Rebuilding Iraqs Universities Guest

Rebuilding Iraq’s Universities

Guest Editorial by Keith Watenpaugh

Keith Watenpaugh kindly permitted me to reproduce some of his talk here. JRIC.

Rebuilding Iraq’s Academic Community: Civil Society in a Time of Civil War

How Should America’s Academic and Humanitarian Communities Respond to Iraq’s Coming Civil War and the Rise of Arab-Islamist Nationalism?

Keith Watenpaugh

Talk delivered at the Villanova Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies 9/29/2004

When Professor Magan Keita first asked me to speak on issues of higher education, academic conditions and intellectual life in Iraq just a few months ago, one of the first things I had to do was come up with a title. “The Rebuilding of Iraq’s Academic Community” was the easy part: a generation of brutish Baathist rule, a decade-long cruel, indifferent and corrupt UN sanctions regime and a brief, humiliating war followed by a period of mass looting has left Iraq’s once-remarkable higher educational system in a state of collapse. “Rebuilding,” is quite frankly, all it can do. But the second part of the title left me stumped “In a time of what?” And I had to do so something historians should never do: predict the future. That’s better left to soothsayers and their modern equivalent, the legions of “political analysts” of the 24-hour news cycle. I had to ask myself what would Iraq look like in a couple months’ time. And I choose the term “civil war.”

The daily car-bombings and drive-by shootings, the assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings, the guerilla attacks on coalition and pro-US Iraqi forces, the establishment of no-go areas in central Iraq, precise and not-so precise bombing raids on civilian urban centers, intense ethnic tensions in those areas bordering Syria and Turkey and the cold-war between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq may not as yet fulfill the normative definition of civil war employed by political scientists, but it must be close. Militias have been formed and armed, and most Iraqis being killed are being killed by other Iraqis, though large numbers are also being killed by Americans. Lines are being drawn in anticipation of an American withdrawal, and US forces are fighting elements of the Iraqi body politic that welcomed us a year ago, primarily the Shia of Sadr City. Clearly, the status quo in Iraq is much more than a mere insurgency pitting a rag-tag guerilla force against an occupational army in the way America’s Vietnam war was more than just a conflict with the Viet Cong, in the way France’s Algerian war was more than just about protecting their pied-noirs colonists, even in the way Britain’s war in North American in the late-18th century was more than the mere suppression of a New England tax rebellion.

We are at war with Iraqi society and Iraqi society is a war with itself.

This statement should be the central principle for understanding what is happening in Iraq and contribute how we respond to the needs of Iraq’s people.

The invasion, the insurgency and America’s less than competent administration of post-war Iraq has caused crucial pre-exiting divisions in Iraqi society – and here I don’t mean merely Sunni-Shia or Kurd-Arab – but rather divisions of class, urban/rural and those that divide the conservative, religiously-minded from secular modernists to emerge in a rapid, explosive and uncontrolled manner. These differences had been suppressed by the authoritarian and divide-and-rule style of Baathist rule and ironically, by the UN sanctions that starved the countryside and impoverished Iraq’s middle class alike. One of the most significant outcomes of the explosive decompression of those strains of conflict is that the genie of radicalized Arab-Islamism, which had rested furtively at the margins of Arab society — al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, in particular – is out of the proverbial bottle in a very big way. And that ideology has the potential to move to the very center of a viable mass, authentic political movement as the war in Iraq continues. This amorphous, rather indistinct ideology, which we in the West are only now beginning to try to understand and take seriously brings hope to the disaffected and proletarianized middle-class young people of big Arab cities like Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, as well as a measure of dignity to their poorer brothers and sisters who live in the slums south of Beirut, the refugee camps in Gaza and the Sadr City ghetto. America’s invasion of Iraq has handed this new ideology its greatest victory – regardless of the outcome of the next few months or even years: if the US withdraws unilaterally having Iraqified the war or if it stays and retakes the no-go areas with a brutal combination of airpower and “boots on the ground,” this movement will survive, prosper and spread.

