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Crusade Memory in Iraq

To understand why and how many Iraqis had a unique reception of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs—namely, as a “flashback” to an ongoing history of Western “Crusader” torture of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East—it is important to first assess the dominant Iraqi cultural archive and historical metaphors fostered in the previous decade. Saddam Hussein named himself the head of the “Project for the Re-writing of History,” making Iraq the only country during that period where a president held such a position.

What is more, Saddam published On the Writing of History to discuss which cultural institutions history should serve. Outside of officially produced national history, Saddam emphasized how the state-sponsored manipulation of cultural imagination and memory in upcoming generations is politically advantageous: “If we can capture Iraqi youth, then we can capture the future.” One focused tactic employed by the Ba’athist government was to construct narrative mnemonic bridges between Saladin battling the Crusaders and Saddam Hussein fighting his modern enemies. Iraqi murals, commemorative stamps, children’s picture books, and military weaponry all placed the medieval Saladin and modern Saddam side-by-side in this manner.

This project begins by considering how specific cultural memories were fostered in texts and media such as:

  • A 1980s Iraqi children’s book, The Hero Saladin, which depicts Saddam Hussein as “Saladin II”
  • The school history textbooks revised by UNICEF and the U.S. in 2003, revisions hosted in the Stanford Hoover Institute Archives
  • The tens of thousands of donated books from America and the libraries created for them, lists I obtained during interviews with the three major U.S. organizations providing children’s literature to Iraq in 2003-2009.

With the seeming expulsion of Crusading history from Iraqi textbooks and other cultural representations, this project then considers how the Abu Ghraib photographs and their dissemination allowed Crusade metaphors to re-enter popular discourse in Iraq in a context, medium, and narrative formation unanticipated by U.S. and UNICEF cultural censors. After the release of the photographs, numerous Iraqi televised interviews, remediated digital art, and documented interviews with terrorist informants relied upon explanatory narratives with two constants references: contemporary torture at Abu Ghraib and medieval Crusader violence.

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By presenting the various ways these two historical events were bridged, I show how the digital nature of the photographs is key to understanding how these narratives became temporally remixed, in part due to the ability to manipulate, circulate, and remediate the torture photographs at a time when digital photography and digital editing was still relatively new for amateur photographers and the general public.

The project is being built and updated at www.crusadememoryiniraq.com=