The Destruction of Iraq’s intellectuals

In the whirlwind of Iraq’s violent history, the once-powerful academic class has disintegrated.

Iraqi workers build a private school in Baghdad on April 24, 2012. The Ministry of Education announced in February that Iraq needs 6,000 new schools to absorb the current number of students, but according to the allocated budget building this many public schools will take 20 years. [AFP]

Istanbul, Turkey – Professor Saad Jawad, a 32 year old veteran political scientist from the University of Baghdad who now lives in London, greets five of his former students with a warm smile. These men are now professors at universities across Iraq, and have not seen their former advisor since he was forced to flee Iraq in 2008. They are members of Iraq’s embattled intelligentsia, which has endured nearly 30 years of perpetual violence. “We are carved by suffering and gouged by resignation,” one says.

Each professor represents a different side of the intelligentsia’s new identity. Yusuf, from the North, wears American shirts over Jordanian pants because “he can’t buy much clothing in Iraq with his teaching salary.” Abdullah, from the South, smokes three packs of cigarettes in a day. Ahmad, a researcher from the capital, proudly describes his frequent commentary on national television news stations. His colleague, Ibrahim, perpetually masks worry about his friend with a half-hearted smile. Hakim, from Iraqi Kurdistan, sighs uneasily – he is relatively safe in Iraq’s northern semiautonomous Kurdish region.

The men exchange stories under the ornamental lights strung across the street. “Doctor Saad was a drillmaster, but always cared about his students,” Abdullah recalls. “Today many professors don’t expect their students to succeed. Some are too afraid to stand up for them.”

These professors tell the story of an underreported tragedy – the destruction of Iraq’s once proud academia through 30 years of war, sanctions, and occupation. The intelligentsia has been sucked into the whirlwind of Iraq’s recent experience. It is still in chaos. 

Once the envy of the Middle East, Iraq’s academies today are hollow memories of a proud past. Conflict, assassinations, diaspora, and suppressed freedom of speech have handicapped centres of higher education, gutted research facilities, and silenced the academics staffing them.

The toxic combination of destroyed infrastructure and lost faculty has left Iraq reeling, without the means to train those needed for national reconstruction.

Infrastructure in Ruins

Electricity cuts blight not only the capital, but every Iraqi city outside Kurdistan. A typical urban family receives about 10-12 hours of power each day, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index.

At the universities, electrical infrastructure is especially rare. Before sanctions in 1990, Saddam Hussein provided astonishing levels of funding for his country’s institutions, attempting to prove that Iraq was an international player. Students from every discipline received full scholarships for study abroad. Medical and computer facilities in the capital’s best universities were amongst the most advanced in the region, boasting the latest equipment in laboratories and hospitals. Many doctors, scientists, and technicians trained in Europe, and had the tools in Iraq to put their foreign degrees to good use. University education was free.

When sanctions were imposed in 1990, the effects were devastating. New equipment was banned; foreign journals and magazines were blocked; domestic publications struggled without a steady supply of paper on which to print; when desks or chairs broke, they were not replaced. Some classes were held on the floor. Even sheet music was forbidden.

Computer Science students in 1999, for example, were using machines built in 1988, and most of their classes were theoretical. Some professors who left Iraq privately smuggled new machines back home.

Yet the basic infrastructure remained, and many academics hoped that once sanctions ended their departments, rebuilt, would again be the envy of the Middle East. One of the few Iraqi hopes in the weeks leading up to the 2003 invasion was that US leaders would revitalize the country.

After American tanks rolled through Baghdad in April 2003, looters stripped copper wiring from the walls at universities across the city. Still fighting 36,000 Republican Guards, American marines looked on dejectedly, often with disgust, but rarely acted. Computers, projectors, heart-rate monitors, blood pressure pumps, refrigerators, and entire air conditioning units were stolen. Libraries burned.

Andrew Erdmann was the new American Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education – a position created, he says, “by chance, not by plan.” He remembers feeling the impossible weight of his task – restoring “essential services” to institutions across the country – during these early days.

The universities he found were “isolated internationally, hollowed out from within, and in disrepair.” The Iraqis with whom he worked presented a further challenge. “It is true many [professors] were accomplished and well trained. But it is equally true that some were obstinate and Baathist.”