Understanding Iraq’s civil war, what it will do to Iraqi society and to the larger Middle East is a daunting question; this evening I want to address just one element of that larger society: Higher Education. And while it may seem superfluous to think about universities and colleges, research institutions and foreign exchange programs while Iraq seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, it is precisely higher education’s role as a fundament of civil society, as a device in ameliorating forms of economic and class difference, and as a tool for building national community that should put it a the very center of all of our efforts in Iraq and the Middle East, at large.

Large-scale, free (or almost free), merit-based secondary and higher education, combined with strategic and directed programs of economic development, is the only way to lessen the magnetic attraction of radicalized Arab-Islamist nationalism. And while analysts often point to the corrosive asymmetries of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the American occupation and support of Saudi Arabia as the chief causes for this radicalism, these are merely symptoms of a more pernicious disease that wastes the human capital and potential of the Arab world.

This is not to say that Higher Education is a cure all or that if the Arabs just had an educational system more like ours then all would be well. Rather if the US is prepared to make a multi-generational commitment to investing in education in the Middle East (not just Iraq), to opening our college campuses to young people from the region, to sending American students and professors there to study, to learn and to teach, and, at home, to expanding the teaching of Middle Eastern languages, cultures and history beyond research universities and integrating those topics into standard core curricula and offerings throughout the US, then we and the peoples of the Middle East have a fighting chance; certainly a better chance than with a military option. What I’m advocating isn’t cheap, in fact it will cost a great deal. But it’s much less expensive than the alternative.


I have detailed elsewhere the prevailing conditions in Iraqi higher education, primarily in “Opening the Doors: Intellectual Life and Academic Conditions in Post-War Baghdad,” The Iraqi Observatory (15 July 2003)

Current Situation in Iraq

What has happened to Higher Education in Iraq since I last visited in June 2003? To paraphrase a conversation with a group of professors from several of Baghdad’s universities I met with last month while they were visiting Cambridge: the year since the invasion has been a total waste in terms of rebuilding and redevelopment. They were highly critical of the IGC appointed Minister of Higher Education Ziad Abd al-Razzaq Aswad, (Petroleum engineer, Sunni Arab and very close to the Iraqi Islamic Party) who served for much of last year and whom they labeled an “Ikhwanji” – an Islamic fundamentalist. Among his worst insults, and a highly symbolic one, was his failure to shake hands with women. Equally they saw the CPA’s advisor to Ministry of Higher Education, John Agresto, as a man of “little knowledge.” Though called a “good man” the current Minister of Higher Education, former president of al-Mustansiriyya and rehabilitated Baathist, Tahir al-Bakaa’ is considered a political opportunist. Asked if al-Bakaa’’s recent announcement that the ministry will be kept out of the affairs of the universities, the consensus was that this was what is always said, and is pure “haki fadi” (empty words).

Funding sources are still unclear, physical rebuilding has not kept pace, and yet 120,000+ students of Baghdad’s several campuses continue to come to class and the faculty, though diminished by attrition, emigration and assassination continues to teach. US Department of State sources confirm that almost none of the funding promised by the CPA as redevelopment aid for Baghdad’s universities has materialized; though several of the smaller programs sponsored by the USAID that link US and Iraqi universities have had some positive results; this includes al-Sharaka, a program headquartered at the University of Oklahoma.

Understanding why John Agresto was there and was a failure, and exploring why USAID grants have taken the form they have and worked and not worked is crucial to reformulating the way the US should approach higher education in Iraq. I’ve written about Agresto elsewhere. In brief, Agresto, was senior advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education, one of the leading right-wing figures in the “culture wars” of the 1980s and a friend of the Secretary of Defense’s wife, Joyce Rumsfeld.

His appointment was an act of cronyism. He has an admitted lack of knowledge of Iraq’s history, languages, culture, or empathy for Iraqis themselves. He has no experience in the administration of large, public, graduate higher educational systems, no background whatsoever in international education or the role of higher education in developing nations, and no understanding of how higher education can emerge from totalitarianism. Unfortunately, however, Agresto has emerged as an “expert” on higher education in Iraq and is giving speeches about “what went wrong” at colleges and universities around the country . . .

