Between Saddam and the American Occupation: Iraq’s Academic Community Struggles for Autonomy
The old regime was no friend to academic values. But Iraqi academics discover that life after liberation and occupation poses new threats to these same values.
By Keith Watenpaugh
On a cheerless Friday afternoon in January 2003, shortly before the American-led invasion of Iraq, I strolled down Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street with the Iraqi architect Hussam al-Rawi al-Sayyad. The street, named for a tenth-century Arab poet, is home to the city’s main used-book market. Al-Rawi took pride in pointing out the many titles published by Baghdad University and the IraqiAcademy of Sciences. Interspersed in and among the scholarly and popular books were state-produced tracts on Baathism, biographies of Saddam Hussein, standard anti-Israel screeds that often cross over into anti-Semitism, and a smattering of self-help books intended to aid one in overcoming wedding-night jitters. Many of the books and jour-nals represented years of careful collecting by Iraqis, who had been forced to sell them for cash. Arranged carefully along the curb, they spoke of a time when Baghdad, flush with oil wealth, competed with Cairo as the intellectual center of the Arab world.
In June 2003, shortly after the fall of the Baathist regime, and after the United States declared an end to major combat, I re-turned to Baghdad and al-Mutanabbi Street as the leader of a group of historians of the contemporary Arab Middle East from Germany, France, Jordan, and the United States. We had come to catalog the extent of the damage inflicted on institutions of higher learning and cultural production by the paroxysm of looting and aggravated mayhem of the previous few months. (We published our findings in a report, Opening the Doors: Intellectual Life and Academic Conditions in Post-War Baghdad, copies of which can be downloaded from H-Net, a Web-based consortium of scholars and teachers in the humanities and social sciences: http://www.hnet.org/about/press/opening_doors/.)
We discovered that the dour mood of the prewar period had been replaced by genuine excitement. The street was filled with Iraqis and others, poring over titles and buying armloads of books. Many, especially those on Shiite Islam, had been written by banned authors. This time, however, the titles also included books looted from Baghdad’s public and university libraries. While some dealers tried to conceal the provenance of the books, others brazenly sold volumes still bearing call numbers on the spines.
The old Baathist tracts were gone, but book dealers had taken to selling artists’ renderings of Imams Ali and Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and grandson, who are the most revered figures in Shiite Islam. Next to them were photographs of bearded Islamic scholars like the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the murdered father of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Even Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini could be seen.
The differences—and the stark continuities—between my two visits to al-Mutanabbi Street symbolize the larger problems facing Iraq’s academic community in the aftermath of the war. Indeed, the troubles of Iraqi higher education in this hottest of all “hot spots” are the problems of Iraq as a whole. For higher education in Iraq, the fundamental challenge is to regain the intellectual integrity and professional autonomy lost during the brutish reign of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist apparatus. But also, and more fundamentally, Iraqi higher education faces unremitting civil strife, the infection of campuses with partisan and religious politics, and a heavy-handed and clumsy quasi-colonial U.S. policy that plans to continue to Americanize and “manage” Iraqi academic and intellectual life for the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, to help create a viable national community and open society, Iraqi higher education will first need to be restored to a firm and independent footing. And the country’s vast reservoir of academics must be reintegrated into international networks of professional exchange as colleagues, friends, and equals. How institutions outside of Iraq—colleges, universities, professional societies, and donors—respond to those needs will contribute to the warp and weft of Iraqi society and to its relations with the rest of the world for generations to come.
Before the War
While we were in Baghdad, the co-authors of Opening the Doors conversed with Iraqi academics about life under the Baathist regime. Most notable was our discussion with Alya Sousa, a historian trained at the American University in Beirut, whose father, Ahmad Sousa, was among the leading historians of a previous generation. Alya Sousa, who wrote on the period between the world wars, left the history department at Baghdad University in the early 1990s. A grandmother, she later perished along with twenty-one others, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations special envoy toIraq, in an August 2003 car bombing of UN headquarters.
