Iraq’s Ivory Tower Under Siege: The Academics at War
|March 14, 2013||Filled under Uncategorized|
Nearly one decade after the United States Invasion of Iraq, the country’s universities are shadows of their former selves. As sectarian tensions, strong-armed government, and civil war loom, questions of how to put the country on a secure footing will dominate the War’s ten-year anniversary. The tragic story of Iraq’s university academics provides answers. Once centers of informed dissent, ethnic mixing, and domestic innovation, they are key to stability. The United States should lead the international community in pressuring Baghdad to restore these crucial institutions and protect those who teach at them.
Until the early 1990s, Iraq purportedly had the best universities in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein used oil revenues to provide free tuition for every student. The doctors, engineers and scientists trained at the top universities anchored the burgeoning middle class and fueled domestic innovation. A group of professors at Baghdad University published a dissenting newspaper, and sent a copy of each issue to Saddam’s palace. One former PhD candidate at Baghdad remembers “the hardiness of professors to discuss topics that were related to state policy and symbols, and to criticize the negative situations adopted by the state.” Indeed, many professors claim their classrooms were relatively free from Baath Party interference, allowing students from all ethnic and political backgrounds to participate.
United States and UN sanctions in the 1990s marked the beginning of the universities’ decline. Salaries for lecturers dropped to $10-$15 per month. Books, paper, and laboratory equipment were banned. Nearly 70 percent of university requests were denied by the UN. Many professors were forced abroad to earn a living wage, part of an exodus from Iraq that by 2006 matched the Palestinian displacement from Israel.
When American tanks rolled through Baghdad in April 2003, many Iraqi academics hoped the victors would revitalize the universities with books, new equipment, and repairs. Above all, they hoped for a rebirth of debate and intellectual tolerance. Yet, the little intellectual freedom that existed under Saddam disappeared as the country fractured along sectarian lines.
Looters opened this tragedy’s second act, destroying university infrastructure across Iraq. As 36,000 Iraqi Republican Guard units fought against the US Marines in the capital, the library at Baghdad University was destroyed. Meanwhile, electrical wiring was stripped from the walls at neighboring Mustansiriya University, Basra University’s library burned, and thieves carried off priceless artifacts from Iraq’s National Museum and Library.
In 2005, the United Nations had determined that 84 percent of Iraq’s education institutions had been looted, burnt, or destroyed. By 2008, the Iraqi Ministry of Education recorded 31,598 violent attacks against universities and schools across the country. Today, Iraq’s illiteracy rates are some of the highest in the region, and the Interior Ministry has admitted that over 9,000 fake university degrees were purchased by prominent civil servants.
The physical destruction was compounded by targeted assassinations of Iraq’s academics. Over 500 professors have been killed, from every discipline, a number which sadly continues to grow. The victims taught subjects not predictably at the heart of violence. Scholars of German Literature, Poetry, Agriculture, Political Science, and History have been killed, irrespective of academic rank. In 2003, Muhammad al-Rawi was assassinated in his medical clinic weeks after being reinstated as President of Baghdad University. Isam al-Rawi, a geology professor compiling statistics on assassinated Iraqi academics, was in turn killed by those wishing to stop his work. Many more students have died. In 2007, blast walls were erected at Mustansiriya after three car bombs killed 70 faculty and students. This attack remains one of the deadliest in Baghdad.
Shootings and “sticky bombs” remain common. On 12 December 2012 Sabah Bahaa al-Din of Tikrit University was killed by a magnetic bomb on his car as he left university grounds. A few weeks earlier in central Fallujah, Professor Mohammed Salih al-Jumaily was shot down by unidentified gunmen. The police, who surprisingly opened investigations for both murders, still have no leads. In many cases, especially between 2004 and 2008, most murders went unreported. Those who were not killed often fled abroad, resulting in what Newsweek called “Iraq’s epic brain drain.” By 2007, Iraq had lost nearly 30 percent of its academic staff and researchers, destroying two generations: The intellectuals’ and their students’.
The universities today are under-equipped, understaffed, and increasingly factional. Only the Kurdish institutions, blessed with money and security, have significantly improved. Outside Iraqi Kurdistan, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has done little to protect or encourage the reemergence of a domestic intellectual class. Maliki has instead preferred to use arrests and intimidation to suppress any dissenting intellectual voice. The universities are too weak to counter his maneuvers or seek third-party support abroad. Split along ethnic and religious lines, they do not collaborate to find a united intellectual or political stance.
Iraq faces a series of important hurdles that can only be overcome with a resurgent domestic intellectual class. Although university salaries have improved, security concerns coupled with the exodus of Iraq’s top professors has severely handicapped recovery. Students as well as professors are victims in this tragedy. Solutions hinge on the international community’s engagement. In 2004 John Agresto, US Advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Education, estimated that it would cost $1.2 billion to rebuild Iraq’s higher education system. A separate UN assessment called for $4.8 billion. Only a fraction of this money has been allocated, about $100 million. Increasing the USAID and UN contributions to Iraq’s 22 universities would provide the capital needed to restore much-needed infrastructure. Greater salaries and financial assistance to establish tenured positions and incentivize innovation are also important.
The international community, especially countries part of the occupation, have a responsibility to pressure Maliki diplomatically and economically to allow nonsectarian discourse on campuses. The rising factional tensions across Iraq need not infiltrate classrooms. Professors need to be protected, so that they can speak their minds. Increasing US support for Iraq’s police, rather than its army, could begin this process.
The 2003 invasion supposedly promised intellectual freedom and safety to academics. For Iraq to achieve a logical and effective government, leaders in Baghdad and the West should renew their commitment to that pledge.
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