Academics Struggle for Civil Society in Iraq

by David Moltz, Inside Higher Ed, November 25, 2008

WASHINGTON – Two of the three scholars invited from Iraq to share analysis of academic conditions there could not get visas to attend this week’s meeting of the Middle East Studies Association. Those gathered at the annual meeting for a panel on “the role of academics in building civil society in Iraq” had to settle for having the papers paraphrased to them by a colleague. This twist of fate, however, prompted the remaining panelists to reflect on the challenges that still exist for students and scholars in a post-Saddam Iraq.

Though Riyadh Aziz Hadi, a high-ranking administrator at Baghdad University, and Amer Qader, a professor at Kirkuk University, were unable to attend the event, their scholarly work was presented before the panel.

“This is kind of good for the event in a sinister way,” said Abbas Kadhim, professor of Islamic studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, Cal. and a product of Iraqi higher education. “This shows you some of the difficulties that remain for Iraqi academics. If someone cannot attend an event like this — because of a denied visa with one year’s notice [the case for Hadi and Qader] — you’re looking at a sequestered group of people.”

Scholars in Iraq are still relatively isolated from the outside world, Kadhim said, citing the pertinent example of the difficulty of securing a visa for foreign research. Domestically, he added, most have severely limited and unreliable Internet access, if they have access at all.

Though not to the extent that it was during the Saddam regime, Kadhim said, academic freedom is still constrained in Iraq. Inside the classroom, he said, the free flow of ideas between student and professor is limited by former customs. For example, he noted that many Iraqis consider the questioning or challenging of a professor publicly an “act of hostility.” Even the wider academic curriculum cannot offer a diversity of interests or values to students, he said, noting that degrees are “cookie cutter” by design and leave no room for electives.

Scholars are similarly constrained by administrators and government officials, Kadhim said, calling the university just another “mini dictatorship.” Though Saddam has been deposed, he said many “Saddamists” still exercise their control over academe. He noted that many unfairly awarded degrees were given to some academic administrators now in control in Iraq. Some, for example, wrote their dissertations on topics such as the “economic genius” and the “eloquence of the speeches” of Saddam Hussein.

Iraq has suffered a brain drain since the 1990s, Kadhim said, when a number of scholars left the country to teach either elsewhere in the Middle East or at American institutions. Academic freedom was only one concern of these fleeing scholars, he said, noting that many professors lived on a salary of $5 a month in the early 1990s.

Hadi and Qader’s papers, presented by Kadhim in their absence, touched on the security concerns of many academic scholars. Their works noted that while state universities are pleading with expatriate academics to return to Iraq, many scholars are unwilling to risk their lives to do so. As Kadhim noted, “It can take upward of 30 years to generate a junior scholar in a field in Iraq, but it can only take a 25-cent bullet to end their life.”

Despite the immediate concerns for academe in Iraq, Kadhim said he was still optimistic about its future, if only because of its resilience through conflict.

“It’s a miracle that there is even higher education in Iraq,” Kadhim said. “One thing happens at Virginia Tech and the campus is shut down entirely and some of its students are traumatized, quite rightly, to this day. Imagine that happening every day to students in Iraq.”

Encouraging to some is the increase in educational opportunities for Iraqis. Amal Shlash, director of the Bayt al-Hikma Research Centre in Baghdad, described higher education as the “only achieving activity in the country.” In 2002-3, the academic year of the United States invasion of Iraq, there were 19 public universities and three private universities in major towns throughout the country — four of which were in Baghdad. Now, the country hosts 23 public universities and 23 private universities. The country went from educating 322,000 students in 2002-03 to educating around 370,000 students this year.

Shlash said, during the Saddam era, universities were only allowed to be built in cities with populations greater than one million. Now, she said, universities can be built anywhere in the country. This has resulted in a higher number of female enrollees than ever before because many young women now no longer have to leave home to attend a university. At Baghdad University, the enrollment is 57 percent female. Even more striking, in the southern city of Nasiriyah, the university’s enrollment is 71 percent female.

In spite of this enrollment growth and the news that the Iraqi government is making greater oil profits than ever, Shlash noted that higher education receives a lower percentage of the state budget than it did during the Saddam regime. Since 2003, the government appropriation for higher education has remained relatively static between three and four percent.

The only way to further encourage the growth of higher education and rescue Iraqi society is for these institutions to demand more money from the government, Shlash said, noting that many do not have the luxury of catering philanthropists as institutions do in the United States.

“We need to rebuild the middle class in Iraq,” Shlash said. “The people with a quality higher education have left the country. No democracy can succeed in a country without a middle class.”