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AAAS to Host Forum on Threats to Academic Freedom in Iraq
Keith Watenpaugh visited Baghdad just two months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and returned a couple of months after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In that time, the scholar in Islamic and Middle Eastern history noticed a remarkable change: The grim mood of the pre-war days had been replaced by widespread excitement and hope.
But in the intervening months, the troubled occupation and the escalating insurgency have taken such a toll that today, Watenpaugh says, partisan politics and religious fights are inflaming campus life. Some of Iraq's best and brightest scholars, confronted by a daily risk of assassination, are leaving their home country altogether.
To explore the profound threats to academic freedom in Iraq, the AAAS Science and Human Rights program is bringing together a panel of scholars with considerable on-the-ground knowledge about the embattled country. The free public forum will be held on Wednesday 8 December, from 3 to 5 p.m. EST, at AAAS headquarters, 1200 New York Ave. NW in Washington, D.C. A reception honoring Scholars at Risk Network and the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund will follow from 5 to 7 p.m.
The panelists will be:
- Karim Altaii, who did his undergraduate work at the University of Baghdad and who is now an associate professor in the Department of Integrated Science and Technology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Altaii's talk will focus on the physical and psychological challenge confronting scholars in Iraq; he also will discuss damages done during the war and the ongoing needs of faculty, students and administrators there. He will be concentrating on the University of Baghdadthe largest and oldest university in Iraqand especially at the College of Engineering and the College of Pharmacy. He visited Iraq last year.
- Imad Harb, a program officer in the United States Institute of Peace education program. Harb is engaged in developing higher education peace studies curricula for Iraq and democratizing classrooms in Iraqi universities; he conducts workshops to enrich the teaching experience in Iraq by bringing together faculty members from different sectarian and ethnic groups. At the AAAS forum, he will speak on the general condition of the higher education sector in Iraq.
"The emergence of academic freedom in Iraq nowadays is beset by many problems facing the higher education sector after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime," Harb said by email. "From a legacy of decades of oppression and authoritarianism to UN-imposed sanctions to looting and destruction in the aftermath of war to radicalization of the student body, these problems, among others, have resulted in the slow adaptation of this most cherished liberty."
Harb taught political science and Middle East studies at the University of Utah and San Francisco State University, and also served as an adjunct professor of Arabic at Georgetown University, George Washington University and the University of Maryland.
- Robert Quinn, director of the Scholars at Risk program, an international partnership of more than 90 universities and colleges committed to promoting respect for academic freedom and defending the human rights of scholars worldwide. The network's principal activity is to arrange temporary academic visits to network institutions for scholars whose lives or work are threatened in their home region, with the intention of the scholars returning and resuming the academic careers when conditions safely permit.
"We all see the credible reports of death threats and killings of intellectuals," Quinn said by email. "We know that Iraqi society is desperately in need of this intellectual leadership to assist in its reconstruction and rebirth. So our challenge is to keep improving our efforts and to identify the partners that will help us reach the most deserving candidates, gather the necessary information about them and make our assistance available to them as rapidly as possible, before it is too late."
Founded in 2000, Scholars at Risk is based at New York University. It partnered in 2002 with the Institute of International Education in the creation of the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund, which awards partial fellowships for threatened scholars from any discipline and any country. Quinn serves as executive director of the fund. Together, the fund and the network have received nearly 600 applications for assistance from scholars in more than 90 countries and more than 50 disciplines. To date, more than 90 scholars have been assisted. Quinn also is an adjunct professor of law at Fordham University Law School, teaching courses in international human rights.
- Keith Watenpaugh, who in June 2003 he led a multinational team of historians to Iraq to assess the conditions of Baghdad's libraries, archives and universities. The group's findings are included in "Opening the Doors: Intellectual Life and Academic Conditions in Post-War Iraq," the most detailed study of Iraq's university system as it begins to rebuild in the wake of the war. Watenpaugh's own account of the state of academic freedom in Iraq was published in the September-October 2004 edition of Academe.
"Ultimately, to help create a viable national community and open society, Iraqi higher education will first need to be restored to a firm and independent footing," he wrote in that piece. "And the country's vast reservoir of academics must be reintegrated into international networks of professional exchange as colleagues, friends, and equals. How institutions outside of Iraq-colleges, universities, professional societies, and donors-respond to those needs will contribute to the warp and weft of Iraqi society and to its relations with the rest of the world for generations to come."
Watenpaugh is an assistant professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern History at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York; this fall he is a visiting scholar at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His book "Being Modern in the Middle East" will be published by Princeton University Press in 2005.
Each year, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program organizes a special event to observe Human Rights Day (10 December), the anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This event is an opportunity to discuss the relevance of science to human rights and to honor an individual or an organization that has made a significant contribution to human rights within the scientific community.
This year's honoree is the Scholars at Risk Network and the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund, which provide temporary fellowships at U.S. universities for scholars facing threats in their home countries.
Edward W. Lempinen
3 December 2004