Short video explainer about how, since 2003, Iraq’s elites have appropriated the country’s rich cultural heritage in the service of various undesirable agendas. This video is also available with Arabic subtitles on YouTube.
- Heritage predation – the destructive exploitation of cultural resources for political purposes – has become a prominent feature of Iraq’s post-2003 political landscape. The country’s elites have appropriated cultural heritage in the service of various undesirable agendas, which range from commercialization of cultural sites to the propagation of sectarian and exclusionary political and religious narratives. Large sections of Iraq’s cultural heritage are now increasingly captured for private gain, diminishing its role as a public good accessible to all Iraqis.
- A key factor behind these developments has been the political power-sharing system of muhasasa, which is premised on sectarian divisions and quotas. This has encouraged sectarian elites to instrumentalize and distort Iraq’s shared histories and identities as a means of sowing cultural divisions and establishing the primacy of one agenda over another. It has also both fundamentally damaged the country’s cultural life and left a society even further divided by sectarian politics.
- The effects are manifest in the rewriting of history by the country’s post-2003 sectarian elites, and in the restructuring of entire cultural and religious sites, cities and towns by subnational institutions captured by partisan interests. Examples include the culturally insensitive renovation and ‘custodianship’ of the historically important city of Samarra, and similar works at the ancient Shrine of Prophet Ezekiel in the province of Babil.
- Such problems are amplified by the fact that cultural heritage has become an indispensable economic and political resource, and thus the subject of competition between political and religious groups. Income and other resources derived from cultural heritage accrue not to the state but to sub-state institutions, yet often such bodies cannot be trusted to provide responsible, non-partisan stewardship of what should be shared national assets. The political economy of Iraq’s cultural heritage is thus increasingly tied to subnational institutions that actively promote ethno-nationalism, sectarianism and religious objectives.
- Cultural continuity and sustainability are also being damaged by the lack of enforcement of national laws on heritage protection, as well as by weak coordination and communication between political and religious groups.
- A national and international discussion is needed to examine the damaging impacts of muhasasa and the sectarian allocation of cultural resources. Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities should take centre stage in these debates alongside civil society organizations and Iraqi universities. Participants will need to be supported and strengthened by the Iraqi government and international organizations.
- An ethics-based framework for the management of Iraq’s cultural heritage is urgently required. International organizations can play a key role in this regard, although domestic buy-in and good faith are equally important. As such, this paper outlines a series of recommendations for countering the impact on Iraq’s cultural heritage of sectarianism and the post-2003 degradation of the state. Those recommendations are respectively aimed at: (1) Iraqi government and heritage institutions; (2) the country’s religious endowments; and (3) international donor and research communities.