One senior administrator at Baghdad University – “an unapologetic Baathist, a true believer,” Erdmann recalls – defined for the young American official his challenge. “He gave me the coldest shoulder. ‘We don’t need your help; let us work out our problems by ourselves,’ he told me. But a week later there was still unswept, broken glass outside this man’s office. How can I work with that?”

The situation only grew worse. By 2005, the United Nations estimated that 84 per cent of Iraq’s educational institutions had been “looted, burned, or destroyed.” By 2008, the Iraqi Ministry of Education recorded 31,598 violent attacks against universities and schools across the country. The centres of learning were plunged into darkness.

Only in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the experience of invasion and occupation has been widely seen as a liberation, are universities growing. Immense foreign investment, infrastructure development, and security drew many Arab Iraqis north to the Kurdish regions, where they found new homes in burgeoning institutions.

Living Hour to Hour

Each professor keeps a mobile phone close by, connected by a digital cable to family, friends, and the occasional colleague 1,200 miles away. Fifteen, maybe twenty times every day to each, over a crackling line, they call relatives to ask, “How are you, dear friend?” They fear somebody close has been caught in the most recent suicide bombing or militia kidnapping.

Representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Iraqi Minister of Education and EU ambassador in Iraq hold a press conference. [AFP]

The art of living hour to hour, once mastered, is not easily forgotten. The deadly practice of survival, however, falls away easily. “Come to Basra,” laughs Abdullah, “and I will have to sell you to the militia – they pay $100,000 for Americans.” Crack jokes about the militias at home, and who knows what could happen. One must chuckle about them outside Iraq – if only to make up for the months of fear and silent submission. “It’s a way not to go insane,” Abdullah says.

In cities like Basra, Mosul, and Baghdad academics are dependent on the militias, not for safety or profit, but simply for life. These groups’ proliferation especially affects the university class, who have become primary targets. Kurdish institutions, too, confront pressure from the local Peshmerga forces.

A note slipped under the office door is a professor’s first indication of trouble. They say: “Stop teaching from your book”; “denounce this sect”; “wear a hijab”; or “incorporate religious doctrine into your lesson.” These are “welcomed threats,” Sawsan says, ones that can be confronted or even ignored. She is a former lecturer from Baghdad University who fled to London after assassins murdered her sister in 2007. Soon after they sent death threats to her home. They had “made a mistake” – Sawsan was their intended target.

There is No Response but to flee

Threats like these have created a massive post-2003 diaspora of Iraqi academics. “There is no way to fight the note that says, ‘You are next.’ There is no response but to flee,” Sawsan concludes.

Like many other professors, she returned to Baghdad a year after her flight to “test the waters” and see if she could re-join her family. “My friends said I would be crazy to come back. So I left for good,” she remembers.       

Thousands of academics have joined as many as 3.8 million displaced Iraqis since 2005. The scale of the refugee crisis came as a surprise to the United Nations and other refugee assistance NGOs when it erupted two years after the US-led invasion. Facilities set up in 2002 to receive the expected influx of exiles had been dismantled by 2005, and a scramble to accommodate the massive displacement began.       

The better-off left for Europe: France, Belgium, Britain, Holland, and Sweden. In the Middle East, they went to Jordan, Libya, Yemen, and sadly, Syria. Some went to the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and even Malaysia.

In many countries, including Jordan where according to UNHCR estimates, 450,000 Iraqis currently live, it is legally difficult for refugees to find work. Many are forced to survive by selling assets in Iraq which have been in families for hundreds of years. Some use imperial Ottoman documents to prove ownership.

In Syria, the academic refugees founded two universities outside Damascus and Aleppo. One, the Syrian University for Science and Technology, was the first university to offer classes in English to Syrian students. Before Syria’s civil war it made what NPR described as “technocrats out of the middle class.”

“The sound of war is never far behind our colleagues,” says Hakim, who teaches in Dohuk, just a few miles from the UN’s massive Domiz refugee camp along the Syrian border. Since 2011, some professors have crossed the border back into Iraq, where along with other refugees from Syria they are refuelling the sectarian rivalries that threatened to devour the country between 2005 and 2008.

