Will harsh weed-out allow Iraqi academia to flower?

July 25, 2003

After sanctions, bombing and looting, Iraq's universities now face political purges. Turi Munthe looks at how US rule is affecting efforts to rebuild academe.

Outside Baghdad University's faculty of fine arts is the Starlight Café.

Two students, a young man and a young woman, sit on a bench. They look exhausted. A third sits opposite them, drawing the woman - a kitsch charcoal, all eyelashes, like you'd find touted in Montmartre. "She's prettier than the picture, isn't she," the artist observes.

The three have just spent two hours in the stinking Baghdad morning sun protesting against the dismissal of Sa'ad al-Zuhairi, the college's former administrator. They insist that he is a good man who has been treated unfairly. Like thousands of other Iraqi academics, he has been sacked for being a high-ranking member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. While many sympathise with his plight, others are glad to see the back of him. His successor, Shafiq al-Mahdi, later tells me that al-Zuhairi had to go because he had led a group of the Fedayeen, the irregular forces close to Saddam. "Before he left, he set fire to the library," al-Mahdi says, pointing towards a charred building across the college square.

It is not the only gutted building in Iraq. The ministry of higher education, in Baghdad, a beautiful slim-line castle, turrets and all, was spared the bombing. It is now the colour of burnt toast - looters stripped it bare and then set it on fire.

Like most higher education institutions across Iraq, Baghdad University also escaped almost unscathed from the bombing. But it was a short reprieve. In the subsequent looting and burning, 20 of the capital's colleges were destroyed. No institution escaped: the faculty of education in Waziriyya was raided daily for two weeks; the veterinary college in Abu Ghraib lost all its equipment; two buildings in the faculty of fine arts stand smoke-blackened against the skyline. In every college, in every classroom, you could write "education" in the dust on the tables.

Nevertheless, the universities have been a rare success story for the post-Saddam regime. Things are moving. A committee of university presidents from around the country has begun meeting weekly. Faculty members have been voting for new heads. And the university curricula is being updated after 12 years of academic isolation.

There are even indications that once salaries rise in October, many of the thousands of academics who fled the country will return. USAid is bidding for a contract worth up to $30 million (£20 million) to help rebuild the higher education infrastructure, exchange programmes are being set up with western universities, and large quantities of books and scholarly texts have been donated.

At Baghdad University, classes are running again, albeit for three days a week. The students are helping on all fronts, from patrolling campuses to rebuilding damaged facilities. Most importantly of all, however, they are turning up. Their classrooms have been ransacked, their campus looted, their dormitories overrun by homeless families, and kidnapping threats abound, but still many students have come.

Andrew Erdmann, the US senior adviser to the ministry of higher education who has overseen efforts to restore higher education, is determined that the class of 2003 not become a lost generation. "Students have been prioritised over everything else," he says.

Exams are taking place. Notebooks, pens and fans are being supplied by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Unesco, and I have seen students graduating across the capital: the boys wear perfume and the girls carry flowers. They are relieved; they almost look happy.

But if the students are getting help, their professors are living a nightmare. For the past three months, they have funded reconstruction from their own pockets. They were paid their salaries for April on June 7. For a full professor, that equates to £100, the equivalent of three days'

work for a driver at one of Baghdad's big hotels. But money is not their chief concern. It is politics that continues to turn the academics' world upside down.

On May 16, the CPA issued Order No 1: "De-Baathification of Iraqi Society".

Section 1.2 states: "Full members of the Baath Party holding the ranks of udw qutriyya (regional command member), udw far (branch member), udw shu'bah (section member) and udw firqah (group member) (together, 'senior party members') are hereby removed from their positions and banned from future employment in the public sector." It is the single most important policy decision that Paul Bremer, administrator of the CPA, has made since becoming the US's top man in Iraq.

That order has had a devastating effect in academe. In Baghdad University alone, 283 staff lost their jobs. Across the country, university heads and faculty deans were sacked.

Muhammad al-Rawi was one. Even before Bremer's order came through, students had been calling for the removal of the president of Baghdad University.

Al-Rawi is a cardiologist who became Saddam's personal physician. His appointment to the presidency was a reward. He spent little time in the university and had no interest in its workings. In late April, Steve Curda - Erdmann's second in command - asked al-Rawi what emergency help he needed. It was three weeks before he responded. Al-Rawi had better things to do with his time, such as running his private practice.

Others did not need pushing. When Erdmann called his first meeting of university presidents, five of the 20 leaders asked not to be sent back.

"They just said they wouldn't be wanted," Erdmann says. Many reputedly had links with Izzat al-Douri, the much-hated vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council.

