This article concentrates on the period from 2005 to 2007 when militia control and violence was at its greatest in the city of Basra. Irony, despair, fear and the routinization of intimidation formed part of a complexity in which Basrans were living their lives. I look at how Basrans attempted to deal with the threats posed by militias through the politics and pragmatics of the appropriation of symbols and imagery as a means to navigate through the oppressive and turbulent period of the post-Saddam Hussein era. Whereas political and religious symbolism tend to be interpreted within a semiotic or hermeneutic framework, I try to show with reference to fieldwork I have undertaken in Basra that the meanings of symbols were rarely of importance to most Basrans; rather, it was which symbols were most effective in keeping militia and gang violence at bay. I end the article by bringing to attention some of the ambiguities and tensions in disengaged forms of relating to political and religious symbols in Basra.