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Just as the Iraqi armed forces geared up for their advance into Western Mosul in February 2017, the Ministry of Defense newspaper Khaimat al-Iraq announced the revival of Iraq’s Army Theater, an institution that once held musical and theatrical productions on its stage dating back to Saddam Hussein’s days. The paper acknowledged that the joint Ministry of Defense-Ministry of Culture undertaking was ambitious, but argued that it was nonetheless vital in order to “document the victories of our army to raise the morale of our heroic fighters.”
In the midst of such bloodletting, the launch of such a project may seem surprising at best and a waste of resources at worst. A survey of the Ministry of Defense’s publications, however, reveals that arts and culture initiatives are actually a crucial part of its strategy to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and rebuild the country. Compared with issues like the next Sunni insurgency or the future of Iraq’s Shiite militias, the role of arts and culture in restoring security has flown under the radar. But from an Iraqi perspective, it is a security issue in its own right.
Iraqi Ministry of Defense media, which includes the newspaper Khaimat al-Iraq and the TV program Himaat al-Iraq, puts a notable emphasis on content related to arts and culture. Between July and August 2017 alone, around 90 such items appeared in the former outlet. These include pro-military poems, articles about campaigns to revive cities through art, announcements of cultural events in celebration of victories over ISIS—and even a new TV show dramatizing Iraqi citizens’ efforts to recover the town of Dhuluiya from ISIS with the help of the security forces. These events sometimes involve direct participation by members of the armed forces and occasionally Ministry of Defense sponsorship: in July, the ministry hosted a victory festival on the stage of the National Theater that featured musical and theatrical performances honoring the armed forces and those killed in action. The ministry’s promotion of the arts serves several goals: motivating soldiers, building up public support and nationalism, countering radicalization, and signaling an improved security situation to boost citizens’ confidence.
The state’s use of art to strengthen morale is not new in Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, Saddam’s Baathist regime rewarded poets and writers who contributed to the war propaganda effort with prizes and other favors; it also published literary collections through the Ministry of Culture’s Literature of War series. Baathist co-optation of art permeated virtually every aspect of the cultural realm at that time.
After the fall of Saddam in 2003, artists began to express themselves more freely, despite the instability that hindered their work. Recent developments, however, have led the Iraqi government to re-enter the artistic sphere. In 2014, as ISIS swept through Mosul, the Communications and Media Commission released guidance that called upon the media to “broadcast programs that spread enthusiasm and a fighting spirit against terror, in addition to patriotic anthems.” This directive led to an uptick in the production of nationalist music, Iraqi studio owner Samer Taha Salem told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “Before, Iraqi football coaches would play patriotic songs for players before they went on the pitch,” said Salem. “This is the same thing now for our troops.”
Videos released by the Ministry of Defense are often set to nationalist music it has produced itself or encouraged independent artists to compose. In April 2017, for example, Khaimat al-Iraq announced the release of a song about the achievements of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service against ISIS. The singer, Amr al Ali—an affiliate of the Ministry of Defense—said in an interview that the song would provide “spiritual motivation for our heroic fighters,” and that “as an artist, it is my duty to stand with my country and my army, and to offer them all my support.” The ministry has likewise used poetry as a morale-boosting tactic: Khaimat al-Iraq publishes weekly poems glorifying the Iraqi homeland and military—sometimes penned by fighters themselves—under titles such as “Heroes of Iraq,” “Men of the Shield,” and “Your Victory Is a Celebration.” Although the relationship between art and troop morale is difficult to measure, the publicity benefits for artists of producing such content shed light on the genre’s overwhelming popularity and success.
Beyond troop morale, working with the art community helps the Ministry of Defense bolster support for the Iraqi military among citizens. The armed forces have a public image problem related to accusations of abuse, corruption, and extrajudicial killings that have accumulated over the years. Artists, on the other hand, are usually a trusted voice in local communities and across the region. Their support carries weight, which the security forces leverage through videos of artists speaking out in support of them. In August 2017, Iraqi Army representatives attended an exhibition of paintings depicting Iraqi soldiers’ victories against ISIS. “This is the least we can do… to support our armed forces,” said one artist in a Ministry of Defense video covering the event. “This initiative… [expresses] love, gratitude, and recognition for the Iraqi army,” said another, “and the sacrifices they have made on behalf of our country and the liberation of Mosul.”
Collaboration with the artistic community may indeed be contributing to a positive outcome. Despite the obvious difficulty of isolating the effects of cultural outreach from those of the army’s victories against ISIS, polling indicates that the the Iraqi government has experienced a popularity boost in recent months. According to a survey conducted in April, 71 percent of Sunni Arabs support Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—compared with 5 percent of the same demographic who supported then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki just three years ago.
