The actor stands on a makeshift stage at a bombed-out, dusty intersection in Baghdad. It’s an unusually cool evening in September, and a crowd that looks like most of the neighborhood has assembled to enjoy the rare entertainment.  “Sunni! Shiite!” he yells. “Whatever ethnic group – I don’t care! Spurn each other’s hand no longer. Long life and success – to both of you!”  This is the message of reconciliation carried by the Al Mada street theater troupe, led by one of Iraq’s rising female stars, Ghada Hussein Al-Almy . . .”

So begins an article published yesterday in the Christian Science Monitor that shows a side of Iraq not often portrayed in the mainstream media.   The article, titled In Iraq, a different kind of drama stages a message of reconciliation “, discusses an Iraqi “theatre resistance” troupe that seeks to reclaim culture as a tool for peace in a country where culture it is often used for divisive ends.  Ms Almy, a professor at Baghdad University, is described as part of a growing network of female community leaders in Iraq engaged in grassroots, creative efforts to fight back against terrorists and suicide bombers.  “We are trying to use culture as a weapon” she is quoted as saying, “we want to make the terrorists feel the strength of our culture.”

The article is written by Edward O’Connell and Cheryl Benard, directors of the RAND Alternative Strategy Initiative.  I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. O’Connell at an AID retreat recently where he spoke about the untapped potential of grassroots cultural and civil society groups (like Al-Mada street theatre troupe)  in the Middle East.   Government and military officials in Iraq and elsewhere often turn to supposed experts when their best allies are really women like Ms. Almy who have a deep understanding of the problems on the ground and the will and power to change them from the inside.  The better strategy according to Mr. O’Connell is to partner with these moderates and progressives and support their efforts.   In fact, sometimes the best foreign policy approach is to connect civic organizations in the US to civic organizations in Iraq (or elsewhere), NGO to NGO, in order to build smart, sustainable peace and a civil society that is self-sufficient and resilient against terror and other outside threats.

This leaves planty of opportunity for ‘ordinary Americans’ to contibute to peace building efforts by connecting their communities to NGOs and moderates in unstable areas of the world.  Supporting creative approaches to activism can be particularly effective.   Performing arts entertain while they educate and the emotional connection a performer is able to make with his or her audience has tremendous power to effect change.  Incorporating issues into art creates a safe space for conversation on divisive topics, while often humanizing and neutralizing the issues.  Furthermore, performance art appeals and is accessible to a broad audience, spanning all ages, educational levels, and backgrounds.

For these reasons, theater, dance, and music are frequently used by activists around the world.  Examples include teen HIV/AIDS education troupes in Uganda, JaNaM socialist street theatre in New Delhi, the environmentally conscious works of  New Zealand’s dance theatre group Soul Speed, and the work of the Freedom Theatre in the occupied  territories (palestine).  In these and other countless instances, culture and the creative human spirit have shown themselves stronger than war, disease, apathy, ignorance, and politics and proven that their ‘soft power’ should not be underestimated.