Agree to disagree: Just how 'national' are Iraq's national days?

In a country where nationalism is subordinate to religious and ethnic identity, a new law could have helped build a sense of 'Iraq'. If only its political class were not so addicted to disagreement.

Iraqis in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad.
Iraqis in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad.

Agree to disagree: Just how 'national' are Iraq's national days?

The Iraqi parliament has finally approved a law denoting the country’s official national holidays, but there is debate about how ‘national’ some of these holidays are. For instance, the law allocates a holiday on ‘Al-Ghadir Day’. Al-Ghadir was an Iranian Shiite scholar. Critics say this fosters sectarianism.

Religious holidays and events are included. International Workers’ Day is also now an official national Iraqi holiday, even though the country’s ‘working-class’ appears to have been replaced by a class of bureaucrats dependent Iraq’s oil revenue.

Holidays for Muslims, Christians, and Mandaeans (an ethno-religious group whose numbers have dropped) are included in the legislation, as is the Kurdish celebration of Nowruz. The date of the Halabja massacre against the Kurds is also an official holiday.

The only holiday that could be said to represent a national symbol is Iraqi Army Day. This begs the question: is the Iraqi ‘nation’ important to Iraq’s politicians?

Iraqi army soldiers drive their armoured vehicles under the Victory Arch during a parade marking the Army Day in Baghdad, Iraq, on January 6, 2024.

An Iraqi ‘nation’?

The idea is used in political debates, hoisted aloft in speeches and slogans, and often during election campaigns, but it can seem like they are simply using words like ‘nation,’ ‘national,’ and ‘homeland’ for branding. Among those justifying this bill, there was no mention of emphasising national events, only of “highlighting official occasions connected to the lives and sentiments of the Iraqi people.”

Perhaps a lack of agreement over the principles and values of Iraqi patriotism meant that these notions of state would always dissolve into catchphrases and rhetoric. Perhaps there are no ‘national constants’ to guide Iraqi conduct or distinguish them from their adversaries. Iraqis must decide whether the values that underpin their national identity should be rooted in their history, geography, or common experiences.

As if to prove the point, Iraqi leaders have spent more than two decades trying and failing to reach a consensus on a national anthem. Likewise, they could not agree on altering the national flag, thus preserving an emblem that signifies an unsuccessful attempt at unity between Egypt and Syria. These are merely symbols, but symbols are important to build a sense of ‘nation’.

Agreeing on Iraq’s national day is also problematic. In recent history, the leaders of military coups designated the national day as the day they were confirmed in post.

After the US invasion of 2003, political elites sought to designate 9 April as an official holiday, possibly with a view to making it the ‘national day.’ On that date in 2003, resistance in Baghdad collapsed, letting American troops take the city. Yet this designation sparked a debate over whether the collapse constituted liberation and occupation.

Disagreeing has become a national sport. Iraqi politicians have spent the last two decades embroiled in sectarian and political disputes. When one former government established 3 October as the national day because on that date in 1932 Iraq joined the League of Nations, the Kurds objected because former President Jalal Talabani (a Kurd) died on 3 October 2017.

Iraqis cannot agree on one historical event that was pivotal in the formation of the Iraqi state, which emerged in the 1920s. Cultural, academic, and political elites are at odds owing to diverging ideological allegiances and sectarian ties. One idea is to commemorate the establishment of the Iraqi monarchy, another is to mark the declaration of the Iraqi Republic, and others suggest that it should reference the Iraqi Revolt against the British that began in earnest in 1920.

Iraqis remain torn between sectarian and ethnic loyalties because these are still prioritised over Iraqi nationalism. 

Competing agendas

Some suggest that little else could be expected from a ruling political elite that has overseen chaos, disorder, and corruption. Why prioritise the nation-state building project, or even the restoration of its remnants, when you can enrich yourself?

Some advocate for the establishment of their own state, separate from Iraq, dwelling on past delusions. Others seek to govern through narratives of victimhood. How can these groups contemplate a national day for all Iraqis to come together?

In neighbouring countries, national days are opportunities to celebrate, promote, and imprint unifying themes on the collective memory for successive generations. They are not three-day festivities to mark a former president's birthday.

The 14th-century Arab sociologist, philosopher, and historian Ibn Khaldun knew the problem. He said, "Nations encompassing numerous tribes and factions seldom solidify into a state due to the divergence of opinions and desires."He added that "each harbours a tribal fanaticism that obstructs the establishment of this state, resulting in frequent insurrections and rebellions against it".

Fragmented by ethnic and sectarian allegiances, Iraq has lacked the political leaders to embrace a national endeavour aimed at fostering Iraqi unity and building a sense of nationhood with defining identities. As a result, it is not surprising that Iraqis remain torn between sectarian and ethnic loyalties because these are still prioritised over Iraqi nationalism. This means that Iraqis' willingness to make sacrifices for 'Iraq' is questionable.

Iraqis gather in central Baghdad on February 12, 2021, to commemorate Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim (image), a senior Iraqi Shiite cleric who was killed in 2003 in a car bomb explosion in the central city of Najaf.

Nationalism crisis

The crisis of nationalism in Iraq is not new. Ideas, history, and values to solidify the idea of an Iraqi nation have been absent since its inception in the 1920s.

The Iraqi Communist Party played a pivotal role in shaping the early Iraqi state, yet Marxist slogans advocated for internationalism and condemned those who prioritised national interests over those of the party. In fact, slogans imbued with nationalist theory have been promoted by the ruling elite in Iraq since the 1960s, yet this got confused with ideas of a wider Arab nation rather than a focus on the Iraqi national state.

As researcher Mohamed Jamal Barout suggests, a theory of 'the nation-state' was replaced with a theory that divorces nation from state. Other substituting ideologies have come from Islamist factions, who wield influence and authority in Iraq. Yet they, too, have sought to obfuscate any sense of Iraqi national identity, promoting sectarianism as the state's defining identity instead.

With no agreement on a founding date or event or on flags, anthems, ideologies, and values, it is little wonder that the new law's national holidays are a mixed bag. Yet, there remains the possibility of doing better. It could start with agreeing on a 'national day' that Iraqis could then begin to embed in their cultural heritage and that of future generations, even if elements of this have to be exaggerated or invented.

In his book Imagined Communities, Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson says a state's foundation should be rooted in an "imagined identity," closely tied to the construction of a shared historical narrative, whether coerced or voluntary.

Crucially, this imagined identity is linked with access to material sources of power, facilitating the state's territorial expansion and the consolidation of its sovereignty first in the minds of its populace, then on the international stage. The state's ability to dissolve individual citizens' sub-national affiliations is crucial if these are not to undermine the state's legal and material authority over them.

In summary, fostering a robust sense of Iraqi national identity will take more than official holidays and laws aimed at pleasing religious, sectarian, and ethnic groups. Yet there are reasons to hope that national symbols, events, dates, and holidays can be found, embedded, and used to build upon. Even if some of it has to be imagined.

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