After years of destruction, Iraqis are rescuing their cultural identity

A handout aerial image made available by the Combined Joint Task Force shows the destroyed remains of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri. EPA/Combined Joint Task Force Handout

Just after Iraqi forces declared they were closing in on the old city of Mosul, they announced that the so-called Islamic State (IS) had destroyed the 12th-century al-Nuri Mosque and its famed leaning minaret, known as al-Hadbaa (the hunchback). IS-affiliated Twitter accounts condemned the act and, in a statement released by its news agency Aamaq, the group blamed a US airstrike for the destruction – but footage released by the Iraqi military suggests otherwise.

IS’s attack on the mosque, where its leader made his first videoed appearance in 2014, was not unexpected. In fact, IS has systematically been targeting religious, cultural and historic relics (both Islamic and not) since it first took over Mosul. But whereas its previous acts of cultural destruction were announced and promoted, this one was not dressed up in any sort of theological narrative.

Back in 2015, IS started to destroy supposedly idolatrous ancient artefacts at Mosul museum. It targeted religious shrines and tombs, including the Tomb of Jonah in Nineveh, as well as Shia shrines and churches in Northern Iraq, and it did severe damage to the UNESCO world heritage sites at Hatra and Nimrud. The ransackings continued even after IS suffered major defeats and lost territory.

The final fall of Mosul, still forthcoming after a months-long offensive, was meant to put an end to this. Perhaps the prospect of losing the city gave IS an incentive to blow up the mosque: to see victory against them declared from the very same mosque where the “caliphate” was announced would have been a hugely triumphant moment for the Iraqi forces. Blaming the US for the mosque’s destruction, meanwhile, may be a tactical ploy to appeal to its supporters and other Muslims.

But as expressed by the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, the destruction of the mosque is an attack on Iraqi history and heritage, not religion per se. Unlike the Jonah tomb, for instance, the mosque was not perceived as a sacred religious site in itself. The majority of Iraqis are mourning the minaret as a historic landmark that embodied the history of Iraq in general – and Mosul in particular.

The al-Hadbaa minaret has long been one of the core symbols of Iraqi cultural identity, so much so that the city itself is sometimes referred to by Iraqis as al-Mosul al-Hadbaa. But, for some Iraqis, the mosque and even its minaret were tainted by the announcement of the “caliphate” and the bloodshed that ensued across the country.

Coming together

Nevertheless, most Iraqis agree that this sort of destruction cannot be allowed to stand. It is an attack on the historic and cultural heritage of Iraq, an attempt to erase the national identity of both the state and its people – an identity that’s already been fractured and fragmented along sectarian and ethnic lines.

To condemn and mourn these acts collectively is a small step towards healing those fractures, but it’s certainly not enough. What’s needed is a collective effort not just to remember what’s been lost, but to build new bridges across the gaps between Iraq’s different communities, to celebrate and embrace their diversity. Young Iraqis in particular are organising various campaigns to this end – and they deserve attention and support.

The al-Nuri mosque and its famous minaret in 2014. EPA

For the past two years, social media campaigns have been trying to raise awareness and bring people together around a sense of national identity that defines them as Iraqis above all else.

As Iraq prepares for the first anniversary of the deadly Karada attack in Baghdad which killed more than 200 people, I recall the remarkable sight of people from the south to the north of the country defying sectarianism to show solidarity and sympathy with the victims. And when IS destroyed Mosul’s central library in 2015, people joined a campaign to donate books. Volunteers have been also running relief campaigns for the refugees and the displaced.

On the anniversary of the 2014 Speicher massacre, when IS rounded up and murdered hundreds of Iraqi military recruits, hundreds of Iraqis paid tribute to the victims. Only recently, Iraqi civil society groups organised a trip to Mosul during Eid, with a convoy set to depart from Baghdad to visit the city, including the university and the Jonah tomb, and activities and performances organised.

Still, however important and optimistic they are, these brave efforts to reclaim Iraq’s cultural and national identity will not succeed fully until the country is free of its corrupt and divided political elite. And only when that deep and abiding problem is solved will IS be completely defeated in Iraq. After all, it is in a climate of weakness and division that IS thrives – and true unity among Iraqis is its worst nightmare.