The architect Hussam al-Rawi contributed to our understanding as well. Trained in England, he is a champion of architectural regionalism and historic preservation, and he served in various administrative positions at Baghdad University. Because of his rank within the Baath Party structure, however, the urbane al-Rawi was expelled from the university in May 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the U.S. military entity that governed the country until the handover of power to a transitional Iraqi government this past June. (This article goes to press just after the handover of sovereignty.) He has since left Iraq for exile in the Caribbean. One of al-Rawi’s most recent and celebrated commissions is the mosque-tomb complex of Michel Aflaq, one of the three founders of the Baath Party, who died in Baghdad in 1989. Ironically, that complex served as a storage depot for the largest intact collection of Baath Party documents found to date. It was saved from demolition by the noted Iraqi architect and Brandeis University professor, Kanan Makiya.
Among our other interlocutors were two Iraqis who had returned to the country as advisers to the CPA’s Ministry of Higher Education: Issam Khafaji and Farouq Darweesh. Khafaji is a leading Iraqi dissident who has taught in the United States and Europe, most recently at the University of Amsterdam. Darweesh, an engineer, was a former administrator at Baghdad University. Both have since left Iraq again. Khafaji claims that he did so to avoid becoming, in his words, “a collaborator.”
All the people we interviewed emphasized a pattern of systematic abuse and corruption of higher education and scholarly re-search by the Baathist state apparatus; they also related anecdotes about acts of individual cronyism and the mental and physical abuse of professors by members of the ruling elite. At the same time, they conveyed the sense that the Iraqi system of higher education and professional development had no inherent flaws. Rather, social forces exterior to the universities had robbed the institutions of their prestige, vitality, rigor, and overall excellence.
Baathist policies toward higher education in Iraq changed dramatically over the thirty-two years preceding the U.S. occupation. Kamal Muzhar, a respected elderly historian, recalled that although the first systematic purges of communist faculty took place in 1968, until 1979 university professors elected their own directors, chairs, and deans. The exiles Khafaji and Darweesh concurred that the situation did not become truly unbearable until 1979.
Others point to the mid-1980s as the period that the system broke down altogether, with the near collapse of scholarly exchange after the state made travel abroad contingent upon ranking membership in the party. Before this time, Iraqi academics enjoyed the right to travel abroad to conferences and meetings; often, the state subsidized their expenses. Still, the security services considered those who spent time abroad suspect, and these academics could face harassment and interrogation on their return. Reduced freedom to travel had its cognate in the abandonment of the tradition of earning at least one higher degree at a school in Europe or North America. An older generation of Iraqi academics remembers a time when they could study freely in other Arab states, theUnited States, and Europe and when they enjoyed free tuition and liberal stipends from the government.
Although most Iraqis who completed graduate work before 1979 did so abroad, few studied overseas between 1980 and the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991. After the war, almost no one did. The handful who traveled enjoyed close ties to the ruling elite. For the humanities and social sciences, this lack of mobility has been especially detrimental: foreign language ac-quisition has been poor and exposure to contemporary research almost nonexistent. An entire generation of junior professors has been unable to spend time abroad, attend international conferences, and build connections with colleagues outside of Iraq.
The state used rewards and punishments in the tenure-and-promotion process to induce and ensure loyalty. Iraqi universities employed, and still use, a tiered system of faculty advancement accompanied by a kind of tenure that guarantees employment but not necessarily rank. Ideally, movement from lecturer to assistant professor to professor is based on successful teaching and a review of research and publications by external evaluators.
But in the late 1980s and 1990s, the regime made it increasingly easy for party members to move through the ranks. Salaries, which were low even by academic standards, were tied to rank. When one became an administrator or a chair, one’s salary increased steeply. Membership in institutions such as the Iraqi Academy of Sciences carried with it additional stipends, and opportunities to teach a heavier load for additional pay existed. Nevertheless, access to these upper ranks and perquisites often came at the price of party membership.
Sousa left the university out of frustration in the early 1990s to work with the United Nations. But she looked back fondly on her career in the academy. She said that women professors received support for their research and development until the mid-1980s, when the system became untenable. Her experience highlights the fact that state policy encouraged women’s access to higher education and faculty positions. Not only was this policy in line with Baathist tenets of secular equality, but it was also a pragmatic response to the demographic realities created by the slaughter of many young Iraqi men in the Iran-Iraq war.
