Blogs > Liberty and Power > Education and Nation-Building in Iraq

Aug 15, 2004

Education and Nation-Building in Iraq

While commentators continue to wonder if there is any hope of avoiding catastrophe in Iraq, others, such as Christina Asquith, focus on the important story of trying to rebuild education in that war-torn country. Asquith's essay,"With Little More Than Hope, Iraqi Colleges Try to Rebuild," which appears in last week's edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, focuses on the fact that"after 35 years of Saddam, educators contend with too much violence and too little money from the U.S. and its allies." The first issue for the universities, indeed, for all of Iraq, is the issue of security."University presidents, who already have personal bodyguards, were concerned about radical Islamic groups, looters, death threats, and angry students," writes Asquith."After a tumultuous academic year under U.S. guidance, the true test of whether Iraqi universities will emerge from 35 years of dictatorship and war as an independent and free-thinking system is about to begin."

The effort has been spearheaded by John Argesto, who, as leader of the American team, advised Iraqi higher education authorities, leaving them"structures for a self-governing system, including a democratic procedure for hiring and firing administrators, and a 'declaration of academic freedom and responsibilities' that forbids religious and political intimidation. Those steps were hailed as major changes after 35 years of centralized control and intimidation by Mr. Hussein's Baath Party."

But with little money forthcoming, and the omnipresence of violence, many higher educators live under a cloud of fear. In fact, Asquith observes,

dozens of intellectuals—including the former president of Baghdad University; the deputy dean of the Medical College at Basra University; and Abdul Latif al-Mayah, a political-science professor at Al-Mustansiriya University—have been assassinated by unknown assailants. Student demonstrations and Islamic militias have shut down campuses. The university presidents voted to postpone student elections in the spring, the first open voting scheduled on campuses in three decades, out of fear of student-on-student violence. In this climate of terror, few feel safe to speak freely. ...
All Iraqi universities and colleges reopened after the war, but attempting to carry on has often seemed to students and staff members like an exercise in futility. Some students and professors lost theses, lectures, and years of research in the looting. Heavy traffic, bomb threats, and U.S. roadblocks have made attendance spotty on campuses in Baghdad. With no electricity, students had no fans, air-conditioning, or lights to study at night. They were often asked to phone their professors the night before an exam to see if it was still scheduled. Professors, many of whom have received anonymous death threats and seen their colleagues assassinated, were sometimes reluctant to show up for work. Protests by students and staff members against the U.S. attack on Falluja shut down most universities in April. The University of Karbala was taken over by supporters of Moktada al-Sadr, a radical Islamic cleric, in the same month, and not even Mr. al-Bakaa, the minister, is certain of its current status. Westerners and some Iraqis traveling on highways outside Baghdad have been kidnapped or ambushed. As a result information about life on campuses in Karbala, Mosul, or Basra is hard to obtain."It was a very difficult school year," says Hussain Ali, who graduated in June from the College of Engineering at the University of Baghdad."The university was closed three times for more than a week. Many of us couldn't get to college because of the traffic. Professors were killed by students. The students say, 'If you don't pass me, I'll kill you.'" Worst of all, professors and students say, is that after 35 years of intellectual repression and 14 years of U.N. sanctions, the intellectual renaissance that Iraqi academics had hoped would follow Mr. Hussein's fall has not come about.

Worse still, even those American professors who have attempted to help stabilize the situation have maintained that

the issue of safety has discouraged them from pursuing projects in Iraq. ..."The security situation deteriorated so quickly it was difficult to get people's attention—and it seemed there were more pressing needs than exchanges," says Richard Couto, a professor of leadership and change at Antioch University. He visited Baghdad twice last year and proposed taking Iraqi professors to the United States for training in the latest research techniques. But over time he lost motivation, he says:"I also despaired of the hopeless mess that we seem to have made in Iraq and that there was any solid ground on which to stand and work for change."

