One Pandemic, Two Governments, Immense Vulnerability?

By offering a cross-country examination of multiple forms of extremism, PAVE reminds us that extremism is a multifaceted notion moulded by history, political systems and socio-economic realities. The local, indeed, matters. The same holds true for the impact of world pandemics on vulnerable societies. When it reached Iraq in early March 2020, Covid-19 highlighted the complexity and weaknesses of a state already sorely tried by wars and internal conflicts. The common threat of Covid-19 did not trigger the emergence of a coordinated response plan and inclusive policy in the country. Instead, the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government adopted two different and independent approaches to deal with the impacts of the pandemic.

For PAVE’s partner in Iraq, Open Think Tank (OTT), which is based in the Kurdistan Region (KRI) and focuses its attention on populations across the regional border, this duplication meant adapting to twice as many regulations and challenges, and often the impossibility of conducting the research via usual channels.

The pandemic prompted us to rethink several aspects of our research, including the topic under study, the subjects of our investigations and the way we collect data. It led us to reassess not only the research itself but also our positioning as ‘local researchers’ and what the much-debated notion of ‘local’ encapsulates at a time of crisis. The following sections offer an overview of challenges and coping strategies we developed at OTT in our endeavour to contribute to the PAVE project.

Reassessing our positionality as local researchers

PAVE is based on a participatory and inter-regional approach with a focus on the role of local communities in fuelling and/or preventing dynamics of radicalisation and violent extremism. In Iraq, OTT draws its strength as a local partner from its geographical proximity to the populations being studied for PAVE and its wide network across the country. Yet as the pandemic spread and condemned the research team to enforced immobility, the notion of ‘local’ became more fluid than ever.

Besides international borders with neighbouring countries, the regional borders between the KRI and the rest of Iraq were closed for several months in 2020. It was thus impossible for our research team, based in the KRI, to conduct research in the places selected for data collection in post-ISIS-held areas across the regional border. Given the lack of a pre-existing trust relationship between the research team and intended participants, the vulnerability of these participants and the sensitivity of the topic under investigation, mitigating enforced immobility via online channels and the phone was simply impossible. We found ourselves in a position familiar to European researchers studying dangerous or hard-to-reach fields: we had no choice but to rely on local researchers and community-based contact persons to provide contextualised insights on areas that we could not access.

The collaboration with local researchers is in line with PAVE’s approach that bridges geographical spaces – the Western Balkans and the MENA – and sectors – academic, policy-making, grassroots. But it also has several downsides. At OTT, we quickly gained the impression that we were no longer in full control of the research and were dependent on distanced help; a relationship fully managed through instant messaging platforms and phone calls. A key challenge for us was to ensure that the distance imposed by enforced immobility did not hinder the quality of the knowledge we produced. Training our field partners in conducting high-quality interviews and in work ethics, to meet the standards of a European-funded project, took several weeks before the data collection process could start. Moreover, this same collaboration with local researchers can potentially increase the risk of an exploitative and unequal partnership. This risk generally arises when there is pressure to conduct research ‘at any cost’, when findings are linked to tight deadlines, which is the case in PAVE. A key role we have taken on at OTT is to ensure a fair financial partnership that takes into consideration the impact of Covid-19 on the added value of local researchers and community-based contacts.

As a result, we found ourselves in a situation of ‘divided identity’ during the pandemic, where we acted not only as researchers but also as facilitators or managers of a distant research project, while safeguarding against the invisible risk represented by Covid-19. In other words, our role did not focus exclusively on conducting research but on ensuring that our research did not manufacture more vulnerability in a deeply fragile context.

Reassessing vulnerability to violent extremism in Iraq after Covid-19

In a side research study conducted in cooperation with the University of Edinburgh during the first wave of Covid-19 in Iraq, the OTT team highlighted that the pandemic had a strong, visible impact on the socio-economic and political structures in the KRI, particularly around issues of political trust and social cohesion. While social cohesion has been reinforced, the results of the survey highlight a twofold division in the KRI.

First, a quasi-absence of trust in the federal government and institutions in the KRI accounted for the rejection of Baghdad’s rule. In a clear example of this mistrust amid health concerns, countless conspiracy theories spread on the internet about the virus itself but also the vaccines that became available to the Iraqi population in late March 2021. As a result, at the time of writing, only 1.3% of the Iraqi population is fully vaccinated – a statistic that does not remove the risk associated with conducting research for the OTT team. Second, the results of the survey showed a political rift between the two main political parties in the KRI – the KDP and the PUK – which is reflective of Kurdistani society more widely.

The rejection of Baghdad’s rule over the KRI, along with divided political affiliations and the financial uncertainty facing the youngest Kurdistanis, are further challenges that central and regional institutions must mitigate. While the Covid-19 pandemic has been met by relative social calm and order across Iraq, it might well reinforce existing vulnerabilities and grievances which could then be factors in further fragmentation and conflict, both between the federal and the regional governments and within each political unit. As a result of these dynamics, different forms of extremisms could accumulate and merge into a global and powerful contestation of the established order in Iraq in the near future.

A final valuable lesson our research team learned from conducting research in Iraq during the Covid-19 pandemic is not to assume or focus on the trauma or vulnerability of those we engage with. Such an assumption, while having a clear emphatic and protective stance, can foster patronising behaviours and deprive local institutions and communities of their agency in the face of crises, conflicts or pandemics. Preconceptions also distort the way we research, the questions we ask and the knowledge we produce or contribute to producing. We have often been surprised by the resilience of local communities in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. This observation reaffirms the importance of looking at violent extremism – among other shocks – as a phenomenon that not only creates vulnerability and instability but can also be resisted and mitigated.

In sum, PAVE in Iraq gained further relevance with the emergence of the pandemic and will offer unique perspectives on how vulnerability and resilience to the pandemic at the state and community levels can inform policies aimed at tackling violent extremism.