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Heritage peacebuilding in Iraq

After years of funding being pumped to Iraq’s NGO sector based on US military needs, local civil society is rebuilding itself based on Iraqi priorities, not least of which is heritage.

The ruins of the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq. Picture by Noe Falk Nielsen/NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved. What Iraq is experiencing today is perhaps unprecedented in its recent history. An active, vibrant civil society, and an increasingly concerned citizenry are attempting to reclaim Iraq’s history from the long-term effects of dictatorship, occupation and sectarian politics that have characterised Iraq’s recent past. Iraq’s rich heritage has been one of the least researched areas that has undergone significant transformation since 2003. After the recent defeat of the Islamic State, the next stage for Iraq is to rebuild what has either been badly damaged or destroyed. From 2003 till today, Iraq’s national heritage has been neglected, causing major damage to this world-renowned heritage. Iraq now stands at an important crossroads. Focusing on rebuilding efforts and on heritage peace-building, providing support to domestic organisations, heritage practitioners and universities to rebuild their cultural institutions, could be one of the surest ways to help Iraq’s war to peace transition. 

Heritage peace-building can simply be defined as international and domestic interventions to create and support the foundations for Iraq’s national reconciliation, founded on its culturally rich past. In Iraq, and as the people of Iraq understand it, heritage is not merely the protection of tangible property but its embeddedness in new notions of Iraqi identity and being that are currently being negotiated by a large swathe of society. The international community should be cognizant of these social transformations currently taking place in the country, positioning its efforts to sustainably support the country’s local efforts to rebuild its heritage and country. 

Iraq’s national heritage has been deliberately subdued as it was considered to act as a counterforce to ethno-nationalist politics

From the founding of the Iraqi state and up to 2003, Iraq’s pre-Islamic heritage has been one of the defining characteristics of its national identity. With the creation of a sectarian political system after 2003, Iraq’s national heritage has been deliberately subdued as it was considered to act as a counterforce to ethno-nationalist politics and the concomitant growth of sectarian forms of heritage, namely revolving around mosques but also many other religious sites. A source for a common bond and identity for all Iraqis, national heritage can play a central role in reconciliation between Iraq’s many cultural groups. Instead, over the past few years what we have seen is its neglect and the growth of sectional identities that have increasingly polarised Iraqi society and created major social tensions. Heritage peace-building, based on Iraq’s rich cultural history, could be a central way to mend relations and build necessary inter-community trust. 

Since 2003 major international funding to Iraq, especially to its domestic NGO sector, have either focused on liberal notions of civil society development and democracy promotion or based on US occupation priorities. After the withdrawal of the US military in 2011, Iraq’s civil society grew weaker, now without much funding, many NGOs collapsed. International funding to Iraq’s domestic NGOs were crafted as contractor and service – delivery organisations. Sustainability was short-sighted in most of these funding streams, as their objectives were tied to external donor priorities. One important insight and pattern in these funding streams was that they dismissed actually existing civil society and worked instead on creating new things that mimicked or reflected donors own notions of what Iraq should look like. Their long-term effects whilst having offered funding and training to Iraqi NGO leaders have largely been unsustainable. Heritage peace-building, for it to be effective, has to learn the painful and hard lessons of civil society peace-building of the past few years.  

Now, many years since the NGO bonanza of the US surge of 2006 and 2007 and other funding streams that pumped hundreds of millions to Iraq’s NGO sector, civil society is rebuilding itself based on Iraqi priorities, not least of which is heritage. Across Iraq today, youth and heritage groups are being established as a form of local civil society development. From Mosul to Basra, civil society heritage organisations, concerned with safeguarding Iraq’s tangible and intangible heritage, arguably Iraq’s most important asset, are being established as a way to connect not only with their history but with their existing social environment. Heritage organisations, in this sense, are civil society organisations concerned with the country’s transition based on existing forms of culture.  

One important, flagship initiative in this regard is the work of Iraqi artist Rashad Selim, who through his Safina Projects organisation, is attempting to revive Iraq’s ancient maritime and textiles heritage, building through his crafts, arts and recreations of such things as the Ark of Noah and disappeared Iraqi boats as a product of Iraqi culture. Such projects do more for the present than the past as they focus on continuity rather than merely protection and safeguarding. 

International heritage peace-building efforts, based on reviving Iraq’s rich cultural past, should be at the forefront of rebuilding the country. At the forefront of these efforts has been UNESCO in Iraq, which successfully negotiated with the UAE Government a $50m rebuilding of the destroyed al Nuri mosque complex in Mosul. Such efforts not only create hope and necessary jobs for Iraq’s heritage sector but act as cultural bridges between Iraq and its neighbours. 

