A New Battle of Karbala
Facing the existential threat of the Iraqi invasion, the struggling and militarily weak Islamic Republic deployed an immense propaganda campaign in order to convince Iranians to fight on the war front. Young men enlisted in the army and paramilitary forces, resulting in an estimated million casualties on the Iranian side alone. The war was devastating, and hence it needed to be given greater symbolic meaning. By depicting the ongoing war alongside the Battle of Karbala, wartime graphic arts sponsored by various government ministries and organizations imagined Shi’i sacred history as unfolding in the present. In so doing, poster arts were fitted into a larger symbolic framework of salvation by verbally and visually presenting the Iran-Iraq War as an extension and vindication of the Battle of Karbala. As a consequence, soldiers were encouraged to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield, their martyrial acts heralding the promise of salvation in the afterlife.
At this time, fighting for the Islamic Republic was conceived as a righteous reenactment of the Battle of Karbala. In 680 CE the Battle of Karbala resulted in the definitive sectarian split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. In the wake of the succession crisis following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Umayyad ruler Yazid I sought to assassinate Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Accompanied by his family and followers, Husayn fought Yazid on the plain of Karbala, where he was brutally murdered. For the Shi’ite community, Husayn’s death stands as the seminal act of martyrdom and the promise of salvation. As a prototype for self-sacrifice, Imam Husayn was the model to which Iranians aspired in their own modern-day Battle of Karbala.
Posters and other graphic media conflated the historical past with the present, as soldiers were repeatedly depicted as martyrs on the battlefield of Karbala. For instance, one poster entitled The Martyr depicts a blindfolded Iranian soldier being executed and thrust from this world into the next, where Imam Husayn and decapitated martyrs await him. The Islamic Republic thus successfully tapped into a larger Shi’a framework of salvation by verbally and visually presenting the Iran-Iraq War as a consecrated extension of the Battle of Karbala.
Belief in the salvific reward of a martyrial death is deeply entrenched in Shi’ite culture, and Khomeini employed this religious worldview as a means of urging all Iranian men to fight—and die—for both their religion and their nation. The pictorial arts visualized and consecrated official rhetoric by providing images of the heavenly consummation of martyrs as they are venerated for their sacrifice on earth. The poster Certitude of Belief metaphorically depicts the threshold between a soldier’s death on the battlefield and a redemptive Shi‘a paradise. By encouraging Iranian citizens to die for their country, and by promising individuals spiritual salvation through martyrdom, the Islamic Republic successfully secured its own survival during the war years.