Iraq’s cultural heritage negatively impacted by sectarian politics experts say

The quota-based political system must be revised to ensure social cohesion after years of conflict

The city's newly renovated downtown area, with the ancient Erbil Citadel in the background. Mariwan Salihi for The National
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Iraq’s cultural heritage has been deeply impacted by the implementation of the quota-based political system that has brushed aside the idea of a national identity, experts said.

The system, known as the Muhasasa, ensures senior positions in government are divided among the various ethno-sectarian groups. It has linked the state’s economy to political blocs that advocate to have some kind of a sectarian identity.

“It has created an incentive to accentuate sectarianism whereby people from specific groups care about specific, parochial, sectionalist identities rather than the national interest," Mehiyar Kathem, a University College of London based researcher with focus on Iraq’s cultural sector said during a Chatham House seminar.

“There isn't a national heritage supported by the state due to the political nature of power in the country,” he said.

Iraq is a complex area to work in and develop the cultural sector due to competition between the various political blocs that has been established by the system.

“Cultural heritage is an extension of politics and mushassa has created powerful groups in the region that competes with the state so there is no real support for national identity and citizenship,” Mr Kathem said.

It is not in the interest of political parties to build a national consensus among the Iraqi public, there must be reinforcements made to enforce a sense of identity and belonging in order for developments to be made, he said.

The heritage of Iraq, most of which was former Mesopotamia, has paid a heavy price from nearly four decades of war.

"We are looking at severe destruction of Iraq. We've lost hundreds of thousands, literally, hundreds of thousands of cultural objects, manuscripts and artifacts since 2003 and since the 1990s," Mr Kathem said.

They are scattered all over the world.

Most of the destroyed pieces were too large to smuggle and sell off so many have been broken into smaller pieces, several of which are already resurfacing on the black market in the West.

Bridging the gap to create a community

Following the US-led invasion that overthrew former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, ISIS destroyed many of the country’s ancient statues and pre-Islamic treasures.

During its occupation of nearly a third of Iraq between 2014 and 2017, ISIS captured much attention by posting videos of its fighters destroying statues and heritage sites with sledgehammers in Mosul and other northern states.

Statues destroyed by ISIS rebuilt in Mosul

Statues destroyed by ISIS rebuilt in Mosul

Cultural heritage can be used as a healing process and a way to ensure resilience within a community, said Maja Kominko, Scientific and Programmes Director, Aliph Foundation which operates in Iraq.

“We found for many reasons that the only way to work, especially by a country that has been hurt by so much conflict, is to work with the community because the last you want to do is alienate them or to make them feel that someone has taken their heritage,” she said.

Ms Kominko said she has seen “incredible resilience in Mosul, the Mosul university, there is a very pragmatic reason to work with the locals, they know the conditions, they are experts, they are the ones who will be custodians of this heritage.”

“We want communities to own their heritage,” she said.

Many instances of heritage being altered physically often lead to disenfranchising the communities living around the sites.

“We ask projects to benefit local communities, involve local actors and contribute to local capacity-building and very importantly, create jobs,” Ms Kominko said.