings for the formation of ideas of social solidarity and resistance in Iraq.

The observation of Ashura in Iraq has taken on a greater significance since 2003. For one, it had been banned during Saddam’s regime. Furthermore, the dismantling of the country’s once-thriving civil society by the former regime left behind a weakened public life and curbed institutional memory. This void was then quickly filled by religious events that dominated the country’s ideology and identity-making. The rise of religious and identity-based politics and governance resulted in events like Ashura becoming a time for reclaiming and reforming the Shiite identity and perpetuating narratives and worldviews. It also provided a place for rising political actors to interact and form a ruling ideology that came to dominate the landscape. In essence, events like Ashura have become arenas for reshaping the boundaries and identities of post-2003 Iraq, making it an essential part of the country’s cultural and political landscape. 

As the date of Ashura drew closer this year, preparations for the event began to take shape across the country. Cities adorned their streets with black flags hung on streetlights and trees, serving as a symbolic reminder of the approaching day. When it came, political elites scrambled to secure a spot in the public sphere. One of the largest gatherings of the day was organized by Ammar al-Hakeem, with Bassam al-Karbalaei, a famous and controversial Shiite eulogy reciter, leading the congregation. Government officials also took to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to commemorate the day. While it’s not uncommon for there to be a competition to out-mourn and attract the largest number of participants to the event, this year a new group of individuals joined in. In the sea of the faithful participating in Ashura, a few young men carrying pale water buffalo skeletons stood out in stark contrast to the surrounding black clothing and flags. These men marched with the faithful, mourned, wept and beat their chests, yet carried this unusual visual representation of death.

Ashura has long been a platform for political expression by secular groups and parties, whether communists or nationalists. For instance, during its most influential years in the 1940s and the 1950s, even the Iraqi Communist Party would often organize a “maukab” (procession), with local party leaders actively participating in the day.

However, this year marks a significant shift in focus, with Ashura also becoming an opportunity for environmental activism. With the country facing severe droughts and rising temperatures, images of water buffaloes, an animal that has been an integral part of the economy and ecosystem of marshland Arabs, have dominated news articles and think tank essays, signaling the gravity of the crisis. 

Discussions about the climate crisis are often held in closed-door settings, in lavish hotel gatherings and conferences, making them inaccessible to the average person. In many instances these conversations, which I was part of, revolve around the severity of the crisis, the reasons for Iraq’s vulnerability and, mostly, how to develop society’s environmental conscience. 

What academia and policy don’t account for is that Iraqis who are affected daily by worsening climate conditions can and will demonstrate their environmental consciences in visually striking ways. In addition, in doing so, they will be more effective and accessible to the average person on the street.

Beyond the vivid imagery of a “maukab” (a procession in which men walk together closely and rhythmically through the streets and sometimes chant), focusing on environmental issues, especially a water shortage, is symbolically powerful.

A key moment of Ashura revolves around the hours and days before Imam Hussein’s death. Shiite traditions describing the events tell of the hardship Hussein and his camp faced when water began to dwindle, so that by the night of the sixth of Muharram, the group had used the last of its water. Left in the extreme heat, children wept for water, and attempts to dig wells in several places were fruitless.

Other attempts to get the group some water didn’t succeed, so that by the 10th of Muharram — the day of Ashura — and during his last moments as he lay on the ground wounded, Imam Hussein said to al-Shimr, the opposing military commander, “Even if you are bent upon killing me, at least give me some water to drink.” In his cruelty, al-Shimr denied Hussein water and slit his throat.

The Thirst of al-Imam then became a fundamental representation of injustice, oppression and the group’s hardship. The story is such an essential part of Ashura that as the character of Hussein lies on the ground in reenactments of the battle, the audience often rushes to the stage with water. Now the people of Iraq, especially those in southern Iraq — many of whom consider themselves to be part of Hussein’s bloodline — are also thirsty and displaced. Not surprisingly, this is because of the mismanagement and corruption of a government that built its legitimacy after 2003 through the hijacking of Shiite traditions like Ashura and the Thirst of al-Imam.

I spoke to Mustafa Hashem, an environmental activist who shared the images of these men and their dead water buffaloes on his social media account, and who is himself one of the founders of the Collective for the Ahwari People. Hashem, like many environmental activists in the country, started organizing as a response to the impact of environmental degradation on living conditions.