USAID programs are another issue. These have tremendous potential if they are formulated in coordination with Iraqis and meet Iraqi needs – not ours. Ironically among the largest grants made was for archaeology, museum conservation and the teaching of ancient Mesopotamian languages. Something of incredible importance to us – as we often identify with Iraq’s ancient past rather than the Arab Islamic present – but of less relevance to Iraqis; but millions of dollars are going to this effort and almost none to contemporary arts, humanities, social sciences or Islamic studies. The other problem is the USAID programs are subcontracted and those dedicated to community building initiatives/ democratization programs, usually go to those companies with Republican-party connections or sympathies (think Halliburton, but on a very small scale). And there is no body of evidence that top-down democratization programs of this kind even work. This old-fashioned style of corruption allied to neocom utopianism is cataloged at-length in a recent article for Harper’s Magazine by Naomi Klein.

And while there is something criminal about turning Iraqis into playthings of American partisan politics and paternalism, the real problem is that in the current formulation, aid, development and reform all first must pass through the prism of American national interests in Iraq and the Middle East. As the security situation in Iraq collapses altogether, and the American occupation continues, reform programs closely allied to these American interests will prove problematic and a focus for resistance. This fact must be part of the thinking of institutions seeking to cooperate with US government initiatives in Iraq. These organizations should be conscious of the fact while they may consider themselves as distinct from the US government, disinterested and benevolent, Iraqis will conflate them with the occupation and see them as complicit actors in the forwarding of American interests and thus legitimate targets – both political and armed — in the coming civil war.

New Problems

This conclusion points to a cluster of larger problems facing Iraqi higher education, problems which will have significant implications for among other things, the near term possibility of elections in Iraq.

As I’ve noted in my recent essay for Academe, of more pressing concern is the overt politicization of campuses that threatens to suppress open exchange and freedom of thought. Incidents involving harassment of nonveiled women students and teachers, student-on-student violence, and assassinations of administrators occur often.

Conservative estimates place at thirteen the number of academics murdered in Iraq since the start of the U.S. occupation. The most gruesome killing was the June 2004 beheading of Layla Abdullah Said, dean of the College of Law at Mosul University and one of the few women in positions of academic leadership. Her murder highlights the fact that Iraqi intellectuals who work with the United States or Western nongovernmental organizations have been increasingly targeted for death by the guerilla insurgency. Women faculty note that their position in higher education has changed for the worse over the past decade, and they worry that it will continue to decline despite the fact that, historically, women have held positions of prominence in Iraqi higher education and female students make up at least 50 percent of the student population.

In the same recent conversation with the visiting delegation of Iraqi academics, the head of the delegation acknowledged that the assassination of Iraqi university professors has taken place for political reasons. Estimating that at least 60% of incidents of violence (200+), up to and including murder, have political motivation: robbery was usually not the motive as, “these are professors, what do they have?” He divided these attacks into vendetta against high-profile Baathists, and into this group he placed the murder of the dean of law at Mosul University. Most current attacks are now mounted by what he termed “Saddam’s men” on professors critical of the old régime. He referenced the assassination of a dean at al-Mustansiriyya U. who had been murdered after appearing on television denouncing Saddam. The dean was killed in a drive-by shooting. In a side note, he mentioned that this is why he does not make public pronouncements or talk with newspapers or TV reporters.

He did not indicate a “religious” vector for attacks. That is, unlike reports of violence against women “immodestly” dressed, the burning of liquor stores and video outlets, professors have not been attacked by religious extremists, although this does not discount intimidation by other means. In his opinion the possibilities of violence have hindered free-exchange of ideas, the connection between the universities and society at-large, but he registered a certain resignation that this was just part of life in post-war Iraq. Asked if there were any actions the US military could take to increase protection of academics, it was indicated that were a professor to receive individual protection s/he would be seen as a traitor. They all noted a reduced military profile on the campus; though most violence against academics has not taken place on campuses, but rather off-campus at their homes or private offices.

We also know that at Mosul University, there is some degree of support for more radical student groups from the administration itself. The Youth and Student Union is controlled by Islamists alleged to be linked to the Arab-Islamist resistance and inform on faculty who are then marked for death. In the last couple months there has been a marked increase of professors at the English Department and Law School receiving death threats and at least one, the Chair of the Translation Department, Dr. Iman Abd al-Munim, was killed in a drive-by shooting on August 28.

