Students Into Iraqis: The Politics of Education in Ba’athist Iraq

By Christiana Parreira
Submitted to Session P4994 (Schooling the Nation: the Politics of Education in Historical Perspective, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Development; Education; Identity/Representation; State Formation;
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What motivates authoritarian regimes to provide social services? Scholarship examining the logic of distributive politics in non-democratic contexts often conceptualizes these services as a form of rent allocation to a narrow group of elite cronies. Only very recently has scholarly work looked at how state-society relations in autocracies – and transformations therein – facilitate the development of social welfare policies.

This article investigates the provision of education in Iraq under Ba’ath Party rule (1968-2003) to elucidate the logic of social services in an authoritarian context. First, it theorizes that the Ba’athist regime understood education as a means of both economic modernization and coercive political control. Throughout decades of Ba’ath Party rule, rapid expansion of the education sector and strict rules regarding school attendance were coupled with the banning of private education and the restriction of teaching opportunities to party members. Accounts of schooling during this time stress the permutation of Ba’athist ideology into every aspect of curriculum. Cumulatively, these reforms led to a school system aimed at shaping both the economic prospects and political orientation of the average Iraqi. In keeping with these observations, the paper hypothesizes that the regime maintained a particular interest in the education of sub-national enclaves of vocal, sometimes violent opposition to its rule.

Next, the article presents a series of statistical tests in support of these claims. This analysis centers on an armed rebellion against the regime in 1991, occurring in some Kurdish and Shia areas, that almost resulted in its expulsion from power. It relies on a previously untapped spatial dataset of all educational institutions that existed in Iraq as of 2003, the year the Ba’athist regime was overthrown, in addition to district-level demographic and social surveys conducted in 2003-2004 by the Iraqi government. It shows that while other variables remained relatively constant, districts that participated in the 1991 uprising saw lower student-teacher ratios than areas that remained loyal. This finding is robust to additional tests, and starkly contrasts with the notion that authoritarian regimes punish restive areas by denying them high-quality public services.

This paper contributes to work on regime survival and distributive politics in authoritarian contexts. Using subnational analysis, it contributes evidence that autocratic regimes understand welfare provision to be more than a means of reward and punishment, but rather a unique way to simultaneously ground their power in socioeconomic progress and ideological influence.