There are goals: marketizing the structure of the universities, wiring them for the Internet, encouraging debate and inquiry. But there is still no money to bring these goals to fruition.

Of Iraq's two dozen ministries, the one for higher education was the last to receive funds, and it got the least. The Ministry of Education, which runs the country's elementary and secondary schools, has benefited from a $65-million contract won from the U.S. government by an American company for rebuilding efforts, as well as $103-million from the World Bank and $100-million expected from other donor nations. The Ministry of Higher Education, however, received less than $20-million in benefits from contracts between the United States and American universities early on, along with about $20-million from donor nations, and so far nothing from the World Bank.

Crony corporate arrangements aside, the fact is that

Iraqi higher education was in a shambles after the war. An estimated 80 percent of the country's 22 universities and 43 vocational colleges had been damaged, some beyond repair. One campus of Iraq's third-largest institution, Basra University, was a collection of empty hulks and piles of rubble. The higher-education ministry estimated a nationwide rebuilding cost of $1.2-billion."We're not talking about libraries and labs; we need chairs," Salman D. Salman, Basra's president, said in December as he stood in a classroom with no windows or door."We need 15,000 chairs."

Agresto had hoped to create a decentralized university system"free from religious influences," while the new Iraqi Minister of Higher Education, Ziad Abdel Razzaq Aswad,"a member of a radical Sunni Islamist group," has fought for greater centralization of the universities."He expected professors to ask the government for permission to travel, as they had under Mr. Hussein's regime. He wanted the ministry to again control the hiring and firing of deans."

One thing Argesto aimed for was the bolstering of liberal arts to assist in the building of a democracy. But Argesto is frank:"I worry about a country where history and heritage and literature aren't prized, where philosophy and political philosophy and normative studies aren't basic parts of the curriculum. For a country to produce leaders, it has to be a country where people can think clearly and write persuasively and understand more than just their specialty."

Indeed, compartmentalization and a lack of integration are not characteristics only of American universities. Nation-building of the kind sought by the Bush administration requires the building of an integrated understanding of the free society (something the neocons know nothing of), as well as the nourishment of democratic"know-how," precisely the kind of tacit traditions and customs that Iraq has never really had.

Still, as"professors and students are struggling with a new academic discipline: democracy," they introduce such courses as"Human Rights and Public Liberties" and even Ph.D. programs on"Democracy and Human Rights," neither of which were possible under the Hussein regime. These courses are the ideological replacements for the"Baath Party indoctrination course" that was so prevalent under Hussein."In most cases, however, students say they have been presented with no new books or ideas; they just share photocopies of lecture notes by professors who haven't left Iraq in decades."

Other troubling cultural changes are underway, however. Whereas Iraq was among the most"secular" of states in the Islamic Middle East, now, the power of radical Islam is being felt like never before.

Changing the curriculum depends first on maintaining security on the campuses and persuading students not to turn to radical Islamic groups for stability. ... Some students say the slowness of reform efforts allows fundamentalist religious groups to gain a foothold at the universities and misrepresent democracy to students who have little understanding of it. Students on many campuses say the groups have been pressuring young women to wear the Islamic head scarf and breaking up boy-girl couples strolling on the campus. Some students believe that the religious groups are behind the assassinations of professors.

"The uncertainty is fatal to freedom of speech," Asquith writes."In April members of Mr. al-Sadr's militia descended on dozens of campuses in black clothing and armbands, holding rallies and threatening students. Even administrators were hesitant to oppose them. Many women covered their heads just to be safe." As one ministry official puts it:"Every student who has an idea thinks he also must have a machine gun. They think this is democracy. We must show them what democracy is and how to respect it."

Liberal democratic ideas and machine guns are opposites. The former cannot be instituted by the latter. But it can be readily destroyed by the latter. A free society can only flourish upon a delicate cultural latticework that will take generations to weave. What were the neocon nation-builders thinking when they embarked on this crusade?

comments powered by Disqus