Baghdad University's new, non-Baathist president, Sami al-Muthaffar, sits in an office on the second floor of a building that looks more like an abandoned warehouse than the nerve centre of what was once the the Middle East's top university. "We can cope with de-Baathification, we can cope with the staff shortage," he says, "but we hate it." Because for all the al-Rawis, there are dozens of other intellectuals who, as al-Muthaffar puts it, "were professors first and Baathists a very distant second".

"The CPA doesn't interfere with the daily affairs of the university, and yet we feel we are not free," al-Muthaffar says. "We are a people who are unaccustomed to freedom, but if we have to suffer like we did before... that is simply impossible."

The founder of Baathism was Michel Aflaq, a Christian from Syria. From the late 1940s, he preached Arab unity with a Christian Democrat-type socialism and a nationalistic, anti-imperialist flavour. Baathism began as an idea consonant with the politics of the day. Under Saddam Hussein, however, it simply became a profession; at best, a Baathist was a paid hand; at worst, an executioner. They were playground bullies of grotesque proportions, labelled hyenas and locusts by their fellow countrymen.

But while thuggish Baathism sank its claws deep into every aspect of life in the old Iraq, a more idealistic current flourished in the universities.

True, party membership was foisted on many - it was compulsory even for teaching assistants in Baghdad's faculty of education - and simply carrying the party card added 5 per cent to your entrance exam scores. But in the rarefied environment of the Iraqi academy, unlike perhaps anywhere else, the Baath Party actually stood for something. Hussain al-Saadi, the former assistant dean of the faculty of education and a recently sacked firqah -level party member, insists it was full of good ideas: "Its slogan is Unity, Freedom, Socialism." Further, he argues, the party's ideology was never put into practice even though Saddam ruled in its name.

Hussam al-Rawi al-Rifa'i sits beneath his own portrait in the architecture school. He was until recently faculty dean, a shu'bah -level party member, and now is spokesperson for the purged staff of Baghdad University. On June 29, 100 of them signed a petition seeking their reinstatement. The document was then sent to Bremer. They wrote: "Every individual has the right to enjoy human rights, without political, gender or religious exceptions."

They ended with a call for their request to be considered "in a humanitarian spirit" according "to the legal, moral rule that the accused is innocent until proven guilty". Al-Rifa'i believes de-Baathification is a "collective punishment" that contravenes the Geneva Convention.

I ask him why he stayed in the party when he could see that it was killing his country. He is apologetic, embarrassed: "We kept hoping that something would change. I thought we might be able to fight from within.

"I believed in an ideology that no longer existed, whose leader contravened all its principles," he says. "I still have a strong ideological commitment to Baathism - in Arab unity, and a kind of British Labour Party socialism.

And I still stand against American globalisation. The US has never shown us Arabs any kind of moral justice. But we were torn between anti-imperialism and a bastard. Saddam, the man I hated, stood against America, the power I hated."

Colleagues regard al-Rifa'i as a principled man. He was dean of the faculty of engineering for three years in the early 1980s. But he was sacked for expelling Lu'ay Khairallah, a cousin of Uday Hussein, Saddam's eldest son, who had hospitalised his professor for failing him in an exam.

Jihane, the politically independent half-American departmental coordinator, tells me that al-Rifa'i, because he himself was a Baathist, "got me out of endless trouble, and he stalled pressure on us having to join".

She feels that the Americans have yet to meet any of Iraq's "real intellectuals". "Erdmann is surrounded by advisers who know nothing about academic life here," Jihane says. She argues that it was the lower ranked Baathists and not the senior members who were often the real bullies.

This was the experience of Isam Hikmat, my driver. Like every undergraduate, he took a mandatory patriotic studies course. "In my first year, the teacher kept us in class and threatened that we wouldn't leave until we had all signed up to the party," he recalls. Just three of the 16 resisted, and the teacher would have expected a reward for the new recruits.

Such careerist individuals contrast with the old Baathists, who include many professors. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the educated urban middle classes joined the party to check the communists' rising power. But once in, it was difficult to leave. Al-Rifa'i admits that after 1990 it was almost impossible to resign without incurring opprobrium. "You had two options: remain a Baathist or flee. I stayed. I had a family to think of."

The new dean of the humanities faculty at Baghdad University is Bahjat Kamil Abd-al Latif al-Tikriti, a former student of the Islamic historian Montgomery Watt at Edinburgh University. He is one of the few who did resign from the party after the invasion of Kuwait, and as punishment he was demoted from his position as president of Basra University.

Al-Tikriti was elected dean on May 18 after his predecessor, Qahtan Abu-Nasiri, a firqah -level Baathist, was sacked. The two were close friends, and Abu-Nasiri was popular with most of the faculty. "We have all suffered tremendously by losing these staff," he says. "Many of them were real presences in their field. They should all come back and teach. If they then do something wrong, we have laws that can deal with them."

