Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas in Baghdad

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Pardon me for spoiling the spirit, but this just reeks of propaganda:

From a distance, it looks like an apparition: a huge multi-colored hot-air balloon floating in the Baghdad sky, bearing a large poster of Jesus Christ. Below it, an Iraqi flag.

Welcome to the first-ever public Christmas celebration in Baghdad, held Saturday and sponsored by the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Once thought to be infiltrated by death squads, the Ministry now is trying to root out sectarian violence -- as well as improve its P.R. image.

The event takes place in a public park in eastern Baghdad, ringed with security checkpoints. Interior Ministry forces deployed on surrounding rooftops peer down at the scene: a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments and tinsel; a red-costumed Santa Claus waving to the crowd, an Iraqi flag draped over his shoulders; a red-and-black-uniformed military band playing stirring martial music, not Christmas carols.

On a large stage, children dressed in costumes representing Iraq's many ethnic and religious groups -- Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis, Christians, Arab Muslims not defined as Sunni or Shiite -- hold their hands aloft and sing "We are building Iraq!" Two young boys, a mini-policeman and a mini-soldier sporting painted-on mustaches, march stiffly and salute.

Even before I can ask Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf a question, he greets me with a big smile. "All Iraqis are Christian today!" he says.

Right. Sure they are.

Look, I recognize that Iraq is a diverse multi-national, muti-ethnic, multi-religious state, but... well, here are some thoughts:

1) Iraq has been torn asunder by sectarian violence, but is this really what it needs? A hot-air balloon displaying a poster of Jesus? And not just that, but Jesus attached to the Iraqi flag, is if somehow religious nationalism will heal Iraq's wounds.

2) It is all about PR, isn't it? It's a show, not a genuine expression of religious sentiment -- a show put on behind a wall of high-powered security. The Interior Ministry knows what plays well to American audiences. The best way to avoid all those probing questions is to appear to be not just tolerant but aggressively pro-Christian.

3) Religion, in my view, is about division. Even if the Sunni-Shiite divide is somehow bridged, is there not the risk that religious divides will replace it? Iraq could easily become another India/Pakistan.

4) All Iraqis are Christian? How does that play with the country's majority Muslim population -- Sunni and Shiite alike (including the moderates, not just the extremists)? Does such a statement, and such a spectacle, not smack of Western/American imperialism in another form? I realize that there are Christians in Iraq -- and they should be free to worship as they please -- but it doesn't help if they're seen as threats, or if the government is behind them.

5) Eventually, maybe Iraq will be America's foothold in the Middle East, the sort of consumerist paradise where people trample each other to death at 24-hour Wal-Marts. Maybe. Again, though, do Iraqis really need a Santa Claus draped in an Iraqi flag? What next? Car dealerships with American flags the size of football fields?

On the list of bad ideas for 2008, Christmas in Baghdad, as presented by the Interior Ministry, ranks up near the top.

(To make it worse, CNN's report of the event, by Jill Dougherty, is atrocious: credulous and without penetrating insight of any kind. Even the title of the piece -- "Baghdad celebrates first public Christmas amid hope, memories" -- is awful.)

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