Violence and lawlessness in Iraq is “dismantling” the country’s higher education system and creating a climate of terror on campuses, according to Iraqi professors who attended the Middle East Studies Association’s conference Sunday.
“The students are disappointed in America and they say it now openly, even on the television: ‘Bring back Saddam and we will apologize and he will restore order to the country,’” said Dr. Saad Jawad, professor of political science at Baghdad University.
The professors spoke on one of dozens of panels throughout the three-day conference, which featured Middle East scholars from the United States and around the world.
Speaking to a crowded conference room, the Iraqi professors’ bleak picture of a life under siege brought some in the audience to tears. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, they said, thousands of Iraqi professors have fled the country. More than 200 have been assassinated and the rest live in fear of saying anything that might offend any number of groups, all suspected of murder and mayhem in Iraq. When asked who was behind the killings, the professors’ list was long: Sunnis, Shias, radical Islamists, Americans, Iranians, Israelis, Kuwaitis.
“The problems in Iraq are bigger than I can express,” said Dr. Taher Al Bakaa, the former minister of higher education in Iraq, now a visiting scholar at Harvard University. Hundreds of scholars have applied to come to the United States, but only a small percentage are accepted, according to the Scholars at Risk Network, a group that helps threatened professors.
Conference organizer Dr. Dina Rizk Khoury, associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, says the panel was one of the weekend’s most critical. Talking about Baghdad University, she calls the situation in Iraq a “systematic attempt to dismantle what was once the premier institute of higher education in the Arab world.” Khoury says academic freedom in the country has fallen victim to anarchy.
Jawad, who had arrived in Boston three days earlier, said his classes are cancelled so frequently, he has taught only twice since the semester began in October. When not working, he rarely leaves his house. He said a death threat posted on his office door makes him afraid to go outside with his family in case an attempt is made on his life. Earlier in the month, his colleague, Jassim al-Asadi, dean of administration and economics at Baghdad University, was gunned down with his family in their car. Many of Jawad’s students have had relatives and friends killed, including one young male doctoral student whose father was gunned down in his doorway.
“Nobody knows the reason,” Jawad said. “I am depressed.”
Despite widespread reports of a brewing sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis, Jawad says students on campus are growing tired of the religious radicals and beginning to protest against them.
The professors put some of the blame on the radicals, but directed most of their ire towards the failed U.S. occupation. Bakaa, who was also president of Iraq’s second largest university, Al Mustansiriyah University, from 2003 to 2004, said he had received almost no additional funding for academic life since the occupation. Buildings destroyed during the first Gulf War were rebuilt in two months under Saddam’s regime, yet the Americans have repaired nothing, he said. When professors are threatened or killed, there is never any investigation.
“Iraqi professors are being killed by everyone, and nobody has told us if any killers have been caught. Nothing has been done,” Jawad said. “One U.S. soldier was kidnapped and Baghdad is on full alert, but the killing of an Iraqi professor? Nothing happens.”
The professors said the problems began with attacks against scientists suspected of doing “weapons of mass destruction” research. Later, professors who had joined Saddam’s Baath Party were targeted. Now, roaming mafia groups have joined in and are kidnapping professors for ransom.
“We can see bodies mutilated and killed floating in our beautiful Tigris. The sparrows have fled and the doves are dead and the campuses are ruled by a forest of turbans,” said Dr. Abdul Sattar Jawad, professor of literature and journalism, who is now at Duke University.
“Why don’t the clerics issue a fatwa asking the Iraqis to lay down their arms?” he asked. “We are teetering on the brink of the abyss. So please pull us back.”
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