An exiled professor’s questions for Iraq’s higher-education minister

To the Editor:

“A Message From Iraq to Its Exiled Scholars: Please Consider Returning Home” (The Chronicle, September 29) highlighted the plea of the Iraqi minister of higher education, Abed Thiab al-Ajili, for help from the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund. What caught my eye was his request for funds for TV cameras at the gates of the university to prevent assassinations. Then he spoke about the improvement in the security situation in Iraq, which he thinks should encourage Iraqi academics to go back home. As a professor who served Baghdad University for over 31 years—and lived in Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war, the inhuman sanctions, and the occupation for six years—I would like to make the following comments:

I do not know how much it would cost to put TV cameras at the gates of the university. (Nobody knows what university the minister meant, because there are four state universities in Baghdad alone.) What I surely know is that a decision was taken before the beginning of this current academic year to install TV cameras in all the classrooms of Baghdad University, cameras linked to two TV’s—one in the dean’s office and the second in his assistant’s room. That was a decision unprecedented in Iraq or in any university in the world. Does the minister know about this decision? And if his ministry or the universities under his direction have money to spend on this system of police-state-style censoring, how come they don’t have money to install cameras at the gates of universities? And since when can cameras prevent the killing of academics?
In the past four months, a dozen people working in the ministry itself, under the direct administration of the minister or in his own office, were either murdered by killers using pistols with silencers or were disabled by bombs stuck to their cars. Could the minister tell us what he did to find the murderers who committed these crimes? What protection did he provide for these employees to prevent their brutal liquidation? I am only mentioning the most recent incidents, in which I lost two of my very good friends and colleagues. I do not need to remind the minister that a few years ago, an entire department in his ministry was attacked and all the employees were abducted by people wearing police and army uniforms and driving government cars. He could not save a single person. They were all murdered, cut to pieces, and thrown in the streets in closed boxes. In that incident I also lost two of my colleagues.
Since the minister is accusing the media and those living abroad of being ignorant and not knowing the facts, and is saying that life inside Iraq is normal, could he tell us how many times he was able to visit the universities in the southern part of Iraq? Or, better still, could he tell us how many visits he paid to universities inside Baghdad? Finally, and more important, could he tell us why Al-Mustansiriya University, the second-biggest in Baghdad, has now four deans (or presidents), each having his own office, secretariat, and bodyguards, and all on the same campus? And why his ministerial orders to fire each of them were not observed, and why he did not go himself to the university and solve the problem? And why he is spending most of his time in the Green and Red Zones, where he has strongly protected houses, and not in the Ministry of Higher Education itself?
I must say that I have nothing against the man. He was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because he lived outside Iraq for more than 25 years before the invasion, he had no information whatsoever about life in the Iraqi universities. What is happening now is the mistake, if not the crime, of the occupying forces, who put in office people who lived most of their lives outside Iraq, and who were mostly corrupt and had tarnished reputations. But until the minister gives us frank and straightforward answers, or tells us why he did not submit his resignation since he was unable to perform his duties—or maybe tells us, to give him the benefit of the doubt, why he was not allowed to perform those duties—he should not expect self-exiled Iraqi academics to respond to his perhaps genuine appeal.

Saad Jawad
London School of Economicsand Political Science

First published in


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