Iraq's extremists are formidable, but they cannot undo its history

The country Iraqis call home has an ancient, cosmopolitan and immutable soul

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"A person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions". That is the Merriam-Webster dictionary's definition of an iconoclast. Its Greek root is "eikonoklastes" – literally meaning "image destroyer". Generally, iconoclasts are often those who are committed to destroying religious imagery in whatever shape it comes, be it statues, stained glass or paintings. Some attack any personification of an idea they reject.

The most vicious of extremists are those who attack heritage, identity and social cohesion. Iraq has been a victim of attacks from iconoclasts for years, as competing groups try to shape the cultural identity of the country, and force their dominance on it. The examples are numerous, and most damaging was that of ISIS.

When ISIS took over parts of Iraq and Syria over seven years ago, they systematically went about destroying historic relics in Ninewah, Aleppo and beyond. The motivation was threefold: terrorise civilians, claim victory and attempt to destroy a collective identity based on shared memory in order to divide and conquer the society. They followed a long line of terrorists attacking human civilisation. The Taliban attacked the 6th-century Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in March 2001, and Al Qaeda attacked the Al Askari shrine in Samara.

In June 2017, the grand leaning minaret of Mosul, Al Hadbaa, was blown up along with the city's historic 12th-century Al Nouri mosque. ISIS militants destroyed the famed mosque and minaret as they retreated from the iconic city, as a parting shot in the injustices they committed against Iraqis from all backgrounds. There was a deliberate attempt to eliminate what was most sacred – identity and history – from a cosmopolitan people and society they clearly resented.

Four years on, ISIS fighters’ plans have been disrupted, as Mosul is cleared of mines, and a strategy is in place to restore it after the UAE stepped in and pledged $50 million dollars to rebuild the mosque, minaret and two neighbouring churches. Working with Unesco and the Iraqi government, the UAE has stressed the importance of reconstructing these sites both to help the people of Mosul and Iraq to recover from the trauma of ISIS and also as a way to push back against extremism. Iraqis from cities across the country are keen to see the minaret rise once again, maintaining, importantly, its famous slant.

This picture taken on June 10, 2021 shows an aerial night view of Iraq's northern city of Mosul, on the seventh anniversary of the city's fall to Islamic State (IS) group fighters.  / AFP / Zaid AL-OBEIDI
Mosul was at one time ISIS's largest occupied city. AFP
The most vicious of extremists are those who attack heritage, identity and social cohesion

But the threat of attacks on Iraq’s landmarks and heritage is by no means over. Today, statutes of poets and shrines of religious leaders are under direct threat. Extremist clerics, often supported by militias, are seeking to change the cultural identity of Iraq by demanding the removal of statues. In April 2019, there were demands to remove a statue of a female icon, Um Suday Kahramana, in Diwaynia, as religious fanatics were offended by it, but in reality wanted it removed to impose their will on the province.

Last week, similar efforts to destroy important cultural monuments ramped up. Calls were made to tear down a well-known statue of Abu Jaafar Al Mansur, the founder of Baghdad. Extremists elements in both Iraq and Iran seek to extinguish a symbol of Abbasid Iraq when it was ruling much of the Muslim world.

Those who support the extremist elements of the militias roaming the streets of Iraq bristle at any attempts to compare them to ISIS. However, the threats to shrines, like those witnessed recently against the shrine of Imam Abu Hanifa Al Numan in Baghdad, are exactly of the kind extremists would make – sectarian, divisive and violent.

Imam Abu Hanifa is the founder of the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence and is revered by Muslims the world over. Thankfully, the calls to protest around Abu Hanifa mosque have come to nothing. Security forces, local actors and the general public have ensured its safety. Followers of both Sunni and Shia Islam prayed side by side in Abu Hanifa mosque immediately after the call for its destruction. On Wednesday, Iraqi President Barham Salih visited the shrines of both Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Moussa Al Kadhim, in an attempt to show the commonalities between both communities. Saying that he wanted “to send a message to underline the values, history, ethics and the religion that we share”, Mr Salih was told by Iraqis from all faiths that they reject any attempts to divide them along sectarian lines.

In the lead up to elections in Iraq, various politically motivated groups will seek to stoke sectarian tensions, playing on identity politics. Iraq has many enemies, from corrupt officials to extremist militias. But the iconoclasts are the ones who may help the country in an unexpected way, bringing together Iraqis from different backgrounds who are proud of their icons and history, regardless of how troubled it is.

Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National