Feature Articles from Inprint Newsletter (2001–2004): Searching for a New Iraqi Identity

Oct 23, 2003

Anyone looking closely at the Bush administration’s $20.3 billion budget proposal for Iraqi reconstruction may have been surprised by an item near the end with a comparatively modest price tag: Museum of Baathist Crimes, $1 million. What was this doing on a list that included police training and the rebuilding of infrastructure?

The proposed museum is the brainchild of Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissident who fled in 1968 and was prominent in calling for the recent American-led invasion. Makiya has received permission from the occupation authorities to construct a museum that will house, among other items, a collection of state documents on the tortures and executions ordered during the three decades of the Baathist regime. The $1 million that the administration asked for is only seed money; Makiya has said he will need to raise $9 million more to get the project under way and much more to see it through completion.

On the face of it, Makiya’s vision of a site for truth and commemoration – modeled on the Holocaust Museum in Washington and similar efforts in South Africa and Cambodia – seems commendable. But in a fragmented society like postwar Iraq, deciding on the “truth” about the old regime will not be easy. Not everyone in Iraq, for instance, agrees that all the country’s postwar woes are the product of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule; instead they point to the damage done by thirteen years of economic sanctions. Nor does it seem likely that Makiya, an exile backed by an occupying power, is the right person to spearhead the nation’s truth-seeking effort.

Drawing on their experience of South Africa, K. Asmal, L. Asmal, and R. S. Roberts speak of political reconciliation as the “facing of unwelcome truths” to the point where conflicts among factions “with incommensurable world views stand at least within a single universe of comprehensibility.” Would an atrocity museum contribute to the forging of a common Iraqi identity?

Numerous studies have shown that reconciliation – the rebuilding of deeply damaged relations between nations, peoples, or faiths – can begin only when peace and stability have been achieved. Once the right conditions are in place, a nation can begin to debate its past. Countries acquainted with difficult transitions can provide expertise on the traditional tools of reconciliation, from the establishment of truth commissions (South Africa, Guatemala), to the creation of documentation centers (Cambodia) on the years of violence.

But in the end, only one group – in this case, the Iraqis who suffered – can decide, through public deliberation, which narratives of the past to emphasize, whose voices get to be heard, how responsibility should be assigned, and how much time is needed to gain perspective on the old regime’s crimes.

In the early days of reconstruction, might Iraq in fact be better off focusing on its distant rather than recent past? An effort to restore the looted Iraq National Museum, with its wealth of ancient treasures attesting to the region’s glory days, might do more to restore a sense of national pride and belonging than an atrocity museum, with all of its potential to divide rather than unify.

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