Setting issues of academic corruption aside, al-Rawi told me a story after the war that he had neglected to tell me earlier about the potential for arbitrary horror inherent in the old system. LuayHussein, one of Saddam Hussein’s most favored nephews, failed a required engineering course because of attendance problems. Al-Rawi, as head of the engineering section at the time, had to inform the nephew of this fact. In retribution, young toughs from Luay’s entourage severely beat and maimed the professor who gave Luay the failing grade and later tried to ambush al-Rawi himself on the street. When the president’s office learned of the occurrence, a staged, videotaped beating of Luay’s accomplices was produced and shown to the faculty at Baghdad University as a kind of apology. Nevertheless, al-Rawi was not renewed as head of engineering.
The story underscores the vulnerable position of Iraqi academics in the prewar period. Those in the arts and humanities were especially at risk, because they did not have an obviously pragmatic value to the state, as did their colleagues in the sciences. Historians were in constant danger, as the state placed a premium on the maintenance of an ideologically “correct” portrayal of the past.
Most, if not all, Iraqi historians and other academics with international reputations left the country over the three decades preceding the war to assume better-paying or less-restrictive positions in the Arab Gulf, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, or the West. Prominent examples are the exiles Khafaji and Darweesh and the important historians of the Ottoman period, Sayyar Al-Jamil and Hala Fattah. This phenomenon is by no means limited to Iraq. It is an omnipresent fact of intellectual life in the Arab world.
“After” the War
The co-authors of Opening the Doors surveyed conditions at three campuses in the capital: Baghdad University, primarily the urban Bab al-Muazzam campus; al-Mustansiriyya University; and al-Nahrayn (Two Rivers) University, formerly Saddam University. All these universities shared problems brought by the war and its aftermath, namely, lack of public safety and unreliable availability of water, electricity, and transportation. Moreover, these institutions are still cut off from all substantive international contact. In real terms, this means a suspension of subscriptions to academic journals, library acquisitions, and travel abroad for faculty members and students.
Postwar looting harmed all state institutions, universities, libraries, and research centers, although some looting and destruction was limited to the theft of computers and other easily replaceable items. Vandals damaged classrooms and research spaces; even in places they did not physically destroy, they stole chairs, tables, blackboards, windows, and doors. Objects of unique value are gone. And missing items extend beyond old Ottoman archives, historic manuscripts, books, and documents. Student records and transcripts—the mundane trappings of everyday life in a modern educational system—also disappeared.
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 spite of the onerous circumstances, including a lack of tables, chairs, examination booklets, and even chalk, by June 2003 the normal rhythm of the academic year had begun to return to the city’s campuses. Students, excited and happy to be at school, had set up makeshift cafeterias, where they enjoyed each other’s company. They were all well dressed—a major accomplishment given the heat and lack of running water. Their professors complained about them in ways comparable to what we say about our own undergraduates, suggesting a certain return to normalcy. The resourcefulness and adaptability of Iraqi faculty and students were readily in evidence.
In the middle of the 2002-03 academic year, the occupation authorities had forced sweeping administrative changes at all Iraqi universities: CPA officials dismissed the presidents of universities and deans of faculties as well as most department heads. Where CPA influence was minimal, faculty elections proceeded smoothly on a consensual basis. At that time, the heart of discontent at universities, as in other sectors of society, stemmed from the CPA’s ham-fisted purges of ranking Baathists. Although the CPA subsequently abandoned this policy, it left a bitter residue in the relations between the CPA and the academy.
By the time my colleagues and I arrived, the CPA had lost much of the support and goodwill it enjoyed after the overthrow of the old regime. Its perceived inability to manage the basic needs of everyday life in the capital—for public safety, electricity, water, telephone communication, and gasoline—was the main cause of that loss. Few of our contacts then expressed virulent anti-Americanism, but that has begun to change.
We noticed a mounting frustration, even among members of the large educated Iraqi middle class who had been willing to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt, and who saw the occupation as a tremendous opportunity. For some, this frustration has turned into radical antipathy toward the American presence and assistance efforts. Those who are disaffected in this way make easy recruits for the increasingly organized paramilitary resistance.
Adding to the general sense of disempowerment was the perception that the CPA was institutionally indifferent to the needs of Iraqis. The CPA’s choice of Saddam Hussein’s former palace, for example, as the base of its operations and the future site of the U.S. Embassy, sent confusing and mixed signals to the Iraqi people. CPA officials themselves seemed in a permanent state of lockdown in the so-called Green Zone, the high-security cantonment where U.S. officials and contractors are headquartered. Because the Americans can rarely move about the city without armed guards, Iraqis hoping to meet them must do so in the cavernous Iraqi national conference center after passing through several checkpoints.