Academics had become adept at resisting the politicisation of education, al-Tikriti says. Curricula were written by committees of academic advisers, and until the UN sanctions, they were recognised as the most advanced in the Middle East, he says. "Some Baathists did try to infiltrate and put pressure on us, but with little success," he says.

When al-Tikriti talks of such Baathists, he clearly excludes Abu-Nasiri.

For him, there is a difference between Baathists in thought - those who held to Aflaq's ideology - and Baathists in deed, Saddam's brutes. But Erdmann, a tall, all-American in his mid-30s with a Harvard PhD on Conceptions of Victory in 20th-Century American Foreign Policy, insists: "You can't separate the ideology from Saddam's implementation of it."

Long before May 16, Erdmann had been given directives to exclude high-ranking Baathists. "Part of the concern was symbolically cutting the ties to the old regime, and part of it was practical: some of these guys were just bad at their jobs," he says. Erdmann is ambivalent about the way the Baathists are being removed - he says he might have done it differently - but adds: "The more I see, the more I'm convinced that there's a need for a clean break with the past. Look at what Baathism did. If you want a real education system, you've just got to get it out."

Erdmann believes that it was possible to fight the good fight, noting that nearly half the ministry's department heads were not Baathist. Nor were some of the deans. "A lot of people with the option to leave stayed and rode it out," he says. He feels he has done the Baathists a favour.

"Imagine those student youths mobilising against, say, al-Rawi. We'd been thinking about that from before the invasion. We were ahead of the curve in removing the leadership from the main institutions and preventing riots against them."

I spend a morning at the political science faculty. Pictures of Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr, martyr and spiritual leader of millions of Iraqi Shias, adorn the walls of the cafeteria. Beside them, the Union of Free Students has posted calls for more demonstrations against US soldiers on campus.

Everyone wants to talk - it's the novelty of it. Among the seven or so students who sit with me, there is not one shared opinion. Some want monarchy, others swear by the republic. While they disdain the various political pretenders of today, they have no sense of an alternative. There is relish - savage and vengeful - at the Baath Party's demise, as well as calls for clemency, and despair from one girl called Alia. "They [Baathists] are surviving. That's our greatest tragedy. They're being rewarded for their services just like they were under Saddam," she says.

Then they ask me if I want to talk to a Baathist. To my great surprise, a young man sitting behind me volunteers. Qusay Abd al-Aziz Mohsen al-Salem is , and named after Saddam's youngest son. He is articulate and speaks in gunshot soundbites. "Of course life was better under Saddam. He was a nationalist, a patriot, and he was Iraqi. He fought for the interests of our country. We do not accept occupation. We will continue to fight. As for mass graves, they are like weapons of mass destruction - an American lie."

Qusay sees himself as a true Iraqi and a victim of the occupation.

De-Baathification fuels that perception and makes common cause between former party members, turning them into a recognisable entity rather than letting them slip, anonymously, into the new system. As al-Muthaffar says, "this does nothing to help unify the country."

All the professors I speak to say the same thing, even Jamal Abaych, the supremely diplomatic director of Baghdad University's cultural relations department. "The coalition has got this wrong," he says. "It should try the Baathists case by case. In the universities, you'll find that most of them helped each other before they helped the regime. Those who didn't should, of course, be punished - but tried in court first."

The high-level Baathists now excluded from their university posts were complicit in the evils of the regime. Most of them, however, were complicit only in silence. The Baathist ideology to which many of them subscribed was never implemented. Erdmann himself concedes: "Most Baathists didn't really buy the ideology anyway."

Banning the party in universities means banning an idea, not a political process. It wrongfully decorates Saddam with an ideology. It flatters him, legitimises him as a political symbol. It allows Qusay to think he stands for something more than an old regime that rewarded his loyalty. Surely that is the last thing the coalition must have hoped for.

There is a love poem by Nizar Qabbani, one of the 20th century's most popular Arab poets. It begins:

"She sat. Fear was in her eyes.
Raising my upturned coffee cup,
She said: 'Child, don't cry,
Love will find you. It is written.'"

In Iraq, fortune tellers read the future in coffee grounds. I quote the poem to the woman in the Starlight Cafe who had been demonstrating against the sacking of her Baathist college administrator. I pick up her cup and ask what she sees in the future. Carefully, believing, she looks then turns to me: "Tension, death and lies." De-Baathification won't have challenged her pessimism.

Turi Munthe is a writer and editor. He is the author of The Saddam Hussein Reader, published by Thunders Mouth Press last year (£11.42).

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