Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Teaching tyranny

Imad Khadduri* on the shattering of the Iraqi education system, yet again

It is a well established fact that Iraq's ancient civilisations have significantly contributed to the development of human culture since the dawn of history.

From the first codified laws of Babylon's King Hammurabi (now on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris) to the first inscribed proof of Pythagoras Theorem etched on a baked clay tablet that predates Pythagoras by many centuries, Iraq has played a key role in education with Baghdad evolving as a centre of learning well before the Middle Ages.

It was in Iraq that the first university in the world -- Al-Mustansiriyah School -- was established in 1227. Its building was intact and well preserved, until the US-led invasion; it suffered -- as the rest of Iraq's historical and cultural sites -- destruction and negligence.

Thousands of students in science, literature and religious studies had graduated from Al-Mustansiriyah School. The school led the valuable translation campaign of the Greek and Roman scientific and philosophical achievements that spurred the Western revival.

The scourge of the Mongol invasion in 1258 destroyed Baghdad's canal network (American aerial bombardments in 1991 and 2003 similarly destroyed Iraq's industrial and health infrastructure) and sacked and burned its schools and libraries. Ink spilled from destroyed books turned the Tigris River's water into blue colour.

The Mongols slaughtered 80,000 men, women and children -- a scenario that has been unfolding in Iraq since 2003. Illiteracy and cultural darkness befell Baghdad and other cities of Iraq under Ottoman occupation for the next several centuries.

Hence, at the turn of the last century (1900), Iraqi professionals were a rare breed. Save for the learned religious elders and their schools near the holy shrines and mosques, there were no Iraqi doctors, pharmacists, engineers, science teachers and other professionals. There were only a few elementary schools, run by members of the Iraqi Jewish and Christian communities, a few linguistic and historic scholars and a few newspapers.

During the Turkish-Ottoman rule, some Iraqi officers were sent to Turkey for further studies in order to join the Ottoman army. The officers began to trickle back to Baghdad during WWI and especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which was member of the axis. Those officers formed the backbone of the Iraqi state that began to take shape during the 1920s under the auspices of the British colonial rule.

Education quickly became a prime objective to the emerging state, as the nascent government's organisations were keen to assign Iraqis civil positions. A programme was implemented to send Iraqi students on government scholarships to the UK and the US.

The first PhD holders returned from the UK in the early 1930s. Coinciding with that, many well-to-do Iraqi families also sent their sons and daughters to the American University of Beirut to obtain their professional BSc degrees.

In the ensuing few decades, thousands of government scholarships were granted to the students who achieved high scores in the state-wide high school Baccalaureate examination which was administered uniformly all over Iraq, including all major and minor cities.

Notably, the selection of the qualified students was based on academic achievement and was decidedly non-sectarian. The tempo of sending Iraqi students abroad for graduate studies gained momentum in the 1950s and into the 1970s, especially after the nationalising of Iraq's oil in 1971. The momentum faltered as a result of the financial difficulties resulting from the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and was further disfigured by giving undue weight to Baath Party nominees, despite their relatively poor academic achievement, such as the case of ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi.

Iraq's education system took into consideration the necessity to diversify the sources of knowledge and academic experience. The higher education scholarships were not any more restricted to the US and the UK. Qualified students were sent to educational institutions to other centres of learning such as in the Soviet Union, France, and Eastern Europe.

The government scholarship programme provided Iraq with thousands of professionals who returned to Iraq from abroad and formed the cornerstone of Iraq's relatively high-quality educational system, which attracted many Arab students from neighbouring Arab states to finish their university studies in Iraq. It is worth mentioning, since the revolution of 1958 which abolished the monarchy in Iraq; education in Iraq has been free for Iraqis and non-Iraqi Arabs, up to and including university level.

Those scientists and engineers, backed by political resolve, also spearheaded the strident advances in Iraq's scientific and technical achievements. By the end of the 1970s, and as a result of a concerted political determination, the literacy rate, for both men and woman, reached more than 90 per cent.

However, two decades of wars followed by 13-year severe economic sanctions (1990-2003) left Iraq's education system in disrepair, enrolment dropped, and literacy levels stagnated. Iraq's adult literacy rate is now one of the lowest in all Arab countries.

The dilapidating impact of the sanctions on the education and research capabilities in Iraq can best be exemplified by the UN banning Iraq from importing scientific or technical text books, periodicals and journals. Iraqi academics and professionals were intentionally isolated from scientific development for 13 years, by an international organisation.

The rate of deterioration and fragmentation of the Iraqi education system was compounded by two major insidious outcomes in the aftermath of the American-led occupation that resulted in the looting and destruction of 84 per cent of Iraqi universities; the liquidation of university professors and the implementation of sectarian attitudes and practices among students.

As early as mid-April, 2003, one month after the 2003 invasion, a number of Iraqi scientists and university professors sent an SOS e-mail to the international community warning that the American occupation forces were threatening their lives.

Later that month, a retired French general told the French TV Channel 5 on April 18 that some 150 Israeli commandoes are currently inside Iraq on a mission to assassinate 500 Iraqi scientists.

A year later, in October 2004, in a seminar held in Cairo, it was reported that more than 310 Iraqi scientists are thought to have perished at the hands of Israeli secret agents in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad to US troops in April 2003. The experts said they had detected an organised campaign aimed at "liquidating Iraqi scientists" in the past 18 months and most of them pointed the finger at the Israeli secret police service, the Mossad.

Recent concerted effort to document these killings by the Brussels Tribunal has managed, so far, to state: "Even according to conservative estimates, over 250 educators have been assassinated, and many hundreds more have disappeared." An incomplete list details 168 of them. Nobody has yet been apprehended for any of these killings.

Among the students, sectarianism has further cast a pall on university campuses.

"Deans and university officials usually turn a blind eye to sectarian rallies and banners raised by students, and allow students to hold religious ceremonies on campuses, which entrench sectarianism,' said Ahmed Al-Hamawi, a member of the self-styled League of Youths and Students.

"Are you a Sunni or a Shia?" has become a basic question Iraqi students ask each other nowadays. "When my son tries to make friends with classmates, they first ask him whether he is a Sunni or a Shia. We never experienced such sectarianism before the US-led occupation," fumed the father of a student at Basra University.

Many Iraqi students who have recently graduated from universities are flocking to immigrate instead of expending their talents and efforts in Iraq as unemployment soars.

The haemorrhage of the educational system in Iraq is severe, and no American band-aid would suffice. The most apparent contribution of the American "educational consultants' that were attached to the Education Ministry that resulted in contracts awarded to American institutions to revamp the educational textbooks was to eradicate any mention of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party, remove references to Iraqi soldiers defending Iraq, replace the word Zionists by Jews and reduce the mention of Palestine and its occupation.

Just as the returning of Iraqi officers from defeated Turkey during World War I, so there are now many Iraqi professionals abroad who would be ready to seed the second revitalisation of Iraq's educational system for the coming generations.

But this has become impossible under an American occupation concerned more for its own security in Iraq than the legitimate interests of the Iraqi people.

* Imad Khadduri is Iraqi nuclear scientist who worked for the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission and a former educator in Iraq.

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