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Iraqis defiant as extremists threaten to attack Babylon

After extremists reportedly threatened to attack the ancient site of Babylon, local Iraqis are swearing to protect both the city's antiquities and its character as a cultural center.
Residents visit the ancient city of Babylon near Hilla, 100 km (62 miles) south of Baghdad February 17, 2012. Picture taken February 17, 2012. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen (IRAQ - Tags: TRAVEL SOCIETY) - RTR2Y1RF

An official from the historic city of Babylon spoke out on Feb. 20 about radical parties threatening to fire on the city with missiles if concerts and other cultural activities continue to be held there.

Director of Antiquities in Babylon Hussein Fleih told the press on Feb. 22 that he had received a message threatening his life if cultural and artistic events continue in the city. Meanwhile, Babylon’s governor told Al-Hurra Iraq TV channel, “Cultural events will persist in the city, but some will be banned if they contradict the prevalent norms in the governorate” — meaning social traditions and religious beliefs.

Fleih told Al-Monitor in July 2016 that Iraq is seeking to add Babylon to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2017.

Artist Shabib al-Medhati told Al-Monitor that this threat “reflects an attempt to implement a conservative agenda seeking to Islamize daily life and turn cultural and social events into purely religious ones.” He went on, “Some artists realize the danger of radical inclinations and keep to topics that do not irritate the prevalent conservative political and cultural environment to avoid clashes with political and religious parties.”

There is a strong religious influence that pushes many people to visit holy places rather than historic sites like Babylon for religious reasons.

Students from Babylon University responded to the threats against Babylon by holding a concert Feb. 22. Teachers at the Fine Arts Faculty in Babylon participated, along with local artists who sang national and traditional songs under the historical Ishtar Gate.

University student Ali Hassan told Al-Monitor, “The students at the Fine Arts Faculty are facing down these threats and are challenging this radical agenda with art and music.” He added, “We will hold music concerts and cultural events regularly in the city, and we will not fear any threats.”

A university teacher who participated in the event told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Religious currents in Babylon governorate have a certain agenda. They do not want the city to become a cultural center because it goes against their conservative tendencies.”

Fleih told Al-Monitor over the phone, “Radical terrorist parties threatened to kill me and to retaliate against Babylon by shelling it with missiles. But," he claimed, "the governorate’s religious parties and factions and other security forces fighting terrorism have nothing to do with these threats.”

He added, “These radical parties might seek to obstruct the inclusion of Babylon on the World Heritage List because it would jeopardize their regressive agenda.”

Fleih noted, “The Popular Mobilization Units, the governmental security forces and the religious institutions have underlined their rejection of the threats and reiterated their resolve to support including Babylon on the World Heritage List. They also promised to offer their assistance to achieve this goal.”

A member of the parliament’s Culture and Information Committee, Shawan Daoudi, told Al-Monitor, “One of the causes of the threats to Babylon is the rampant proliferation of weapons in the hands of individuals and armed groups. Those people can carry out their threats at any time.”

Fleih said, “Babylon will keep welcoming tourists and cultural events. The city’s administration has been reassured that the government and security forces will ensure security in all events, including cultural, artistic and touristic activities. Babylon's [status as] a cultural symbol has touristic significance and is economically beneficial for its citizens.”

The efforts to halt cultural activities in the city of Babylon are nothing new. Singing has been banned since 2015 at the Babylon Festival for International Cultures and Arts, held yearly with the participation of both local and foreign artistic, cultural and academic figures. The organizing committee caved to pressure from conservative parties and forbade any vocal performances.

Daoudi said, “The radical parties’ threatening of cultural and archeological sites is equivalent to the Islamic State's destruction of Mosul antiquities.” He called on security forces in Babylon to “take the threats seriously and expose the involved people to avoid the recurrence of incidents that would halt the development of the historical city.”

In a clear challenge to threats against Babylon and its cultural and artistic events, head of Babylon’s writers union Jabbar al-Kawaz told Al-Monitor, “The threats against Babylon are a form of cultural terrorism perpetrated by extremists.”

Kawaz said the cultural and academic elites in Babylon are working to organize more cultural events, including concerts and theatrical shows to turn the city into a cultural hub. Such events help Iraqis build a connection between their everyday life and the history of Iraq. Getting Babylon added to the World Heritage List will also work to raise awareness among Iraqis about the significance of their history.

Whether the threats are serious or not, and regardless of who is behind them, they constitute a setback for the efforts to include Babylon on the World Heritage List. They also affect the touristic activity that Iraq needs to diversify its sources of income after the drop in oil prices. Citizens and tourists alike must be able to trust that the threats will not affect life in the city and that security will be upheld.

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