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Panel at AAAS Says Iraq Scholars and Students Need Help from U.S. Counterparts
There are classrooms short of desks, libraries stripped of books. The computer labs have few working computers, offices are battered and whole buildings are crumbling. For students and faculty, kidnapping and execution are a daily risk.
A panel of scholars with first-hand knowledge of education and academic freedom in Iraq spelled out a grim picture of the war-torn country at a AAAS panel discussion in Washington D.C. to mark world Human Rights Day (10 December). But they offered a thread of hope, suggesting that aid from and collaboration with scholars in the U.S. could make a difference in the lives of Iraqi educators and students.
The 8 December event was organized by the AAAS Science and Human Rights program, which annually organizes a special event to observe world Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 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, the Scholars at Risk Network and the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund were honored for their contributions to rescuing imperiled scholars and bringing them and their families to safe and secure academic positions. For instance, physicist Tilahun Woldemichael was threatened with imprisonment for refusing to support ethnicity-based education policies in Ethiopiauntil he fled to a safe haven provided by the groups.
"I really don't have enough words to try and explain how grateful I am for the work that you have done for me and others like me," Woldemichael said. "The tragedy that has been averted cannot be exaggerated."
In Iraq, the need for such aid is acute, speakers said at the AAAS panel. But given the continuing violence and instability there, intervention is extremely challenging.
In June 2003, Keith D. Watenpaugh, associate director of the Center for Peace and Global Studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., led a team of historians of the Ottoman Empire to Iraq to assess the damage done to Iraqi libraries, home to the most significant works on the Ottoman empire.
"Most problems facing academics in Iraq face Iraq as a countryinstability, violence, no firm revenue, and also, the residues of poor decisions made after the fall of Baghdad," he said.
But the distressed conditions have roots that go back decades, Watenpaugh said. In the last 20 years, educators have been unable to play an important role in educating and shaping young people; instead, they were more often used by to achieve military and other aims of Saddam Hussein, he said. Today, even though Saddam's government has been toppled, they live in a climate of fear.
"Undermined and undervalued by Saddam, the people who write, think, speak and form public opinion are too afraid to speak out, Watenpaugh said."They face the conservative religious establishment on one side, the old Baathist elite on the other. Academics who have spoken out on TV or were critical in any way have been kidnapped or killed in drive-by shootings the very next day."
According to various estimates, between 78 and 250 students and faculty have been kidnapped or killed since the fall of Saddam.
As an illustration of how politicized the academy has become, Watenpaugh held up a sign, in Arabic and English, that had been posted to the door of a university reading room: "Yes, yes, yes to Islam and Honorable Islamic Scholars." But, he explained, "the message there is pretty clear: no to anyone else. There has been a pushing away of a secular counterpoint in the larger discussion."
Karim Altaii, an associate professor in the Department of Integrated Science and Technology at James Madison University in Virginia, received his bachelor's degree from the University of Baghdad in the early 1980s. When he returned in July 2003 and met with a variety of administrators, faculty and students connected to Iraqi academic institutions, he was shocked at the decline.
At his alma mater, he found students taking their exams outside because there was no electricity indoors to provide enough light and no air-conditioning for hot summer days. The materials testing lab, electric power lab and library were virtually empty, with most of the equipment looted or damaged. Textbooks were photocopies of the originals made 10 years earlier. Internet access was extremely limited.
"Over and over, I heard from students, professors and administrators: equipment, equipment, equipment," Altaii said. "Because of the lack of funding, new supplies, books or journals cannot be purchased, faculty cannot travel to conferences or workshops, and normal academic progress can't be made."
Altaii noted that a number of international universities have established reciprocal educational opportunities with faculty and students in Iraq, but the United States has yet to do so. Additionally, Iraqi deans and faculty members who have been invited to participate at workshops in the United States have found their visa applications delayed or denied.
The lack of funding was underscored when Altaii told of a dean asking a government official for $100 to purchase supplies, and being told: "You're a nice person, I'll give you $20."
