Secularists, Islamists Clash In Iraqi Culture War

An Iraqi man holds a sign reading "Baghdad will not be Kandahar" in Arabic as he takes part in a protest in Baghdad. i i

hide captionAn Iraqi man holds a sign reading "Baghdad will not be Kandahar" in Arabic as he takes part in a Dec. 3 protest in Baghdad organized by poets and intellectuals against the closure of nightclubs and a ban on alcohol sales.

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi man holds a sign reading "Baghdad will not be Kandahar" in Arabic as he takes part in a protest in Baghdad.

An Iraqi man holds a sign reading "Baghdad will not be Kandahar" in Arabic as he takes part in a Dec. 3 protest in Baghdad organized by poets and intellectuals against the closure of nightclubs and a ban on alcohol sales.

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Iraq's political battles have subsided with the announcement of a new government, approved by Parliament this week. But the country's culture war continues unabated.

The fight is between religious political parties — the Islamists — and secular Iraqis, long part of the country's social fabric. It is a struggle to define the country's identity.

A few days ago, hundreds of billboards appeared, unannounced, across Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

Nezar Hussein, a 30-year-old filmmaker, translates the messages: "Baghdad won't be Kandahar," "Music is the universal language, "Say no to separating boys and girls in school" and "Religion for God and country for everybody." On all the signs, the messages are preceded by the headline "Liberty First."

The billboards are simple, white with black Arabic script.

"It's a just a simple little message ... it doesn't have to be complicated," Hussein says. "It's the first time to see that kind of campaign in Baghdad."

'Serious And Dangerous Signs'

For the first time, Iraq's secular community is feeling strong enough to fight back in public against what it sees as religious excess. "I guess it's important to send a message to them that we can say, 'No,' " the filmmaker says.

There have been street demonstrations against the Baghdad municipal government's recent ban on alcohol sales and the shuttering of nightclubs.

Now, a publishing company — Al-Mada House, whose head, Fakhri Karim, is a senior adviser to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani — has sponsored the billboard campaign.

The messages reflect the growing alarm over recent measures to banish music and dance from the curriculum at Baghdad's Fine Arts Academy, remove statues at the college deemed indecent, and shut an annual arts festival in Babylon (in present-day Babil province, about 55 miles south of Baghdad) and an international circus in Basra.

These moves give "serious and dangerous signs," says Maysoon al-Damluji of Iraqiya, a political party than ran on a secular agenda in the March elections and won enough votes to secure top Cabinet seats in the new government.

"Iraqis are Muslims, the vast majority are Muslims, but they don't like to have religion imposed on them," she says.

Secularists Fight For Soul Of The Country

Who is doing the imposing is a matter of debate. The minister of education, who banned drama and music studies, has been replaced by a minister from the Iraqiya party who is known for his secular outlook. The prime minister allowed bars and nightclubs to reopen in 2008, but he didn't overrule the latest decision by the Baghdad municipal government.

Actors Samir Qahtan and Mustapha al-Taweel gather at Hewar Art Gallery to protest against religious excess. i i

hide captionActors Samar Qahtan (left) and Mustapha al-Taweel are among the Iraqi secularists who gather at the Hewar Art Gallery in Baghdad to protest what they consider Iraq's religious excess.

Deborah Amos/NPR
Actors Samir Qahtan and Mustapha al-Taweel gather at Hewar Art Gallery to protest against religious excess.

Actors Samar Qahtan (left) and Mustapha al-Taweel are among the Iraqi secularists who gather at the Hewar Art Gallery in Baghdad to protest what they consider Iraq's religious excess.

Deborah Amos/NPR

Hundreds of supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr marched — and new posters appeared — to thank the Baghdad council for saving the city from indecency.

While some Iraqis wonder who is trying to impose conservative Islamic codes, Damluji sees Iran's hand in the recent crackdown. "I think this is all flexing of muscles by neighboring countries who are taking advantage of the withdrawal of American troops and showing they are in charge of Iraqi politics," she says.

On most nights, a group of men gathers at the Hewar Art Gallery in Baghdad, around an open fire pit where river fish are roasting. These meetings are a form of political protest, they say, just the like the street demonstrations they attend against those who aim to curb their freedoms.

This collection of Iraq's most famous artists comes to recite bawdy poetry, sing traditional songs, and drink arak, Iraq's signature milky white cocktail.

Qasim Sabti, the gallery owner, presides over these dedicated secularists who want to fight for the soul of the country.

"We know it's fighting between the religious foolish man and the civilization man. We know we are fighting like Gandhi, and this is a new language in Iraqi life," Sabti says. "We have no guns. We do not believe in this kind of fighting."

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