Iraqis revolutionised existing universities, too. At the University of Tripoli in Libya, for example, Iraqi professors launched a new Political Science department, training future Libyan politicians, professors, and analysts. At the University of Jordan in Amman, professors record their lectures so they can be sent back to Iraqi students, linking institutions in the two countries. Another cohort of academics fled to Europe, and founded colleges and medical institutions in Brussels, Amsterdam, and Malmo.

A Painful History

These were the lucky few who adapted to academic life far from home. Intellectuals are a powerful microcosm of the national experience. The exodus began in the 1990s, when crippling sanctions forced academic wages as low as $10 monthly.

“I was writing my dissertation at the time in Baghdad. We had nothing, no resources, no books. Some professors taught from their own publications, and others photocopied pages from research when they travelled abroad,” remembers Sawsan.

Between 1990 and 2003, the UN denied nearly 70 per cent of university requests for education materials, even sheet music. Tens of thousands of intellectuals left Iraq seeking better livelihoods, beginning a massive brain drain that haunts the country today.

While those who fled faced challenges abroad, the greatest tragedy unfolded for academics who got no warning or who refused to acknowledge serious threats. Death stalks those without the means, will, or chance to leave.

Since 2003, over 500 professors have been targeted and killed by unknown groups. Scholars of German literature, poetry, agriculture, political science and history have been killed, along with medical doctors and scientists, whatever their academic rank.

The first assassination was in 2003, when Mohammad al-Rawi, the newly-reinstated president of Baghdad University, was killed in his medical clinic. “We wanted to know who had done this act, because then we would know why it was done,” Sawsan recalls. “We never found out either.”

The numbers of killed academics are fuzzy, as Isam al-Rawi, a geology professor compiling statistics on assassinated Iraqi professors, was killed for his work. In 2007, blast walls were erected at al-Mustansiriya University after three car bombs killed 70 faculty and students, an attack that remains one of the deadliest in Baghdad.

“I remember the day, the hour, when my first colleague was murdered, in Mosul,” Yusuf sighs. “After that, it becomes harder to recall.” It is a morbid rite of passage that many professors have traversed.

“It is another terrible fact of our lives,” Yusuf concludes. He wipes away a few tears. His colleague yawns. The ten-year normal across Iraq, assassination, has emptied many wells of sorrow long ago.

“A Fine Balance”

Professor Jawad remembers the earliest days after the 2003 US-led invasion, when the university “began to fall apart.” He thinks one story “best describes” the changes that have occurred at his university. “After Baghdad fell, my colleague, fearing the militias or perhaps respecting them, barges into my office. I was leading a small discussion with five postgraduate students. He demanded I lecture along sectarian lines. He said he will report to the militias about my so-called crime of inclusion.” Such intrusions have become an ordinary part of the classroom experience after 2003. “I stood up,” he continues, “and began cursing everyone: ‘Curse the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds, the Christians! To me there is only Iraq!’ When I finally resumed class, I noticed one of my students smiling shyly. ‘What are you laughing at?’ I fumed. The reply? ‘Professor, I am Turkmen. You gave me a pass!'”

Memories of a more united history at the university give the joke potency. Before 2003, students from across Iraq and the Arab World came to study law, history, engineering, and especially medicine in Baghdad.

Every sect was represented on the capital’s most prestigious campuses; women students were the majority in many postgraduate programs; and scholars from places like Sudan, Turkey, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon filled classrooms. Over thirty per cent of the faculty in Baghdad was female. These professors were trained in Europe or the United States. Many held PhDs from foreign institutions, and the connections forged with these academic communities invigorated classrooms in each region. “At that time nobody classified students according to their sect,” Saad recalls. 

The 2003 invasion shattered this cooperative environment along factional lines. Professors live on the front lines of these new sectional rivalries.

Ahmad, a political analyst from Baghdad who “proudly” goes on national television “ten times in a week,” must confront this reality every time he appears onscreen. “Sometimes I wish he’d just sit quietly,” Ibrahim confides. “It’s dangerous, having your face everywhere, on the TV, like he does.”

