MESA, AAUP, and AAAS statement of concern about the dangers facing academic life in Iraq

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are profoundly concerned about the dangers facing academic life in Iraq today. 

Virtually every Iraqi institution of higher education is at risk. Universities, colleges and research institutions operate under severe political duress and without adequate resources, transparent funding mechanisms, or the civil and legal protections needed to nurture and promote a vibrant intellectual climate and civil society.

Iraq’s intellectual and academic community, long oppressed by the highly restrictive and paranoid policies of Saddam Hussein’s government, have been unable to recover in the pervasive atmosphere of lawlessness and political violence that has followed the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of the country. All campuses and scientific institutions suffered heavily from the months of looting that followed the collapse of the former régime. Professors have been threatened, harmed, and assassinated because of their actual or alleged political affiliations, or because they failed to respond positively to demands of students for special treatment. Communities of students are becoming politicized in a way that threatens the institutionalization of tolerance and the protection of intellectual diversity.

As North American-based professional academic and scientific associations, we wish to register our grave alarm at this state of affairs. With this statement we also pledge our determination to take steps, together and with colleague organizations, to promote programs and policies in Iraq and on behalf of the international community of scholars and researchers that will positively address this disturbing situation. 

Iraq’s universities were once considered to be among the best in the developing world. Iraqi students enjoyed an excellent educational system and often traveled abroad to complete their training. Iraqi professors, medical doctors and other professionals could be found at institutions of higher learning, hospitals and research centers not just in Arab countries, but throughout the world. However, Saddam Hussein’s consolidation of state power in the late 1970s and early 1980s, transformed Iraq into a police state that denied intellectual, academic and political freedoms, as well as most basic human rights. Systems of learning and research were thoroughly controlled by the Ba`th party, and party membership became almost essential for those seeking academic rank and tenure, access to research support, and travel abroad. Nevertheless, Iraqi scholars could travel abroad only with great difficulty and those who did so were considered suspect thereafter. Intellectual and professional academic exchanges became virtually extinct for a generation of Iraqi scholars and academics. More often, Iraqi intellectuals have left the country altogether, contributing to a drain of experts, teachers and researchers that continues and represents a crippling loss of intellectual capacity for the country and the region. The threat of violence and the prevalence of insecurity have contributed to the fact that more than a thousand Iraqi professors have left Iraq, by some accounts, and many others have indicated their intention to leave for Arab countries or the West.

Iraq’s war with Iran also drained resources and students from higher education. The former government’s drive to acquire nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the 1980s led to the militarization of academic science and research, with the result that most areas of higher education were starved to support specialized institutions.

This wartime impoverishment was aggravated by the comprehensive economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Aside from the resource shortages that resulted, these sanctions left little or no room for foreign institutions and academics to exchange information and ideas with their Iraqi counterparts. Nor did they permit any exceptions for subscriptions to, or even donations of, journals and books. Thus, even if they had had the hard currency to do so, Iraqi universities and other higher learning institutions could not import journals or educational technology. 

Today, more than a year after the overthrow of the former government by U.S.-led coalition forces, the dictatorship is gone but in most other respects the situation has only deteriorated. Nearly every campus and academic institution experienced losses during the weeks of systematic looting that followed the collapse of the former government. In some cases the losses were limited to easily replaceable items like computers, but others, including the National Library and Archives, were devastated. Items ranging from simple desks and blackboards to relatively sophisticated laboratory equipment were plundered, along with books and academic records. Many institutions now lack the sheer physical wherewithal for teaching and research. Iraqi deans have told MESA that little rebuilding and redevelopment has been accomplished since the invasion.

Even more alarming is a climate that imperils free inquiry and the free exchange of ideas. Educators were among those dismissed arbitrarily in the “de-Ba`thification” drive decreed by the Coalition Provisional Authority. (It is not known what effect-if any- the subsequent reversal of this policy has had on universities and institutes.) Violence and threats of violence affecting academics have multiplied. We are aware of reports of more than 200 incidents, including killings, directed against academic officials and professors. A statement by the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights in early October 2004 said that 78 university professors were among the approximately three thousand Iraqis killed in the immediately post-war violence.