Sustainable forms of heritage peace-building start at a local level

Saudi Arabia’s initiative to build one of the world’s largest stadiums in Iraq, with design themes based on Babylon, is another example of cultural diplomacy and heritage peace-building. Such efforts will have a lasting impact on Iraq’s relationship with its neighbours and help pave the way in building closer economic and political ties. The UK is also leading in heritage peace-building. The Nahrein Network, a government funded University College London based project, is working to create greater local intellectual ownership of cultural heritage through support to Iraqi universities and researchers. The four-year project supports Iraq’s researchers and NGOs working to build research capacity with a view on the sustainable development of cultural heritage in the country  through a grants and scholarships scheme. Working with Iraqi researchers and cultural institutions the Nahrein Network is the first project of its kind to support Iraqis in their negotiation of the local discourse on heritage at a critical moment in the country’s development and transition. 

Sustainable forms of heritage peace-building start at a local level. In contrast to substantial funding to Iraq’s NGO sector to work on things related to democracy promotion or US security concerns, little has been expended to support heritage and cultural organisations in Iraq. Today, many cultural groups are being established, in the absence of foreign support, to rebuild Iraq. One such organisation is a youth oriented cultural group called Elu, which recently organised a celebration of Iraqi culture and history in partnership with the Ministry of Culture in the Abbasid Palace, in central Baghdad. 

Such organisations, if provided sufficient domestic and international support, including from Iraq’s private sector, could be the bedrock of a new Iraq. Sustainability here lies not only in terms of funding and such things as outputs, but on attempts to reshape Iraq’s discourse on heritage as pertaining to historical continuity, however negotiated, and the production of life in its various cultural manifestations. In this spirit, Iraq’s cultural and heritage organisations are working on defining heritage not only as the ‘thing to be protected’ but are actively negotiating their own history as a source of life’s continuity. It is through culture that Iraqis attempt to define themselves and those around them, and it is a central way people connect to their living environment. Indeed, heritage in this sense should be considered as the cultural and aspirational embodiment of life. 

International heritage peace-building initiatives could possibly include supporting the Iraqi government to establish a cultural fund, to protect, safeguard and potentially make its increasingly dilapidated and badly maintained cultural sites available for the public. As of yet, efforts to support Iraq’s heritage are piecemeal, disparate and not of the scale commensurate with the needs that Iraq requires. With international support, perhaps from UNESCO and international donors, guided by Iraqi expertise, a cultural fund open to applications for the rehabilitation of cultural sites and support to heritage could be a major source of support for Iraq’s newly emerging cultural and heritage groups working on rebuilding cultural institutions. 

Rebuilding Iraq will necessarily require the rehabilitation of Iraq’s cultural sites

The fund could be comprised of assistance to tangible and intangible cultural heritage and work to build a critical mass of activity to positively influence institutions of the Iraqi state.  Working with civil society to influence notions of cultural heritage sustainability in the state is one important way to affect long-term change in safeguarding Iraq’s important cultural heritage. Such efforts can positively contribute to ensuring that cultural heritage sustainability becomes a key part of the very fabric of the Iraqi state. A cultural fund could be managed by both Iraqi and non-Iraqi experts, making use of a shared funding pool, to reinvigorate Iraqi heritage and the common ties shared by all Iraqis. 

With elections approaching in May 2018, any future government should seriously consider establishing such a cultural programme as government institutions alone today cannot manage the scale of destruction wrought on Iraqi heritage over the past three decades.

Rebuilding Iraq will necessarily require the rehabilitation of Iraq’s cultural sites and mending the immense damage war and conflict has done to Iraq’s immaterial culture life. Positioning international resources in this regard, supporting local heritage activities, particularly those spearheaded by Iraqi civil society and Iraq’s increasingly active universities, will be one effective and sustainable way support can be delivered to the country. Supporting Iraq’s heritage rehabilitation will go a long way in building an Iraq based on its rich cultural history and an increasingly active civil society attempting to overcome the legacies of isolation and conflict of the recent past.

About the author

Mehiyar Kathem is Research Associate and Nahrein Network Coordinator at UCL. His role includes supporting the Nahrein Network team to develop partnerships and communication with Iraqi Government institutions, domestic NGOs and academics. Dr Kathem completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. He blogs at www.mehiyar.com


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