The Iraqi Soundtrack to the War Against ISIS

The Iraqi military has conquered the last urban stronghold of the Islamic State group in Iraq. Following victories in Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul, and Tel Afar, Iraqi forces on October 5th liberated the town of Hawija.

The victory in Hawija brings to a close three years of near total warfare against ISIS that has transformed Iraqi society.

Since 2014, Iraqis have banded against the existential threat posed and worked together to support the war front. The resurgence of national pride has been deeply felt in Iraqi culture, especially in music and music videos. Iraqi satellite channels moved into war mode after 2014, broadcasting national unity anthems belted out by top Iraqi singers to accompany around-the-clock coverage of the war against ISIS.

Shams al-Maslawe is one of the most famous voices within the anti-ISIS music video industry. Her song, “Booya, I’m Iraqi!” is a classic, especially because it features her dancing in full body armor and with an assault rifle in hand:

Popular mobilization is a common theme in Iraqi war music, and many videos show groups of civilians waving guns and pistols as they rally troops to fight and presumably join anti-ISIS armed forces as well.

Amar al-Ali’s video “Our Tribes” highlights the role of tribes in enlistment against ISIS:

These videos reflect the hopes and aspirations of many Iraqis today: that ISIS will be defeated and peace will return to the country. They also demonstrate the enduring power of the idea of Iraq as a unifying force, with Iraqi national unity a point of hope not only in the current struggle but also for the future.

This is even more striking given that these videos come at the tail end of nearly a decade of civil conflict that broke out following the 2003 US invasion. 

Since ISIS’ take over of northern Iraq in 2014, Iraqis have organized relief efforts to help displaced people across sectarian, regional, and ethnic boundaries. Shia holy shrines in Najaf, for example, took in Christian refugees. Sunni Muslim and Christian refugees moved in together in Kirkuk. After the liberation of Mosul, Muslims renovated a Chaldean church destroyed by ISIS. And Christians in Kirkuk provided for Muslim refugees from Hawija in the final days of the battle. Additionally, tens of thousands of Iraqis of diverse backgrounds signed up to help fight ISIS through the Popular Mobilization Units, a force that was was key to recent Iraqi victories. These are just a few of the many such examples that have become common in Iraq.

Shams al-Maslawe, whose name means “from Mosul” but who has lived in Baghdad since the 1990s, tackles sectarianism in her video, “Oh Jesus, oh Ali.” In it, she is shown at her computer watching videos of Iraqi Christians and Shia Muslims targeted in attacks, leading to a refrain for an end to the conflict:

These patriotic anthems also point to the increasing militarization of Iraqi society on all levels. Anti-ISIS music videos not only stress the importance of Iraq – they also focus on the importance of the Iraqi military as a key to stability, national identity, and freedom.

The following clip by Muhammad al-Salam, for example, focuses on the experiences of Iraqi soldiers on the warfront:

A song by Ibrahim al-Baghdady celebrating the Iraqi army became so popular that it even showed up across the border in Iran in the city of Khorramshahr, which has a large Arab population, during celebrations for the victory of Hassan Rouhani as president in May 2017. First, the original:

And the video of the Khorramshahr street parties:

The ever-prolific Shams al Maslawe, meanwhile, just released a song entitled “I’m an Amaran,” referencing the southern Iraqi city of Amara that has played a key role in anti-ISIS mobilization.

In the song, the city’s identity is indelibly tied to the enlistment of its youth in the war against ISIS:

These videos appear to come from a long tradition of Middle Eastern music videos that heap praise on the military. This tradition includes both government-sponsored videos celebrating the armed forces as well as clips produced by groups like Hezbollah and Hamas extolling their armed wings’ virtues.

These clips highlight how local and national identities can become bound up and defined by militarization. What’s different here, however, is that while many such videos have traditionally been promoted by governments to bolster their own support, in Iraq today these videos appear to be produced largely independent of the state.

In contrast to the hopeful videos that flooded Arabic satellite channels in the wake of the Arab Spring – videos that stressed the power of popular protest to achieve social change – Iraqi anti-ISIS videos focus praise on the military forces that protect the nation from violent chaos.

But the last three years have also seen a wider revival of pride in Iraqi national identity through music. This video by Ahmad al-Maslawe, for example, lauds the importance and strength of Iraqi protesters:

Other videos praise the city of Baghdad and the beauty of its people, downplaying the impact of violence in Iraqi life and celebrating instead the resilience of its people:

“We are all Iraq” by Emirati singer Hussain al-Jasmi offers a similarly uplifting portrait, one that stresses the unity of the Iraqi people and their perseverance against obstacles:

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  1. Alex Shams, thank you, you’ve written a fascinating article and its gem for me is the compiled set of music videos. I want to comment on the music in the music videos.

    It is depressing to hear and see the level of electronic dance music pastiche. Dished out are mind-numbingly uninventive musical elements (rhythm, melody etc). I rejoice when local dialects break through. I recognise the limited resources with which the creators are working. The hope is that artists will stretch out of pastiche.

    Copy paste music is evident elsewhere of course. As one example, recently, searching for new music from South America, I noticed tens or several hundred million views of music videos which in musicality and iconography were indistinguishable from underwhelming African-American work, except for use of Spanish or Portuguese language. I would not hesitate to say I found them unwatchable and unlistenable. And all this in a continent (which unlike Iraq) is not in international war, civil war and made complicated by the involvement of numerous foreign forces.

    Artists and their backers should remember that in the long term there’s little to celebrate in audio-visual monoculturalism. It pulls a culture down to a common denominator, to a point where there’s nothing, nothing of note.

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