The slaughter of Iraq's intellectuals

From the archive (legacy material)

Andrew Rubin | New Statesman | 6 September 2004

Since the occupation began, some 200 leading Iraqi academics, most of them in the humanities and social sciences, have been killed. Is the CIA responsible? 
Control, intimidation, and even murder of Iraqi intellectuals, professors, lecturers and teachers has become more or less systematic since the US-led invasion of Iraq began in March 2003. Under the subsequent occupation, initially governed by a body called the Coalition Provisional Authority, US military officials dismissed many Iraqi intellectuals from university positions, often on spurious grounds; and a surprisingly large number fell victim to assassination. The Union of Iraqi Lecturers believes that roughly 200 have been killed, and estimates by various professors in Iraq back up this figure.
Intellectuals, professors, lecturers and teachers are being assassinated on what seems to be almost a regular basis.
To date, the CPA has neither investigated the deaths nor made a single arrest, despite its penchant for rounding up young Iraqis and treating them in barbaric ways in Saddam Hussein’s for- mer prison of choice, Abu Ghraib. A US defence department spokesman, when asked recently about assassinations among the Iraqi intelligentsia, dismissed the matter as simply “obscure”. The Iraqi interim government, installed and hand-picked by the United States, has done nothing and said nothing about it. With the exception of a few courageous individuals such as Saad Jawad, a senior professor of political science at the University of Baghdad, people are unwilling to speak out publicly. When a former doctoral student of Jawad’s was killed at the University of Mosul, Jawad’s colleagues refused to sign a petition supporting a strike. The political forces active in Iraqi society are becoming more fractured, more factional, more sectarian, and more ethnically absolutist.
One university president and several deans have been murdered. What is most striking is that many of those killed since the occupation began were trained not in the physical sciences, but in fields such as the soft sciences and the humanities. In other words, they were not being murdered by loyalists to Saddam Hussein for knowing something about any possible weapons of mass destruction programme. Instead they were, and are, professors of subjects such as French literature, history and the law, where the discussion about conflict can be converted into the conditions for reconciliation.
There is much speculation about who is responsible for these killings. Some allege it is Mossad, the Israeli secret service, which obviously has an interest in a weak and possibly theocratic Iraq – the better to declare Arabs undemocratically minded terrorists. (“It’s not personal; it’s business,” one professor in Baghdad says of Mossad’s possible motives.)
Denis Halliday, a former assistant secretary-general of the UN, has wondered aloud whether this is the work of anti-secular fundamentalists hoping to recruit students to the madrasas and to the tenets of Islamist fundamentalism. Others have pointed to militias such as those commanded by Ahmad Chalabi, once favoured by the Pentagon. At the same time, some allege these are acts of revenge and fury over grades from disgruntled students, now armed, along with the entire civil society, with weapons that the US sold to Iraq without reservation less than two decades ago.
Part of the process of dismis- sing Iraqi intellectuals, professors and lecturers was known as de-Ba’athification: with the exception of a few returned exiles, former Ba’ath Party members make up the vast majority of professors in postwar Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, all professors who wished to keep their job were required to join the Ba’ath Party. Yet the US repression of academics was less about protecting academic freedom than a kind of American McCarthyism abroad.
One must ask whether there is a concerted effort to undermine a secular democratic foundation in Iraq’s universities; after all, the prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is himself a former Ba’athist and murderer. According to Robert Dreyfuss, writing in the American Prospect, $3bn of the $87bn going to Iraq has been allotted to fund covert CIA paramilitary operations there, which, if the CIA’s historical record is to be consulted, are likely to include extrajudicial killings and assassinations.
Not that the curriculum under Saddam Hussein was ever a source of a radical renewal that could have actually provided the conditions for the emergence of a secular, moral and democratic leadership. Known as “Arab culture and socialism”, the four-year undergraduate humanities course was a brain-numbing, chauvinistic and hyper-nationalist occasion for unrestrained celebration of Ba’athism, elevating the writings of party theoreticians to canonical heights. Like many other universities in countries of the Arab and developing world, Iraq’s academic institutions, after years of rule by the Ottomans, followed by British and French colonisation, were fundamental to the modern reinvention of national identity. In Egypt, for example, the curriculum underwent a process of Arabisation after the revolution of 1952. Similarly, modern standard Arabic became the official language of Algeria, a former French colony, only in 1962, and for the first time could be uttered outside the mosques.
Yet despite the tyranny exercised over Iraqi society by Saddam Hussein, the university classroom was (some professors often claim) a relatively autonomous space for learning and instruction, where professors, lecturers and students could be openly critical. They could even criticise the government, so long as they never mentioned Saddam personally, or his two sons. Even today, the textbooks retain the same content, altered only by the elimination of images of Saddam and his sons.
Whoever is directly responsible for the dangers facing Iraq’s institutions of learning and its educators, the situation seriously threatens the emergence of a secular, moral and democratic leadership from within Iraq. If such a society is to emerge from beneath the scars caused by years of sanctions, from the rubble left by a remorseless and mendaciously justified war, intellectuals are the best and, in my opinion, the only chance of enabling Iraq to realise its human capabilities.
Without the intelligentsia, the US and its allies will continue abrogating to themselves the right to determine the form that Iraq’s universities and knowledge should assume. It is vital for the future of the country that Iraq maintain the separation between the university and political society.
Andrew N Rubin, assistant professor of English literature at Georgetown University, US, is the director of the International Coalition of Academics Against Occupation ( []) and the author of a forthcoming book, Archives of Authority
Victims of unknown assassins
Among the scores of senior academics who have been killed since the start of the western occupation are:
Muhammad al-Rawi, president of the University of Baghdad; Dr Abdul-Latif al-Mayah, professor of political science at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University; Dr Nafa Aboud, a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Baghdad; Dr Sabri al-Bayati, a geographer at the University of Baghdad; Dr Falah al-Dulaimi, assistant dean of college at Mustansiriyah University; Dr Hissam Sharif, from the history department of the University of Baghdad; Professor Wajih Mahjoub of the College of Physical Education; Professor Sabah Mahmoud, ex-dean of the Education College, Mustansiriyah University; Professor Abdul Jabbar Mustafa, head of the politics department at Mosul University, Dr Layla Abdul Jabbar, dean of the Faculty of Law in Mosul (and her husband); Dr Ali Abdul Husain Jabok, of the College of Political Science at the University of Baghdad.