Despite promises by the U.S. and others to provide academic supplies and equipment, nothing substantial has materialized. "When asked the question, are you getting anything? The answer is simply 'nothing,'" Altaii noted. "I don't mean to make a too dark or gloomy picture, but that is how they see it through their eyes. We need to go beyond sympathy, promises and talking to themnothing so far has been a coordinated effort to help." Noting that poor decisions made by the U.S. after the fall of Baghdad may have been based on inaccurate assumptions of what the Iraqi people want and an unclear perspective of their culture, Altaii continued, "We (the U.S.) need to show tangible results, and see the situation from their perspective, not what we think is right for them. We need to build bridges, trust and win the hearts and minds of the best educated and highly respected people in Iraq. Iraqi faculty and students are our future partners and allies."
Altaii added that science, technology and engineering are essential to building indigenous capacity and are the pillars to orderly society. But, he said, U.S. funding to these fields has not been a priority or has fallen through the cracks. U.S. academic community needs to bring that to the attention of the decision-makers in Iraq; once funding is available, he suggested, it can be used to build bridges between U.S. and Iraqi universities.
The stereotype of Iraqis as desiring to be cut off from the greater academic or world community is untrue, said Imad Harb, who was born in Lebanon and is now a program officer for the Iraqi Education Program at the United States Institute of Peace. And the stereotype must be avoided if progress is to be made.
"A rebuilding of Iraq cannot be based on mistaken ideas of what Iraq society is like, what they should do, what their future should look like," Harb said. "We often think they'd rather be separateand that's not true. We must forget about 'bringing good ideas to Iraq' and think about how and what they want, and ask them how they would like us to help."
Harb emphasized the need for a human rights curriculum in Iraq institutions of higher education.
"Human rights curriculum is at least as important as reinvigorating the higher education sector or making classrooms more hospitable," he said. "Women's issues, equality, rule of law, democracythe higher education field that creates for us the future elite to modernize society and find different ways of doing things, to connect with the outside world, it must be influenced by human rights."
But, Harb added, "Iraqi education is for Iraqis and for them to decide what it should be like. Most people are not all secular and not all religious; they don't all hate America or love America at the expense of their own culture. They are middle of the road. And we can show them how other societies have done it [implemented human right education programs], not just the American way of doing it."
Rob Quinn, director of the Scholars at Risk Network and the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund, said the organizations thus far have channeled $1.7 million to threatened intellectuals worldwide, with more committed for the future. Of over 600 requests for help from academics, he said, 45 have come from Iraq. But intervening to provide help there is difficult for several reasons, he said.
The ongoing violence has forced most non-governmental organizations from the country. The U.S. government, very helpful in other countries, has not been able to assist in the same way given its complicated presence in Iraq, Quinn said. Additionally, most of those seeking fellowships, although they may have been teaching for many years, hold only a master's degrees rather than doctorates, making it more difficult to find placements for them outside of Iraq.
Perhaps the greatest challenge, according to Quinn, is evaluating and verifying the level of risk and acting on cases in a timely fashion. It usually takes three to six months to secure a fellowship and find a placement for a candidate, and yet, threats against Iraqi scholars may be followed by attacks within a matter of days. Additionally, given the current violence and instability, many people would like to leave Iraq; deciding which candidates face the most risk is difficult.
Quinn suggested that in order to combat these problems, a greater number of academic institutions are needed to partner with Scholars at Risk Network to speed up the process and assist deserving candidates as quickly as possible.
"We know the need is enormous, and that the Iraqi academic community moving forward should be and will be our allies," he said. "I'm here to say that we are eager to come up with a better approach than the usual individual case-by-case approach, which is not effective in Iraq. We need to bring groups together who are familiar with the situation and to bring host institutions into partnership."
Perhaps the best thing scholars in the U.S. can do, added Watenpaugh, is to "normalize our relationships with Iraqi universitiesto make friends with colleagues within our fields, invite them to lectures, to workshops, to do what we do with our other colleagues in a normal situation, even though this is not a normal situation."
17 December 2004