Clearly, Iraq’s campuses are set to become radicalized loci. Professors are afraid of being denounced by their own students for political and personal reasons – the ultimate student evaluation; one could also imagine South American-style “death squads” of all stripes being formed to discipline professors. More troubling is the fact that they are too afraid to take on the important social role of “public intellectual.” Silencing this portion of Iraqi society will be consequential.

Honestly, I don’t know how or even if the increased radicalization of these campuses can be prevented without massive violations of political freedoms – al-Mustansiriyya, where I spent a great deal of time in June 2003 is now “off limits” to American diplomats because of its nearness to Sadr City, so even getting a full picture of what is happening is difficult. It is also possible to overreact to student activism – just like administrators have been known to do in America. The real question is whether or not this “testing of the waters” can remain in the realm of politics and not migrate to violence.

The situation on the campuses indicates, on a smaller scale, what national elections in Iraq would look like if they were to be held in the near future. They would be marked by intense violence, assassination of candidates, and the monopolization of the media and public sphere by agents of the government or the insurgency. The vast majority of Iraqis would remain silent out of fear – and probably at home on the polling day. It’s not a very pretty picture.

Where to go from here

In the final few minutes I will outline a few key steps that could be taken by American colleges and universities and those parts of the federal government involved in issues of education and culture. Let me restate my observation at the beginning and note that those seriously interested in making a difference in Iraq and solving underlying problems in the Arab world should ignore the largely inaccurate statements about Iraq made by the president and the appointed interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, about the status quo, and begin to seriously prepare for civil war. The problem seems so big; and it is. In the face of the enormity of this crisis it is easy to lose hope and give up. I contend, however, that giving up hope is luxury we can ill afford. What I am outlining below are small, but doable steps; and many of these steps are already being taken.

1) The US academic community must be ready to create and maintain bi-lateral and multi-lateral relationships with Iraq’s universities even as the security situation deteriorates. These should be replicated throughout the Arab world. Creative solutions to the security situation can be made, using electronic communication, third countries, and other means. These relationships must not be monopolized by those schools receiving USAID grants — lessening real or possible conflicts of interest and diversifying the US presence in the Arab world.

2) Professional societies should mobilize their memberships to catalog human rights abuses, murders and kidnappings of students and professors in Iraq and violations of intellectual freedom by the Interim Iraqi government, the US military or other organizations. The AAUP, Human Rights Watch, Scholars at Risk and Amnesty International and other similar groups can be apprised of these issues and keep track of what is happening. For example, the American Crystallographic Association should adopt their Iraqi counterparts, find out how they are doing and what they need. We must be ready to assist large numbers of political refugees and others fleeing the disorder.

3) The American academic community must take the lead in opposing the highly restrictive and ham-fisted visa requirements that often cloud with the language of national security, objections to somebody’s politics. The high profile cases of Yusuf Islam née Cat Stevens and Tariq Ramadan are perhaps the best known; hundreds, if not thousands of students from all over the world are being denied visas, facing interminable delays of their paperwork and are prevented from coming to America to study for no other reason than they are young, Arab or male.

4) The American academic community, the government and private foundations need to invest in Middle East studies in the US. A figure no less than John Kerry made this plea at Temple University last week. Villanova is rare in its commitment to teaching and research in this field, and quite frankly can serve as a model. However, just as an example, less than 2% of all employed historian in the United States teach either as a main or sub-field Islam or the Middle East, far fewer study the Arab world.

Sometimes I think we are, as a community of humane scholars sleepwalking through the most important crisis of our lifetimes and we will look back on the legal, civil and moral outrages committed in the name of the War on Terror with the same embarrassment we now view the internment of Japanese Americans or the communist Witch Hunts of the 1950s. Elements of the so-called War on Terror and certainly the war in Iraq have been predicated on purposeful misinformation, rank ethnocentrism, bad language skills and poor analysis – the things we college professors are supposed to be good at counteracting and helping students and society overcome. Where have we been? Preparing for the coming civil war in Iraq and making the kinds of commitments to the peoples of the Middle East that the current situation demands can begin to redress that absence.

Keith Watenpaugh


Le Moyne College

Posted in Uncategorized | No Responses | Print |