The Iraqi Flag: Seeds of Disunity
Vexillological Observations from the Iraqi Embassy
Amidst the internal strife that continues to build once again in Iraq, I would like to bring to light one of the many issues sowing the seeds of disunity in Iraq.
When I attended university in Washington, DC, I worked for a number of months at the Cultural Attache of the Embassy of Iraq in Northwest DC. I served as an assistant and advisor to the attache, Dr. Hadi Al-Khalili, working on student outreach, office organization, and events. As a vexillologist, some of the first things I noticed when I entered Dr. Al-Khalili's office were the two flags on the mantle behind him. They bore the three stars and handwritten script of the Saddam era Iraqi flag, six years after a new flag had been adopted. We had a rather long discussion about the flags, a subject upon which he was well versed, because a print hung in his office detailing the long history of the Iraqi flag. He noted, among other things that since the change was rather minimal, it was not a very high priority. It seemed as if the change of design in the flag was trivial, and that the people of Iraq saw little difference and thus little need to go out of their way to adopt the new standard.
Even in recent months the office I worked at in the Iraqi Embassy continues to use the Saddam-era flag in meetings and events. They're also using an outdated Georgian flag so obviously I was unable to impart my affinity for flag protocol on the office.
It was baffling to me that government workers had not made the effort to change the flags, even years after the new implementation. It was not a matter of budgeting, because new computers and televisions were not in short supply. It brings into question the connotations of the new Iraqi flag and what the recent change means to her people.
There are many questions that this flag calls to mind for me: Does the flag that Saddam flew have the same meaning to Iraqi's today? Do flags and symbols of nationhood perhaps mean less for the peoples of the Middle East than they do in the West? Is the old flag stained with the shadow of the past? Does the new flag give a new identity to the people of Iraq? I would like to make a few key observations that show how Iraq’s flag is quite reflective of its current state of affairs and how that may not bode well for her people. The modern Iraqi flag does not substantially represent the Iraq, nor does it differentiate itself from it's Ba'athist history. In doing so this flag alienates the people from the government's national symbols and sends a message to the international community that the shadow of Saddam and Pan-Arabism has not left the country.
Kingdom of Iraq (1921-1959)
Iraq’s first modern flag was first flown in 1921 with the founding of the Kingdom of Iraq. This flag was composed of black, white and green horizontal stripes with a red trapezoid. These were the colors of the Arab Revolt that had recently aided in the formation of Iraq and her neighboring states. The colors derived from the famous banners of their history: Mohammad’s black standard and the subsequent colors of the Abassid Dynasty, green from the Fatamid Caliphate, and red from the Khawarij. The flag of the Kingdom of Iraq also bore two seven pointed stars representing the two Hashemite Kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan. This flag is frequently flown by pro-Hashemite monarchists in Iraq today, and Jordan continues to use a variant of this flag where the Hashemite Dynasty continues to rule. For Iraq the legacy of this flag is in the choice of colors, as Middle Eastern states will almost exclusively use these colors which are associated with the Arab revolt.
Republic of Iraq (1959-1963)
Following the Qassim Revolution of 1958 and the formation of the Republic of Iraq, the flag underwent a total redesign and changed to three vertical black, white and green stripes with an eight-pointed red star with a yellow circle at its centre. This eight-pointed red star represented the star of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, war and love. This was the first, and sadly only attempt to represent the country’s millennia of history. The yellow circle represents the Kurds with the sun, symbolizing their ancient Yazdani religious heritage. Today, this flag is legally flown in the Kurdish regions of Iraq whom resent the connotations of Iraq’s current flag. Although there is already a Kurdish flag this flag may come to serve as an important rallying flag for Iraqi Kurdistan.
Since 1963 the flag of the Republic of Iraq has borne the colors of the Arab revolt in a mimic of the flag of the Arab Republic. When the United Arab Republic was formed in 1958 and until its demise in 1961, its flag bore the red, white and black stripes of the Arab nationalist movement along with two green stars representing the states of Egypt and Syria. When Iraq underwent a Ba’athist coup in 1963, Ba’ath party officials supported a reformation of a pan-Arab union with Iraq as a third member. This was demonstrated in the flag by mimicking the UAR flag and adding a third star representing Iraq. As a menial power in the Middle East with grandiose ambitions Iraq’s Ba’athist flag embodied Iraq’s ambition, its ruthlessness and its alignment solely with the Arab people.
