The war on intellectuals claims lives and hope

November 24, 2006

With assassination a daily threat, Iraq's academy is collapsing. It desperately needs support, says Sami Ramadani.

If the police "cannot protect themselves, how can they protect us?" Khalid Al-Judi, the dean of a Baghdad university, asked some two years ago. An even more disturbing question was raised by last week's mass kidnapping from the research directorate of the Ministry of Higher Education: if the police themselves are turning on Iraq's academics, can anyone offer them protection?

Controversy surrounds the assassins of some 300 of Iraq's academics since the 2003 invasion. Four months before Professor Al-Judi asked his question, he had a brush with death, having been shot while driving to a degree ceremony. Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn was unable to see him in hospital but spoke to his bodyguard. He described being overtaken by a General Motors four-wheel-drive vehicle filled with men in flak jackets carrying American rifles. One opened fire as the vehicle overtook Professor Al-Judi's car. Mr Cockburn noted: "A GMC with the windows down so the men inside can shoot quickly usually indicates former soldiers working for a foreign security company. They were as likely to be South African or British as American."

South African? Yes, because foreign security companies, most of them contracted to the Pentagon, have recruited fighters from the old apartheid state, Chile, Israel and elsewhere. More than 50,000 such mercenaries operate throughout Iraq, earning up to $1,000 (£528) per day. All were placed outside Iraqi jurisdiction by Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, in one of his final decrees.

But whoever is behind the killings, the disturbing reality is that Iraq's leading academics and scientists are being systematically liquidated or hounded out of the country. They are men and women; Kurd, Arab and Turkoman; Shia, Sunni and Christian; believer and atheist alike. The backgrounds of those killed reflect Iraq's thousands-of-years-old mosaic, but the land of Mesopotamia has never before experienced anything resembling such rigorously indiscriminate brutality towards its intellectuals and academics.

There are glib and lazy explanations about the "sectarian conflict" in Iraq, but the historical reality is that such differences never descended into communal killing and destruction. Today's mayhem, despite its depiction by officials as a sectarian tit for tat, is no exception. Most Iraqis, including academics, perceive the violence gripping the land as a product of the occupation and think that it could be drastically reduced and brought under control only after the occupying forces depart. A recent opinion survey conducted by the University of Maryland confirms these attitudes. About two thirds of all Iraqis, including a significant Kurdish minority, support armed resistance to the occupation, while 100 per cent "disapprove" or "strongly disapprove" (97 per cent) of terrorism.

Like all other public-service institutions, the educational system faces disintegration. The post-invasion looting of most universities, the burning of ancient and modern libraries and the destruction visited on humanity's cultural heritage in museums and historic sites have dealt the educational system an almost fatal blow. Even so, Iraq's strongly anti-occupation intelligentsia has persevered in trying to save Iraq's cultural and historic foundations. But the assassinations, kidnappings and threats are forcing thousands of academics, doctors and scientists to flee the country.

Not even Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship succeeded in spreading so much indiscriminate terror among such people.

The exodus of the academics and professionals threatens Iraq's universities and teaching hospitals with collapse. What will remain will be no more than facades and emblems. It is ironic that the proponents of the "clash of civilisations" are presiding over the destruction of one of humanity's cradles of civilisation, learning and knowledge.

Britain's academic institutions should be particularly concerned by the events in Iraq. And not only because the British Government joined in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Many of the assassinated academics, scientists and others fleeing the country graduated from British universities, which regard them as "lifelong members". These institutions have a moral duty to remember the dead and to defend the living among these "associates". Academics, staff and student unions could help to highlight the plight of colleagues in Iraq and indeed the plight of the Iraqi people as a whole.

Sami Ramadani is a senior lecturer in applied sociology at London Metropolitan University and a political exile from Saddam Hussein's regime.

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