Iraq's Intellectual Tragedy

By Matthew Schweitzer

Professor Saad Jawad is no stranger to the hardships Iraq’s academic community has endured. So when, after having taught for thirty years at the University of Baghdad, he says that Saddam Hussein’s collapse destroyed intellectual free speech in Iraq, it pays to listen. Since the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s intelligentsia have been targeted by sectarian killing squads. Amongst the violence after the invasion, these killings still stand out for their selectivity. Iraq’s intellectuals have been sidelined amidst the fog of war, and their absence is felt throughout Iraq’s political system today. To overcome the incredible challenges facing the current Iraqi government, Baghdad needs to welcome and protect this community.

Professor Jawad, once a prominent member of the opposition to the ruling Ba’ath Party and currently a Senior Fellow the LSE’s Middle East Centre, remembers that Saddam Hussein “always consulted, in times of crisis, non-Ba’ath academics. We said what we wanted, as long as we were not personally critical of Saddam or his sons”. This limited freedom of speech evaporated after the invasion. Between 2004-2008, the situation grew so dangerous that hundreds of Iraqi scientists, university lecturers, and scholars - including Jawad - fled abroad.

The western invasion fractured Iraqi society along sectarian lines. In this environment, Jawad says, “anyone could be assassinated for a simple reason”. The Kurds might assassinate someone who criticized their political legitimacy. Shia or Sunni groups might murder someone who criticised one of their twelve religious leaders or personalities.

Although reports vary slightly, lists compiled by The Independent, The Guardian, and the independent BRussells Tribunal in conjunction with Ghent University each indicate that by 30 April 2012, between 470 and 500 academics had been killed (although The Guardian recorded only deaths in Basra and Baghdad). These assassinations, combined with the draining effects of the western sanctions in the 1990s - during which salaries for Iraqi professors dropped to US$10-15 and academic materials like textbooks were prohibited - have leached the country of its most important asset.

A 2005 United Nations University report concluded that 84 per cent of Iraq’s education institutions had been looted, burnt, or destroyed; only a fraction have since been rebuilt. By 2008, the Iraqi Ministry of Education recorded 31,598 violent attacks against universities and schools across the country. Today, reports the BRussells Tribunal, “one in five Iraqis between the ages of 10 and 49 cannot read or write a simple statement related to everyday life”. Iraq’s illiteracy rates are some of the highest in the region, and according to a 2012 Bertelsmann Stiftung’s (BTI) report, Iraq Transformation Index, the Iraq Interior Ministry has admitted that over 9,000 fake university degrees were purchased by prominent civil servants.

Iraq’s former domestic intellectual capital no longer exists. The effects of this “brain drain” are now becoming increasingly apparent in Iraq’s government, no more poignantly than with regards to the national constitution. Throughout the drafting process in 2005, there was little effort to consult Iraqi specialists. Jawad, among a small group of other Iraqi intellectuals, was invited only twice by the US to Amman, Jordan, to discuss the document. “Those of us who were invited were all very critical of the people who wrote the constitution”, Jawad explains. At the end of these two meetings only one person was picked up as an expert to help draft the document: Nicholas Fink Haysom, a South African.            

The product has subsequently been described by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as “a minefield”. The drafters, wishing to appease all sects, created more problems than they solved. “One paragraph might support the first side of a debate,” says Jawad, “and the next one will be in favor of the exact opposite view”. For sidelined intellectuals, the result was unsurprising. 

Iraq’s leadership now faces the prospect of creating stability following the withdrawal of US combat troops in 2011. One of its highest orders of business should be protecting and incentivizing the return of intellectuals to national universities, once the finest such centres in the Arab World. The constitutional debacle is ample proof that a thriving intellectual class must be incorporated into Iraqi politics, to provide a balancing, non-sectarian opinion.

To protect the country’s intellectual capital, the Iraqi police needs to guard universities and the people who work and study in them. To date, western efforts to train and advise Iraq’s security forces have met mixed results in the face of determined Al-Qaeda offensives. A shift in priorities towards providing academics with safe transportation, university campuses, and housing (perhaps at some of the sprawling American consulates spread throughout the country, like the US$750 million complex in Baghdad) could be a far more cost-effective way to jumpstart the political conversation Iraq needs. Increased salaries and financial assistance to establish tenured positions are also important. Above all, western diplomats should pressure Maliki’s government to regard intellectuals as partners, not enemies.

The challenge is great. On 2 July 2012, the National Iraqi News Agency noted that Dr. Mohammad Jasim Al-Juboury of Imam Adham College at Mosul University was shot dead by a group of unidentified gunmen near his home. Although his death earned barely half a page of type, it shows that the targeting of Iraq’s intellectuals remains an ongoing crisis.

The 2003 invasion promised intellectual freedom and safety to academics. For Iraq to achieve a logical and effective government, leaders in Baghdad and the West should renew their commitment to that pledge. 


Matthew Schweitzer is Dean’s Scholar at the University of Chicago, and the founding editor of The Post-War Watch, an online repository of original analysis about the legacy of Western operations in the Middle East and the region’s future. 


16 August 2012