“I started participating in environmental activism three years ago,” Hashem said. “At first I started bringing awareness and documenting the suffering of the marshes people due to the loss of water buffaloes and buffalo herders due to droughts on my social media accounts, and now I also document human rights violations, especially in the Hawizeh Marshes, where I live.”

Iraq is considered one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation, but southern Iraq in general and the Iraqi marshland in particular — a region that has long been alienated from decision-makers in Baghdad — has been hit hard. Iraq is among the top 20 countries for water insecurity, due to water mismanagement, outdated infrastructure and irrigation methods and the climate crisis. Nowhere has the effect been felt more than in the marshland regions. As the marshes dry out, the water gets saltier until it starts killing the water buffaloes, the main source of income for the communities living in the area. 

Worsening climate conditions and a decline in water resources due to rising temperatures, the decline in precipitation levels and poor infrastructure management have forced many to abandon their ancestral homes and migrate to urban areas where unemployment is already high, triggering conflict and frequent protests.

“My family used to depend on the marshes for their livelihood,” said Hashem. “My father and I fished, and my mother and grandfather made reed mats and sold them, and we raised buffaloes. In 2022, everything ended. Our livelihood ended with the drought … We lost five of the 10 buffalo heads we had … Now, I am working as a low-paid laborer in the oil companies adjacent to the Hawizeh Marshes.” In one respect, Hashem has been lucky. He explained that many are without employment, and even though the oil companies pay low wages not everyone can work for them because the primary labor force is made up of foreign workers. 

Hashem’s story is not unique. The International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix found that, as of March 15, 2023, more than 12,000 families — some 73,000 individuals — had been displaced across 10 governorates in central and southern Iraq.

Displacement and resource competition have triggered efforts to raise awareness of these dire conditions. Yet environmental activists often face threats to their work and lives. In February this year, a leading Iraqi environmentalist, Jassim al-Asadi, was released after being abducted for two weeks by an unidentified armed group. In a subsequent TV interview, al-Asadi stated that he was subjected to the “most severe forms of torture” that included “electricity and sticks.” He was released only after the story of his kidnapping reached the attention of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. And while it seems that the Iraqi government has played a positive role in bringing al-Asadi home, the fragmentation of the Iraqi state means that at the same time, other groups and parts of the state also actively attack and undermine the work of environmental activists.

For instance, in late 2019 Iraqi authorities arbitrarily detained Salman Khairalla, another environmental activist. Once Khairalla was released, he left Baghdad. And in another example, after bringing attention to poor water management in the country, Raad Habib al-Assadi, head of the environmental group Chabbayish Organization, was taken to court by the Water Resources Ministry in 2020. Even though al-Assadi was acquitted in 2021, the ministry filed a second case against him, which also ended in acquittal, only for the ministry to file a third case. According to al-Assadi, ministry officials have offered to drop the case against him if he pledges to stop criticizing the ministry, but he has refused.

The combination of threatening conditions and weakened civil society infrastructure have undermined environmental activism in the country, despite the desperate need for this kind of work if Iraq hopes to minimize the environmental and climate catastrophe the country faces. As Hashem explains, “The environmental movement in Iraq is a superficial movement that is not real and has become an opportunity to raise funds. Some have established organizations whose only concern is collecting funds through grants for seminars and conferences whose content is far from reality. The marshes are the first victim.”

Amid these challenges, Iraq’s climate conditions are only expected to worsen. In addition, activists, who face daily threats, have limited places to organize. The rituals of Ashura are critical not only in drawing attention to these dire conditions, but also in reaching those Iraqis who will be most affected by environmental degradation. Ashura, once more, is an opportunity for building knowledge and resisting oppressive forces. 

“As for the maukab,” Hashem concluded, “it was organized by an Ahwari activist, Ahmed al-Saadi, and other environmental activists from the marshes, specifically the Hawizeh Marshes, as a message of protest against the Iraqi government and an analogy to what was done to Imam Hussein, where he and his family experienced thirst and were deprived of water. In that sense, the Iraqi government is not much different from what the Umayyad did to the Imam.”

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