Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Hazem Saghieh

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Iraq Is Seemingly Being Founded from Scratch and Not Being Founded 

Today, Iraq seems to be both an identity searching for a location and a location searching for an identity. These two perplexed searches suggest two things: that the country is undergoing a foundational phase- in the sense that it seeks to align the location and the identity, and to link them to a national community of coexistence - and that this foundational phase does not end with anything being founded.

The quest for a "founding myth" has been perpetual in Iraq, a country that had supposedly been founded a century ago. Meanwhile, this project has been marked by increased difficulties and missteps, not accumulated achievements. As though they were caught in unabating geological upheaval, Iraqis continue to ask: Who are we? What does it mean to be Iraqi?

In turn, each side weaponizes its answer with its particular reading of history. The Iraqi elite, as we well know, had gone through this during the country’s monarchical era, when Satii al-Husari, Fadel al-Jamali, Muhammad Madi al-Jawahiri, and others were the leading protagonists.

A few weeks ago, the debate became heated- and it was not the first time this happened recently - over the statue of Abu Jaafar al-Mansur in a public square in Baghdad. As for the reason for the controversy, it is that some Shiite fundamentalists accuse the Abbasid Caliph of poisoning the Shiite Imam Jaafar al-Sadiq in 148 AH (765 AD).

Around the same time, the Iraqi parliament was debating Moqtada al-Sadr's (the leader of the Sadrist Movement) demand that Eid al-Ghadir be designated a national holiday. Parliament's acquiescence to al-Sadr’s demand sparked broad discontent among Sunnis, as Sunnis and Shiites have different narratives of what had happened that day and whether or not the Prophet Mohammad had appointed Imam Ali bin Abi Talib as his successor.

Naturally, passion for finding the truth or allegiance to an objective historical account is the least of the parties to the dispute's concerns. But if kinship-based, sectarian, or ethnic loyalty drives the debate, the responsibility of the party pursuing hegemony far outweighs that of the parties trying to stand in its way.

This same hegemony now has its sights on Iraq's modern history, specifically the history of how the Iraqi Republic was founded. With Eid al-Ghadir made a national holiday, this day - July 14, 1958 - has disappeared from the national holiday law.

What stands out about the July 14 coup is perhaps that it was, among all the military coups of the Arab Levant, the only one that sought to consolidate a form of patriotism that unites the country's population and is linked to a "founding myth." That was reflected in the Republic's flag, whose different colors symbolized its diverse communities, as well as its attempt to reconcile the ancient history of Mesopotamia with the country's modern history. It also sought to unite the Arabs, who were represented by Safi al-Din al-Hilli's poetry, and the Kurds, who were represented by the sun, their ancient mythological symbol.

However, with the first Baathist coup in 1963, this flag was abandoned. Abdul-Karim Qasim’s regime (1958-1963) was profoundly sensitive to affirming Iraqi patriotism, which he wanted to safeguard from the encroachment of Nasserist Arab nationalism. This sensitivity was evident in, among many other things, the massive Freedom Monument installed in central Baghdad that had been commissioned by Qasim after the renowned sculptor and painter Jawad Salim finished working on it in 1961. This monument celebrates the history of ancient Iraqi art, through its Babylonian and Abbasid inscriptions, and it celebrates the citizens of Iraq, portraying them as strata and segments of society who strive, toil, and suffer.

Erasing July 14 amounts to erasing the most serious effort to establish a form of patriotism that could bring Iraqis together. This is what Iraqi intellectuals sought to highlight in their statement denouncing the developments currently unfolding in their country. They linked the new annihilatory stance to "systematic processes that have been ongoing for two decades, intended to strip the Iraqi state of its vital elements, including the dissolution and cancellation of its sovereign symbols. We fear that these actions are preludes to undermining the civil state and fragmenting it through the creation of alternative entities around narrow sub-identities and sectarian, ethnic, and tribal loyalties, which have been promoted by some forces that have run the country since the fall of the dictatorship."

The intellectuals also linked this latest step to "the failure to approve the draft law on the Iraqi flag and national anthem." They argue that this is a deliberate effort to leave the country without "a flag or a national anthem." Their statement also warned of "a premeditated push to dismantle the Iraqi state, and continuous attempts to tear up the social fabric with other laws that could surprise us at any moment."

The statement did not forget to mention "the rumors about a law to establish a council for Iraqi tribes and clans, which would be a step backward that entrenches values that had been abandoned by society, as well as reinforce discrimination among citizens in a manner that contravenes the constitution and civic values."

What is happening today, under the watchful eyes and encouragement of the Iranian patrons, is among the fruits of a political coup that abolishes the nation in favor of sectarianism, the state in favor of militias, and efforts to build a unified history in favor of reaffirming a divided and contentious history. This coup breeds only sectarian hegemony, ossified kinship loyalties, and universal communal animosity.