Iraq’s ongoing conflicts are often linked to religious identities. Given the religious nature of these conflicts, the importance of icons, symbols and photographs are certain to emerge more prominently than at other times. Each of the conflicting parties tries to preserve its identity by creating a range of signs — particularly photographs — and by attacking the symbols of other parties.
In this climate, a photo of a religious leader or political figure will no longer be just a photo. Rather, it will reflect the identity of the entire sect or party. It is within this context that one can understand the sharp conflict between Iraqi members of parliament over raising photographs of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei in the streets of Baghdad.
Hermeneutically, these photographs represent the conflict between religious identities in Iraq. When a Shiite group raises such photographs to protest against the country’s mounting challenges, in the midst of sectarian conflict, Arab Sunnis see it as a declaration of the fall of Arabism in Iraq and the revocation of the project of an independent Iraq.
The verbal and physical altercation that took place in the Iraqi parliament in August 2013 over photographs of Iranian leaders displayed in Baghdad was not a simple political dispute between two blocs that have different political orientations. Instead, it reflects the standing conflict between religious identities in the country.
Iraqi groups try to exploit the public sphere to establish a presence and identity that distinguishes it from other parties. Therefore, neither side cares about common symbols that do not polarize. They focus instead on what provokes and makes others surrender before their symbolic authority.
In this context, one can understand why some Shiites have chosen the photographs of Khomeini and Khamenei instead of Iraqi Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani, and why some Sunnis opted for photographs of former President Saddam Hussein and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan instead of moderate Sunni Iraqi figures.
The series of conflicts over icons and symbols between the conflicting identities in Iraq is not a recent development. The dispute has reared its head on several occasions, beginning with whether to consider April 9, 2003, a day of occupation or liberation in Iraq. The dispute then continued when selecting the new Iraqi flag. While some parties felt that their identity was being overlooked, others felt theirs was being undermined by the use of icons that differ from their own.