Just how much influence these young secularists have is unclear. When I met with Saleh and Hadidi at Book Forum, a newly opened café, Hadidi directed me to a pair of Facebook groups with thousands of members, where Iraqis critique Quranic stories and the prophet’s sayings, and post memes mocking fundamentalism along with long threads lambasting political corruption and ineptitude.
While quantifying the movement’s influence may be difficult, the people of Mosul undoubtedly have more space to read, think, and question their faith than they’ve had in years. Near Book Forum, 37-year-old Hussam al-Din runs a bookstore that’s been open for only several months. His family once owned a bookshop in the Old City on Najafi Street. When al-Qaeda gained power in Mosul after 2003, they had to hide all their secular titles. They mostly sold fundamentalist Sunni texts, though al-Din always kept a few copies of books by Orwell and Marx to sell under the table. After ISIS took over, the shop was closed, and novels were proclaimed evil. When the battle against ISIS broke out in Mosul, Najafi Street was razed to the ground.
At al-Din’s new store, the most popular titles—particularly among younger readers—are works by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. He also carries works by Nietzsche, Rousseau, Foucault, and other Western philosophers that had largely been outlawed for years, he said. “In the past … terrorists were in control. There were limits and red lines. We knew what we were forbidden to think,” he said. “Now, everyone in Mosul is looking for something new.”
But this wave of Facebook secularism has yet to catch up with Iraqi politics. The week before Iraq’s first post-ISIS elections in May, campaign banners in Mosul featured explicitly religious motifs, many of them using Shia imagery. As I spoke with Saleh and Hadidi in the café in Mosul, one of the militias was holding an election rally outside. Gun-toting youth zoomed down the streets on armed personnel carriers, waving guns and campaign banners. As the International Crisis Group wrote in a 2016 report, at the height of ISIS rule in Iraq, joining these groups was often the only way for youth to earn a living and to feel a sense of belonging and self-respect.
Secular movements often fail to offer these advantages. They’re also locked out of the party system imposed by the United States in 2003, which applied proportional representation to all of Iraq. This policy eventually spawned a spoils system in which ministers gave jobs almost exclusively to their own party supporters, many of whom were members of ethnic and religious communities. Today, virtually all political power and access to employment—both public and private—runs through Iraq’s sectarian parties.
“The biggest danger to Mosul is not ISIS or al-Qaeda, but the existence of religious parties’ militias,” Hadidi said. Many Iraqis—especially the youth—want state institutions, not sectarian militias, he added. They do not oppose religion itself, but the way that religious fealty undermines effective governance. Amid the devastated neighborhoods of West Mosul, shiny rebuilt mosques sit among otherwise-ignored ruins of people’s homes, Hadidi pointed out. “The government says, ‘Screw you,’ except for religion. Your life is nothing,” Hadidi said. “They use religion as a cover to play with the people.” Iraqis are increasingly disillusioned with this system. Half of the respondents in an opinion poll from last August said they wanted candidates running in the May elections who were “independent technocrats” or had a “civil or secular agenda.”