Youth, culture and freedom in Iraq

August 2006 -

Mariwan Kanie, an Iraqi refugee in the Netherlands, on how youth and culture in his homeland feel the pressure of strict religious censoring.

Modern-day Iraq has never been a country for the youth. The years under Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein were years filled with wars, indiscriminate violence and militarization of daily life. The time after Saddam Hussein has also been a time of blind and bloody violence, sectarian hatred and heavy religious pressure on various aspects of everyday life.

Saddam Hussein wanted to turn Iraq into one huge army barracks: everyone had to be a soldier, from children to the elderly, from artists to professors. From their first year of secondary school children received military training, and Saddam had even established a special army consisting solely of children. This militarization of daily life reduced culture in Iraq to a dictator’s cheap propaganda. Those who did not go along with the propaganda were subject to the dictator’s fury.

Iraq, once home to great poets, artists and theatre-makers, was degraded under Saddam Hussein to a country with minor propagandists. One Iraqi author characterised Iraq’s culture during Saddam Hussein’s reign as “the culture of corporals”. No other country in the world had as many artists, authors and culture makers in exile as Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule.

The current powers that be in Iraq no longer see the country as an army barracks, but as a huge mosque. A mosque in which fanatic Imams like Muqtada Al-Sader determine what is and is not allowed, what is deemed culture or decadent. The Iraqi youth, like Iraq's culture, are now subject to strict religious censoring. The religious pressure on authors, artists, theatre-makers, actors and singers has increased enormously. In some cases they have been killed in cold blood.

Film theatres have been blown up in various Iraqi cities; well-known poets have been publicly threatened, and in some cities it is virtually impossible to produce or act in a theatrical performance. In places where the fanatics are in charge, even listening to music is forbidden. University students out for a picnic have been beaten up by fanatics in public based on their belief that the Islam forbids picnicking.
This historical background indicates that the political struggle in Iraq is primarily a cultural struggle. The youth still going to see films, the poets still writing their poetry, the actors who ignore their fear and go on acting, and the musicians playing with their lives are challenging the system. Culture continues to fight.

Mariwan Kanie fled to the Netherlands from Iraqi Kurdistan in 1993. Four of his books have been published in his homeland, making him a popular author. He submits his columns for the Iraq-Kurdish newspaper Hawlati from the Netherlands, regularly publishes in the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw, and appears on television in the news commentary programs Nova and Netwerk. Kanie is also a researcher affiliated with Amsterdam University, where he focuses on religion and modernity.