Bombings in Karbala, Mortars in Baghdad; Al-Maliki closes Mustansiriya U. and Bans on-Campus Politics

Mortars were fired in Baghdad, killing 7, and three bombs went off in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, killing 4 and wounding 48. The bombings were near to holy Shiite shrines, which is extremely dangerous. The bombing of the golden dome at Samarra in February of 2006 set off a vicious Sunni-Shiite civil war that killed thousands each month. The shrine of Imam Husayn, the Prophet’s martyred grandson, in Karbala is among the holiest sites of Shiite Islam.

Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ordered the closing for one week of Mustansiriya University in downtown Baghdad and the banning of partisan political activity on campus. The moves alarmed the PM’s critics, who worry that he is gradually abolishing the freedom of speech in the new Iraq and making himself a strongman.

Aljazeera English has video:

Mustansiriya’s student government and administration has been dominated by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and by the Sadr Movement, two Shiite religious parties that are rivals of the Islamic Mission (Da’wa) Party of PM al-Maliki. Although Western reporters for some odd reason want to depict Da’wa as more secular than the others, it is not. It is, however, less puritanical than the Sadrists and led by lay fundamentalists rather than by clerics, in contrast to ISCI. Since ISCI and the Sadrists are part of the National Iraqi Alliance coalition contesting the upcoming parliamentary elections, and Maliki’s Da`wa is running against them on the Government of Laws slate, there is bad blood among the Shiite fundamentalist parties at the moment.

Mustansiriya U.’s president was Imad al-Husayni of the Islamic Supreme Council of iraq. Then Minister of Higher Education Abd Dhiyab al-`Ujayli dismissed al-Husayni and appointed Taqi al-Musawi as university president. But al-Husayni refused to step down. So Mustansiriya U. limped along with two administrations that were constantly fighting with one another.

Then PM al-Maliki stepped in and appointed a third man, a professor in the School of Education, as leader of the university. But that only produced three rival administrations. But beyond personality conflicts, the religious parties and the student unions they dominate were jockeying with one another.

When al-Maliki appointed a personal friend as president, it set off two days of student demonstrations and protests, on Monday and Tuesday, demanding al-Husayni’s reinstatement (i.e. the student unions controlled by ISCI were attempting to flex their muscles). In Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, institutions of higher education have often come to be controlled by fundamentalist political parties, who then give preference to student party members from their party in the admissions process and also favor party members for faculty posts. That is, universities are often part of the same spoils system that operates in government ministries. Having control of a university has many benefits for a party, since it provides it with opportunities for patronage, and gives it a large, visible social space and lots of potential campaign workers.

So al-Maliki was perceived as shifting Mustansiriya out of the ISCI column and making an attempt to put it under the control of his Islamic Mission Party.

Al-Maliki has reacted to the strikes and demonstrations by closing the university down for a while and dissolving the party-based student organizations, attempting to depoliticize student activism. It remains to be seen whether the closing will have much effect, and whether it is really possible to stop politics on campus by fiat.

As for the charge that al-Maliki is acting unconstitutionally in forbidding partisan political activities on campus, it has merit. It would be as though US universities were forbidden to host the Young Republicans or the Young Democrats. Iraq may or may not regain political stability any time soon, but the likelihood that it will have democratic government is low. Censorship is a genuine problem in the Arab world, as Cynthia P. Schneider and Nadia Oweidat argue, and the project of posting to the internet the works of the great Muslim modernists and liberals that they suggest should definitely be pursued. The question is who would pay for all that typing, or at least correction of the OCR. (One caveat: these authors romanticize the 19th century thinkers, who were not as liberal and not as free to express themselves as they suggest; Rifa’a al-Tahtawi was never head of al-Azhar and his textbook was written for the state, relatively secular khedivial schools that the authors think did not exist.)

Ominously, Iraq has had to slash its government budget and is running a substantial budget deficit this year which is impeding both spending on civilian infrastructure and the purchase of military equipment.

And, the Kurdistan Regional Government and al-Maliki’s Baghdad are sparring over oil exports. The Kurds are on strike, refusing to export the 100,000 barrels a day their region typically had been sending out through federal government pipelines. A deep Kurdish-Arab divide could end the alliance Kurdish parties have had with the Shiites in parliament, and set the stage for one more civil war.

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One response

  1. Juan, how easily you've forgotten the university student political groups that were ordered suspended right here in the US, during the antiwar demonstrations that took place during the late 1960's, early 70's. There were a lot of them. There were even groups that were outlawed, arrests, surveillance by US security forces, beatings by security forces…

    I could go on, but hopefully I've now jarred your memory back.

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