Not all of these killings were politically motivated, but many were. Some, if not most, of such politically-motivated killings took the form of vendettas against academic officials who were ranking members in the ruling Ba`th party. One such case was the murder of the dean of Mosul University’s law school, Layla Abdallah Said, in June 2004. Other such attacks have been mounted against professors known to be critical of the former government, such as Abd al-Latif al Mayyah, a dean of political studies at al-Mustansiriyya University, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in January 2004 after having criticized Saddam Hussein’s policies in a television appearance. The fact that most of these attacks have taken place not on campuses but at the homes or outside offices of the victims does not mitigate the extreme “chilling effect” they have on both academics and public intellectuals. Under such threats the possibilities for open debate and discussion of pressing issues are sharply reduced. A spokesman for the University Teachers Association told Al-Hayat in late September 2004 that more than 400 teachers had received threats of harm. Some Iraqis have expressed fear that the killings of academics and other professionals may be a replay of the phase of killings in Algeria that aimed at eliminating or at least silencing the intelligentsia as a class.

Another source of threat to teachers and professors are students. A dean at Baghdad University showed a reporter a stack of threatening letters, some with bullets taped to them. Some of these were politically motivated—complaining for instance about the Ba`thist background of a teacher. Others were aimed at ensuring that the student received passing grades, sometimes citing the lack of electricity and the difficulties of attending classes to justify the demand. Campuses, moreover, are becoming increasingly politicized, and many students have aligned themselves with existing Iraqi political parties and tendencies. Political activism is on the rise and along with it increased opportunities for educators to teach and vividly illustrate the importance of protecting civil and political rights. Unfortunately, at the same time, administrators have felt compelled to resist demands for student government elections. 

Prior to the first Gulf war, a large proportion of Iraq’s university professors were women, and female students made up approximately half of all campus populations. There are now growing signs that women's access to higher education may be at risk as a consequence of civil disorder and  religious polarization. We urge authorities in Iraq to take special measures to monitor equal access to higher education and the role of women professors and teachers. Likewise faculty exchange and educational assistance programs must insure that their efforts take into account these threats to women's participation.

We share the concern of many Iraqi colleagues with the increasing political, religious and ethnic polarization of the country, the growing sectarian character of political violence, the formation of militias, and the appearance of death squads of different political inclinations. These developments imperil the possibilities of genuine academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. Professors and university administrators know that it is not possible, or even desirable, to assign security details to each threatened individual. We nonetheless urge the Interim Iraqi Government and the U.S.-led coalition forces to do their utmost to protect Iraq’s academic institutions and professionals as essential components for building democratic practice and a viable civil society in Iraq.

The removal of the old régime has certainly contributed to the potential realization of academic freedom and enquiry on Iraq’s campuses, as well as greater access to new technologies for teaching, learning and conducting research. Academics now can travel abroad without fear of reprisal. Still, the manifold threats of increasing religious and political polarization, civil disorder, and the manifest indifference to the needs of Iraq’s academic community on the part of the United States government and the international donor community render these gains extremely vulnerable.

The failure of the CPA to adequately fund programs for university rebuilding and revitalization must be redressed. Billions of dollars are needed to rebuild Iraq’s system of higher education, but only US $10 million has been put aside for reconstruction. Furthermore, the overtly partisan nature of the CPA's management of Iraq's higher education prior to June 30. 2004, hindered the creation of more than just a handful of independent programs linking US colleges and universities, and there are almost no bi-lateral and multi-lateral relationships between American and Iraqi institutions and professional societies. 

The violations of freedom of expression and academic freedom that we see today in Iraq do not come mainly from state authorities or, for the most part, from identifiable political organizations. In other words, there is at the moment at least no "address" to which we can protest or make recommendations.

We nevertheless wish to alert our colleagues in the academic and in the scientific and research communities, here and elsewhere, and the larger public, to the grave difficulties faced by academics and intellectuals in Iraq. It is also crucial to lay the groundwork for viable collegial exchange between Iraq and the international academic community. We pledge greater efforts to monitor this situation, to gather and disseminate information about developments in this area, to advocate on behalf of our Iraqi colleagues with the U.S. and other governments as well as within our own institutions and communities, and to promote supportive ties between professional and scholarly institutions in our countries and their Iraqi counterparts as a contribution to the promotion of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.

Note: The information in this statement comes from articles in The Independent (July 14, 2004), The Globe and Mail (June 23, 2004), Al-Hayat (September 25, 2004), Financial Times (September 6, 2004); Keith Watenpaugh, “Between Saddam and the American Occupation: Iraq’s Academic Community Struggles for Autonomy,”  Academe (September-October 2004), pp. 18-24; Opening the Doors: Intellectual Life and Academic Conditions in Post-War Baghdad (; and reports from MESA members to the MESA Secretariat and Committee on Academic Freedom.


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