From indifference to obsession: The role of national state celebrations in Iraq, 1921-2003

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Rulers and elites have invented rituals and commemorations in order to serve their interests-to legitimize their hegemony as well as to maintain the existing social and political order. This process is most salient in the new modern states, whose national identity and collective memory are at an early stage of construction. This article analyses Iraq's state celebrations in the context of its state formation and nation-building processes. Before the US occupation in April 2003, Iraq had been governed by four regimes: the monarchy (1921-1958), 'Abd al-Karim Qassem (1958-1963), the 'Arif Brothers (1963-1968), and the Ba'th (1968-2003). This article shows how successive Iraqi regimes moved from indifference to obsession with regard to celebrating national holidays. It advances three major arguments. First, each regime attempted to de-legitimize its predecessor by erasing or significantly changing its national calendar of holidays. These changes adversely affected the ability of the Iraqi polity to establish a shared historicalmemory serving as a basis for its national identity. Second, though amodern invention of British colonialism, Iraq's cultural artefacts of celebrations were taken from a mixed reservoir: foreign-both Western European and Eastern European-and local or 'traditional', either Islamic or pre-Islamic. The end result of the use of this wide symbolic market was a calendar reflecting a hybrid political culture. Third, the Iraqi case study shows that an inverse correlation exists between the calendar's density and the regime's perceived legitimacy. It seems that a 'thick' calendar reflects a shortage of legitimacy while a 'thin' calendar reflects a more secure and legitimized regime.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)179-206
Number of pages28
JournalBritish Journal of Middle Eastern Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2010


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