Republic of Iraq (1963-1991)
Under Saddam Hussein the flag of Iraq underwent a number of changes both visually and symbolically. Representative of the country’s direction, in 1986, Saddam decreed that the three stars would officially represent the three tenets of the Ba’ath party, Unity, Freedom and Socialism. In 1991, Saddam went on to make a change that would remain on the flag until today, the adding of the takbir. Allegedly in his own handwriting, Saddam had the words, “God is great,” added between the stars in Arabic script. This was viewed as an attempt to garner support for his regime in a time a crisis when his government was seen as largely secular.
Republic of Iraq (1991-2004)
Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam’s regime, the Arabic script on the flag of Iraq was changed from Saddam’s “handwriting” to traditional Kufic script. The Kufic takbir is a poignant symbol to represent Iraq’s religious heritage and that religion is a paramount, albeit divisive, force in modern Iraq. Hailing from the 7th century Mesopotamian town of Kufa, Kufic script is one of Arabic’s oldest, and it is the script in which the Qu’ran was written. The choice of Kufic is an interesting one, as it is quintessentially Iraqi but it also harkens to the beginnings of Islam. Although they seem like modern block letters, the use of Kufic would be similar in the western world to using Blackletter. Kufic is an excellent choice when one considers replacing the former script because it embodies the cultural heritage of modern day Iraq, but one must consider whether keeping the tabkir is truly something with which Iraq wants to represent itself.
In the past decade there have been many proposals for a new Iraqi flag. Some of which augmented the previous flag, one of which included the star of Ishtar and the Kurdish sun from the Republican flag of 1958. The proposal that initially gained a great deal of support but was met with a strong backlash was the proposed design by Iraqi artist Rifat Chadirji. The crescent, representing Islam, was drawn in light blue to represent Iraq’s Turkomen population and a yellow stripe was included to represent the Kurdish population, harkening to their Yazdani sun. The addition I find quite profound is the two horizontal dark blue stripes embodying the Tigris and the Euphrates. These stripes are the first attempt to represent the geography of the country with which almost everyone can relate. Although attempting to be inclusive this “blue flag” was seen as abandoning the Arab identity and embracing Western and Judeo-Christian influences. The colors were seen as far too close to the Israeli flag and amid many protests the design was scrapped in favor of the current flag we see today.
A nation’s flag represents what the nation is and who her people are to other countries around the globe. From embassies, to the Olympics, to government stationery, a flag is an outward representation that can speak volumes not only to identity but to foreign policy. This flag sends a message that the nation has not learned from its misfortunes nor does it embrace its diversity, history or ideals. It has merely continued its old practices in a different fashion. The Iraqi flag should truly represent the people of Iraq and their story. The current Iraqi flag merely makes a statement that the basis of their identity is with their Ba’athist heritage rather with the country itself, its people or its culture. Iraq need not cling to dated Ba’athist aspirations. The flag makes no effort to unite the nation with their common history, nor does it seek to represent its many peoples individually. Cannot the Iraqi government make an effort to represent Iraq’s own identity? Let Iraq now tell her own story.
Iraq is steeped in history. It is an ancient land with a proud and resilient people. Why then must her flag be so myopic? Sadly one can point to recent events and come to the conclusion that Iraq as a whole is in the same identity crisis as her colors. Although the current flag seeks to be simple and concise without making drastic changes, the simplicity reflects not wisdom but a lack of a developed identity. When this newly formed Republic of Iraq truly understands who she is, her flag may better represent her people and her heritage.
It has been the growing trend of rebel movements in the Arab Spring to re-adopt flags previously used in their country. By adopting an old flag, they revert to what they consider to the the last legitimate rule in their country, ridding themselves of the shadow of a tumultuous part of their past. Perhaps the Iraqi people could take a lesson from their brethren in Syria, who have reverted to their republican flag to leave behind the scourge of Ba'athism. In the wake of the Arab Spring it may indeed be the time for new (or old) flags as new ideas and hopes spread across the sands of the Middle East.