Supporting inclusive issue-oriented debate in Iraq through the revival of Cultural Salons
Since 2011, the activities implemented by No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ) and the International Alliance for Justice (IAJ), in cooperation with the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, are focused at promoting free and inclusive issue-oriented discussion in Iraq by supporting the return of cultural Salons to Iraqi public life, and by communicating highlights of their proceedings to the general public via Iraqi media and the Internet.
Iraqi political life has witnessed a dramatic transition from authoritarianism to democracy in the years since the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule in 2003. While the various elections (at provincial and parliamentary level) held since 2005 have allowed to principles of democracy to entrench in Iraqi politics, the building of accountable political institutions, the rebirth of an active civil society in the public space and the development of a democratic culture as vehicle of the principles of tolerance and mutual respect is an ongoing process with many challenges yet to overcome.
Political discussions and political campaigning, both in public spaces and in local media, still bear the signs of decades of authoritarian rule and of the sectarian strife that followed. Discussions frequently focus on personality and belonging, with limited space for the free and frank exchange of opinions on policy and other issues of interest to the general public. The opportunities for issue-oriented discussions of this kind are especially limited for marginalised or underrepresented social groups, such as women and religious minorities.
A divisive political climate, as well as a challenging security situation, has also limited opportunities for public displays of tolerance and diversity. Public meetings and discussions are still rarely able to include representatives of the full range of Iraqi communities and backgrounds.
Challenging both these problems is the return of traditional cultural and literary Salons to public life in Iraq. Once a mainstay of Iraqi society with influence in Europe and beyond, Salons have a history of providing accessible public forums for free, public—often contrarian—debate and discussion of a range of societal, cultural, literary, religious, and political topics, including debates on good governance, fundamental freedoms, and the international cultural and educational cooperation.
Salons dwindled in their numbers under the rule of Saddam Hussein, as his regime sought to exercise increased control over political, cultural, and intellectual debate. As an improved security situation has made public gatherings possible again, cultural Salons are now making a return to Iraqi life, particularly in its cities and urban areas. One of the most prominent and well-attended Salons is hosted by Safia al-Souhail, an independent female member of the Iraqi Council of Representatives. Her Salon has brought Iraq’s cultural and political elite together at regular intervals since April 2009, drawing regular participation from politicians, intellectuals, writers, artists, and academics from across the full spectrum of political, religious, and cultural communities in Iraq.
Cultural salons as a vehicle to foster a democratic culture
In 2011, in the framework of the project "Promoting the role of women in public spaces for political and cultural discussion in Iraq" supported by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ) and the International Alliance for Justice (IAJ) have promoted the organization, in close cooperation with MP Safia al-Souhail and in partnership with local partners, of a series of public meetings or "cultural salons" whose outcomes received a significant attention both in the media and in the Iraqi political class. These initiatives have opened a space for public debate on several sensitive and meaningful topics of Iraq's political agenda, which hitherto had been little or not dealt with, also giving rise to further discussions in the Iraqi Parliament. Among the most relevant issues discussed in the framework of the cultural salons held in 2011, we can mention:
- - The integration of youth in the public sphere: educational, political and economic challenges, Baghdad, 30 April 2011
- - Freedom of Opinion and Expression in Iraq in the light of international experience and standards, Baghdad, 13 June 2011
- - The responsibility of society towards orphans and widows and their role in the reconstruction of Iraq, Baghdad, 18 June 2011
- - Persons with Special Needs in Iraq, Rights and Citizenship, in the light of Iraqi constitution and International Treaties & Agreements, Baghdad, 16 July 2011
- - The role of political parties in the development of democracy, Baghdad, 25 September 2011
- - The issue of the Iraqi missing persons and mass graves, before and after 2003Baghdad, 1 October 2011
In 2012, in the framework of the project "Strengthening the development of public spaces for political discussion in Iraq as an instrument to build a democratic culture" supported by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the activities carried out by NPWJ and IAJ contributed to create opportunities of public consultation on similar sensitive topics, including:
- - Promoting the multicultural identity of Iraq through the protection of its historic heritage, Baghdad, 18 February 2012
- - Fighting illiteracy to empower women in society, Baghdad, 8 March 2012
- - Iraqi Women as Peacebuilders I, Baghdad, 7 April 2012
- - Towards reconciliation and accountability in Iraq through the national implementation of the UN Security Council resolution 1325, Baghdad, 3 May 2012
- - Iraqi Women as Peacebuilders II, Baghdad, 20 June 2012
- - Towards the creation of a National Movement for the Rights of the Disabled to ensure their active citizenship, Baghdad, 13 July 2012
These public meetings, attended by a large number of representatives of the whole country’s political and intellectual spectrum, contributed to the involvement of a civil society movement, and in particular underrepresented or marginalized groups usually excluded from the political sphere (women, young people, disabled persons, or representatives of religious minorities), providing them with a rare opportunity to meet and interact with political and opinion leaders and to contribute to the identification of the country's political priorities.
Consequently, the activities carried out in 2011 and 2012 by NPWJ and IAJ contributed to increase the political impact and effectiveness of these public discussion forums that have become a point of reference and an essential component of the ongoing process of democratic transition in the country. The recognition of civil society as a legitimate and necessary counterpart in the public dialogue with public institutions on issues of democratic reform is a key element that needs to be addressed and reaffirmed when processes of democratization are at stake. In a country that continues to struggle with many internal divisions such as Iraq, the consolidation of an area of broad and inclusive dialogue and consultation of this nature is, in itself, a major political achievement.