The Ministry of Defense also uses arts and culture to cultivate a sense of nationalism among civilians. During the Baathist era, Saddam promoted popular pride in Iraqi cultural heritage (which includes the legacy of the Sumerian, Assyrian, Akkadian, and Babylonian empires) in order to strengthen Iraqi national identity. The Iraqi security establishment seems to have appropriated this tactic in the present day. Khaimat al-Iraq has made frequent references to the impressive achievements of ancient Iraqi civilizations. It has also highlighted civil society campaigns to restore the Nimrud archaeological site (which ISIS partially destroyed), donate books to the Mosul Museum, survey damage to cultural heritage around Baghdad, and return artifacts to the National Museums of Iraq. These initiatives help foster a national identity that undermines ISIS by providing an alternative to religious and sectarian forms of identity. Indeed, sectarianism may be on the wane, at least to some extent: recent polling has also shown that for the first time since 2003, Sunni Arabs support the prime minister in larger numbers than do Shiite Arabs.
The Iraqi security establishment also counters ISIS by highlighting the direct threat the group poses to treasured artifacts and the national pride they evoke. In April, Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service co-sponsored a lecture to discuss ISIS’s destruction of heritage sites in the Arab world. A CTS representative likened ISIS’s actions to an effort to transform Iraq into a different country, calling the destruction an “attempt to Afghan-ize Mosul’s society,” while adding that the security forces have expended “tremendous effort… to preserve Iraqi identity.” In this way, the security forces establish ISIS as the threat to Iraqi cultural identity—and themselves as its protector. In short, ISIS’s massive destruction of historical and artistic treasures has created space for the security forces to claim the mantle of Iraqi nationalism.
Moreover, civil society and government, Arab artists, and other commentators have all advocated the promotion of sports, art, and other cultural activities to help counter radicalization, particularly among youth. The Ministry of Defense has apparently heeded this guidance. In July 2017, for instance, Khaimat al-Iraq published a poem entitled “No to Sectarianism… Iraq Is for All.” In the same month, it also released an article about a youth campaign to paint the walls of Mosul in an effort to “promote peace and safe existence, and reject all that creates discrimination and terrorism.” It described how one painter’s talent actually emerged from the hardship of living under ISIS—with the clear implication that participation in the arts is a viable alternative to involvement in violence.
Finally, the promotion of art has been useful in Baghdad’s effort to signal to civilians that it has adequate control over security, and that it is safe for them to return to their daily lives. Much of the ministry’s propaganda aims to convey this very message: one official video in June, for instance, shows a revived market in Mosul post-ISIS. “Today, we document for you the fruits of victory,” says the announcer, adding that “everything that was banned under ISIS has today returned.” Children mill about behind him, and a police officer brandishing a large gun also looms in the background.
The promotion of art has been useful in Baghdad’s effort to signal to civilians that it has adequate control over security.
Projecting the appearance of a lively cultural scene is another way to build confidence in the security situation. This would be true anywhere, but is particularly powerful in Iraq, where the past 14 years of war have decimated the arts and culture scene, from the looting of museums that took place in 2003 right up to ISIS’s intentional destruction of historical artifacts and assault on artistic life. Thus the very existence of art—including new murals on city walls depicting victories against ISIS and an art gallery premiering atop the rubble of the old arts center in Mosul—helps build trust among civilians that the government is capable of restoring normal life in liberated areas. To this end, Ministry of Defense media has also highlighted the post-war reopening of a variety of different cultural institutions. In July, the Defense Ministry newspaper published an article about the reopening of a cultural house in Suwaira, “coinciding with victory celebrations [over ISIS]”; in August, it announced the reopening of a theater in Baghdad—closed for security reasons since 2003—with the protection and logistical assistance of the security forces.
The ability of the Iraqi security forces to maintain order in the post-ISIS era will depend largely on their ability to harness art and culture for their benefit. But the Iraqi security forces are not the only actors using art as a public relations tool; the country’s Popular Mobilization Unit militias (PMUs) have adopted a similar strategy. They have undertaken their own efforts to court the artistic community and promote the arts, even hosting an international film festival in September 2016 under the slogan “Cinema Confronting Terrorism.” Sunni jihadists have also employed artistic material as a propaganda tool: ISIS has used poetry to bolster its appeal among potential recruits, and a form of non-instrumental music known as the nasheed to motivate fighters in battle.
These groups have laid their own claims to the artistic realm because they recognize the benefits it affords. But the cultural sphere need not be a domain of competition among different Iraqi actors (excepting ISIS and other jihadist groups). Rather, it may act as a unifying force between the Iraqi military and the PMUs, bringing the latter group further into the fold of Iraqi nationalism. Some of these militia groups remain loyal to Iran, while others highlight their indigenous Iraqi identity. The Ministry of Defense can use cooperation in the arts to strengthen the latter groups and promote PMU accountability to the people of Iraq. This goal may already be being pursued, at least to some extent: ministry media often covers cultural events in which participants praise both the PMUs and the security forces, and in July the Arts and Culture Castle in Diwaniya hosted a celebration that was attended by members of both groups.
Although the Iraqi government should continue to support the arts as a tool of reconstruction, it must avoid transforming the artistic community into a mouthpiece of the state. To suppress free expression in the arts as Saddam once did would be to undermine the cultural vibrancy the government is heralding as a cornerstone of Iraqi national identity. Iraqis today have the opportunity to use art to move the country forward, but should steer clear of repeating the past in the process.