Iraq -- Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba'thist Iraq, 1968-89 by Amatzia Baram

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Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba'thist Iraq, 1968-89, by Amatzia Baram. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. xviii + 143 pages. Notes to p. 182. Bibl. to p. 189. Index to p. 196. $35.

In this study of Ba'thist Iraq (1968-89), the author describes the attempts of the Ba'thist party to utilize the "paradise of the Mesopotamian national myth" to create a new national discourse, inclusive of Iraq's various ethnic and religious groups, especially the Kurds and Shi'is. The Ba'th focused attention particularly on the pre-Islamic Mesopotamian Akkadian, Sumerian, and Babylonian civilizations. It did not focus on the Achaemenian civilization because of its Persian connection. According to Amatzia Baram, the Ba'th influenced national discourse in order to achieve five aims: (1) "to provide the Iraqi people with a secular basis for a sense of mutual identity, thus furthering secularism in Iraq in general; (2) to provide Saddam Husayn...with historical legitimacy by portraying him as the culmination to a continuous succession of great Iraqi rulers...; (3) to create an historical common denominator that would unite Sunnis and Shi'is, Arabs and Kurds; (4) through the encouragement given to a uniquely Iraqi culture and the revival of Iraq's particular history, to reinforce the Iraqis' sense of uniqueness, hence a degree of separateness from the rest of the Arabs"; and (5) "to provide the Iraqi people with a history that would give them great pride as the builders of the first civilization in the history of mankind" (pp. 136-7).

The bulk of this study, chapters 3-8, deals with the way the Ba'th used Mesopotamian archeology, art, folklore, and symbols in their attempt to create a new Iraqi national ideology that would be expressed by means of the theater and poetry. Chapter seven, "Art with Local and Mesopotamian Components," is of particular interest because the author's commentary is accompanied by pertinent plates.

How successful was the Ba'thist cultural campaign? According to Baram, not very. The war with Iran and a need for Islamic legitimacy undermined the first aim of furthering secularism in Iraq. It was undermined also when the regime announced that Michel 'Aflaq, a secular Christian, had converted to Islam before his death in 1989. The realization of the second aim, to portray Husayn as a leader in the grand historical tradition, was unpromising, chiefly because Mesopotamian culture is "little appreciated" by the vast majority of Iraqis.

Baram argues that aim number three, the creation of a national discourse that unites the various groups, has not been achieved with regard to the Kurds. Indeed, the attempts by the Ba'th to 'Arabize' the Akkadians in the 1970s did not leave any ideological space for the Aryan, Indo-European Kurds to embrace with any enthusiasm the Mesopotamian aspect of the newly emerging Iraqi national ideology. The Shi'is, being Arab and Arabic speaking, were more apt to engage the new inclusive ideology, but the Shi'i uprisings against the regime since 1991 suggest that they do not want to participate in the new discourse propounded by the regime in Baghdad. …