Monday, May 5, 2003

Branding Post-Saddam Iraq

Iraq, while a modern nation, is the inheritor of an ancient civilization. A succession of historical and cultural giants – from ancient Babylon and Persia to Saladin and the Ottoman Empire – have ruled over its fertile crescent. It is unfortunate that recent events have burned a distasteful image of Iraq in the minds of the West – the image of a nation defined by tyranny, war, and cruelty.

For good or for ill, the much-despised regime of Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath party has finally come to an end. A nation, diverse in history, ethnicity, and religion, now has a chance to reinvent itself. In commercial terms, now is the opportunity for the Iraqi people to rebrand their nation to the international community.

The most visible fixtures of national branding are the flag and emblem – The Union Jack, the Rising Sun, the Roman eagle, the Nazi swastika , and the hammer and sickle are some of the most lasting and successful national symbols. Just look to Old Glory, the Star Spangled Banner, or the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia if you need American perspective.

The Iraqi flag, too, is a successful and critical symbol. But while it bears resemblance to a national flag used before Saddam's violent rise to power, the contemporary banner does bear his unique signature – literally.

Indeed, the flag we are most familiar with was adopted by Iraq on January 13, 1991 – the eve of the Gulf War. In what most of his Arab contemporaries felt was a crass attempt to evoke muslim solidarity, Saddam Hussein added, in his own handwriting, the takbir to the existing flag. Written in green Arabic script among the flag's three stars, the takbir reads, right to left, Allahu Akbar (God is great).

In the days following the fall of Saddam, the older Iraqi flag, identical except for the omission of the takbir, was oft seen in the streets of Baghdad. This pre-Saddam banner is the inheritor of the flag of the Kingdom of the Hejaz, a monarchy which ruled over Iraq for ten years following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Designed by Sir Mark Sykes of the British Foreign Office for the Arab forces under the Sherif Hussein, the Hejaz flag was used by both of Sherif Hussein's monarch sons: 'Abdulla, emir of the Transjordan, and Faisal, the king of Iraq. The Hejaz flag used colors significant to Arab culture – black, white, green, and red — to symbolize the past glory of Moslem Arab empires and the future promised under the new Hejaz regimes.

Indeed, the colors used in the the modern Iraqi flag (the same as those used in the Hejaz banner) carry critical significance in the muslim world:

The color of several ancient islamic factions, including the Khawarij, the first republican party in the early days of Islam, and the Arab conquerors of North Africa and Andalusia. In modern times, red has served to symbolize the Hejaz, rulers of Transjordan and Iraq, and the Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet.

The color of the medieval Fatimid Dynasty of North Africa. This color is often used to symbolize Islam in general or, specifically, to symbolize Ali, the Prophet's cousin, who was once wrapped in the green coverlet of the Prophet in order to thwart an assassination attempt.

The color of the ancient islamic Umayyad Dynasty (661-750). White, also a color of muslim mourning, is used to symbolize the Prophet's first battle at Badr.

The color of the Prophet Mohammad and the ancient Abbasid Dynasty of Baghdad. Black is often used as a symbol of mourning for the assassination of relatives of the Prophet and in remembrance of the Battle of Karbala. In addition, in pre-islamic times times, the black flag was a sign of revenge and a black headdress would have been worn when leading troops into battle.

Black and White

In the seventh century, with the rise of Islam and subsequent liberation of Mecca, two flags – one white, one black – were carried by the armies of Islam. On the white flag was written, "There is no god but God (Allah) and Mohammad is the Prophet of God." Both black and white flags were placed in the mosque during Friday prayers.

It seems likely, then, that any superceding Iraqi standard would feature these same significant colors. If any color were to become more prominent, the tendency of Iraqis on the street shows favoritism to green, as demonstrated in the predominance of the all-green flag of Islam.

For a country 97% muslim – composed of shiite and sunni religious factions – and otherwise divided by Arab and Kurdish ethnicity, it is likely that the greatest future hope for Iraqi branding will be bound up with the muslim tradition and the historical legacy of former national regimes. Perhaps, in keeping with the secular establishment US and British reconstruction authorities are trying to build in post-war Iraq, the takbir could be replaced by a significant secular or cultural symbol. Such a symbol might be the Eagle of Saladin, already prominent on the Egyptian flag, and symbolic of the muslim world's greatest historical hero – an ethnic Kurd who united the Arab peoples and led them to victory against the Christian crusaders.

In the event of the ascension of a shia regime, however, we would likely see religious text remain on the flag. Whether that text remained Allah Akbar (God is great), as is also used on the Iranian flag, or was changed to the shahada, the muslim profession of faith ("There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet"), as is used on the Saudi Arabian flag, would likely be as much a political decision as a religious one.

But with optimism for the democratic mission in Iraq, we can expect to see a flag not far removed from the pre-Gulf War standard. With emphasis on religion and ethnic diversity, the revised Iraqi brand will need to be accommodating to the native population but also sensitive to the change in political environment. It will need to define an Iraq free from tryanny, war, and death. fb

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