Although this article goes to press just after the June 2004 handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government, it is already clear that the United States plans to maintain a large role in the civil administration of Iraq. Many of the CPA’s functions have simply been incorporated into the massive U.S. diplomatic mission to Iraq, which will involve some nine hundred government employees and contractors. American diplomats will still control the bulk of redevelopment aid allocated to Iraq, as well as the proceeds from the sale of Iraqi oil.
Universities, without independent budgets or endowments and with U.S. military personnel and weapons on their campuses, will continue to be in a subordinate position, underscoring the limits to Iraqi sovereignty. The same holds true for other research and cultural institutions.
The United States plans to continue to deploy U.S. Agency for International Development grants to link the United States and Iraqi institutions. (The first round of agency subcontracts awarded $5.1 million to five American universities and consortia.) Such programs have the potential to help Iraqis rebuild their educational system. But if Iraqis see the programs as part of an American agenda, their role is doubtful in the creation of permanent, collegial, and productive relations between the U.S. and Iraqi academic communities. The ultimate cost of failing to create such relationships may be the dismissal of core academic values—open scholarly exchange, freedom of inquiry, women’s participation in higher education, and faculty self-management—as “American” and anti-Muslim.
The appointment by the CPA of John Agresto as senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education is one example of how U.S. political interests can taint Iraqi higher education. In the 1980s, Agrestowas one of the leading right-wing figures in the “culture wars.” Later, he was president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, an institution known for its Eurocentric “great books” curriculum. He now runs his own educational consulting firm, Agresto Consultants. He has no training in Middle Eastern society or culture, and he had no experience in the region before his arrival in Iraq. He wasap-pointed directly by U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose wife, Joyce, served on St. John’s board of trustees during Agresto’s presidency.
His appointment signaled that the CPA intended to staff its bureaucracy with politically loyal agents, rather than with those most objectively qualified to assist Iraq. The clearly political na-ture ofAgresto’s position sent a chilling signal to academic in-stitutions interested in working in Iraq: their efforts would be part and parcel of the administration’s current policy objectives.
Agresto’s last day in Iraq was June 18, 2004. Before leaving, he admitted that Iraq’s universities and colleges had not been rebuilt. He laid the blame primarily on a lack of international aid and support from the U.S. academy. He also faulted the Iraqis themselves. While still in Baghdad, and despite ample evidence to the contrary, he told a reporter for the Washington Post that Iraqis “don’t know how to be a community. . . . [T]hey put their individual interests first. They only look out for themselves.”
Beyond an ugly ethnocentrism and an unwillingness to shoulder any responsibility for American failures in Iraq, Agresto’s comments signal a growing belief in Washington policy circles that Iraqis are unable to achieve modernity or democracy and thus are entitled to neither. This attitude can only hurt the chances for higher education to contribute to building a civil society in Iraq.
Despite Agresto’s bleak assessment, the Iraqi interim government took the bold move of appointing a university professional, Tahir al-Bakaa’, as minister of higher education in June 2004. A historian of the modern Middle East, al-Bakaa’ had been elect-ed president of al-Mustansiriyya University by his peers in the immediate postwar period. A ranking Baathist, he escaped de-Baathification through sheer force of his personality and kept his university open and functioning through much of last year. He recently announced that he would keep the ministry out of local university administration. And, in a decision that may return to haunt him, he rejected a new education law drafted by Agresto’s office at the CPA. It is an open question whether al-Bakaa’ will succeed in navigating between the extremes of a new Iraqi government that hints that it will impose martial law and a U.S. government unwilling to give up real control.
Among the many papers I brought back with me from Iraq is a simple letter in Arabic from the president of the Iraqi Academy of Sciences, Hayawi Hammash. The letter invites members of the Middle East Studies Association to hold a conference in Baghdad at some point in the future. As an attenuated form of Iraqi sovereignty resumes, and as a low-grade but increasingly vicious civil war grips the country, the guarded optimism with which I left Baghdad has all but vanished. But the implicit obligation symbolized by that invitation has not.
Keith Watenpaugh is assistant professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern history at Le Moyne College and associate director of peace and global studies. This fall, he is a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His book, Being Modern in the Middle East: Modernity, Colonialism, and the Emergence of the Middle Class, is under contract with Princeton University Press.