Ahmad keeps his phone especially close. His son was supposed to submit a few registration forms at Baghdad University before the semester started, but nobody has heard from him for hours – too long in Baghdad time. Ahmad’s daily national commentary may have made his son a target for retribution. In Iraq, academics must tread carefully, never criticizing one politician or personality, only broad policies.

This fine balance creates a strange situation amongst Iraq’s intellectual elite. “It’s no secret who you are criticising, but as long as you don’t name him outright, it is alright,” Ahmad explains. With his son unreachable, Ahmad wonders if he broke the rule.

Although all Iraqis live in this reality of daily fear, its effects on the intelligentsia is particularly stifling. For a group trained to think and to construct knowledge through discussion, their debate is caged. They cannot practice what they were trained to do: Publicly unpack critical and controversial issues.

“It is incredibly depressing to know that nobody listens to me, and if they do, it’s to make sure I am not out of line,” Walid, a senior lecturer at a university in Baghdad, says. “Why do I keep at it? That’s a tough question. I have no good answer. I am Iraqi. 

Universities today are under-equipped, understaffed and increasingly factional. Only the Kurdish institutions, which have money and security, have improved. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has done little to protect or encourage the re-emergence of a domestic intellectual class. He has instead used arrests and intimidation to suppress dissenting intellectual voices.

In a move many academics perceive as a threat against Sunni professors, he appointed a minister from his own Da’awa Party to head the Ministry of Higher Education. Split along ethnic and religious lines, institutions cannot find a united stance to oppose these shifts.

Today the government, alongside militias and shady political personalities with extra-judicial “security forces,” represent the diverse array of threats for academics to navigate.

Under Saddam, intellectuals knew the dangers, and how to avoid them. A group of professors at Baghdad University regularly issued series of dissenting memoranda, and sent copies to Saddam’s palace. Ahmad 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.”

Many professors claim their classrooms were relatively free from Baath Party interference. Saddam and his sons were off limits. Otherwise, many professors agree with Saad’s conclusion: “We were free to speak our minds.”

Whether anyone listened was another matter. “We were often invited to Saddam’s palace to discuss crucial policy issues. When we returned home, we always received a polite letter thanking us for our service. Very often, though, our advice was not taken,” Saad recalls of his fellow political scientists. “But today, nobody even asks academics what they think. They are forgotten.”

The entire intelligentsia, from historians to doctors, has been excised from key government deliberations, where they could be most useful. Compared even to the highly dubious past under the previous regime, this development is painful. Practically, the implications for passing effective legislation in Iraq’s Parliament or other ministries are deep.

One of the most poignant reminders of how disastrously academics view the last decade is that most wish for the days of Saddam. This rosy picture of Saddam’s universities does not match the realities documented by scholars – of arrest, torture, intimidation – but the way in which memory is constructed to favour an impossible past is significant.

A wistful smile flickers across Sawsan’s face. She nods her head to the side and concludes, “I would lie if I said I don’t sometimes dream for what has been.” 

Twilight for Iraq’s Academia

Ahmad waits hours for word from his son. “When everyone sleeps, I stay awake because I need to know he is safe.” He must also prepare notes for the next day’s commentary. 

This is the new normal for academic men and women across the country.

Iraq’s intelligentsia goes through the motions they know – speaking their minds, publishing reports, soliciting advice to Parliament – without much response. Even the greatest audience, the student body, has disintegrated. Iraq’s illiteracy rates are some of the highest in the region, and the Interior Ministry has admitted that over 9000 fake university degrees were purchased by prominent civil servants.

“There are so many people with so-called ‘special considerations’ from various political parties that professors are subjugated,” Ibrahim says.

Iraq’s intelligentsia today is shaped by its painful history. A spirit of defiance persists in the academies, but it is ebbing. “Some have given up hope, but will never admit to it,” Hakim says. 

The decline of Iraqi institutions and the people who staff them is one of the country’s great modern tragedies. The victims’ uniqueness and the veracity with which they have been marginalized is deeply troubling. Their renewed prosperity – the prosperity of knowledge – is key to future Iraqi stability. “We cannot have a country without a united voice for reason,” Ibrahim told his colleagues.

Yet few express any hope that the situation can improve soon. “Of course it will,” Ibrahim says, speaking for his colleagues; “but only God knows when that will be.” 

Source: Al Jazeera