Historian calls to an end of the boycott of Iraqi and Syrian academics

Historians in the News
tags: Iraq, Syria



Zainab Bahrani is the Edith Porada Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University in New York. Thumbnail Image -  By Christiaan Triebert - Flickr: Azaz, Syria, CC BY 2.0

Near the city of Mosul in northern Iraq lies the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, established 879 years before Christ. Last month ISIS blew up the Temple of Nabu, one of the crowning jewels of the royal capital. Nabu was the ancient Mesopotamian god of writing and scholarship. With this latest act of destruction, ISIS revealed what it fears most: knowledge and history. The systematic destruction of the monuments of Syria and Iraq has been widely recognized as an enormous loss of cultural heritage. Several UNESCO world heritage sites have been victims of ISIS, Palmyra is the best known among them. And while there has been international concern for these monuments, the Syrian and Iraqi scholars — the conservators who have studied and protected these sites for decades — have been all but forgotten.

The survival of scholars and their knowledge is essential to the survival of cultural heritage in any country. But far less attention has been paid to the plight of scholars than to the erasure of monuments. Yet, these historians and other academics are just as much of a threat to the ISIS ideology as the presence of pre-Islamic monuments in the heart of the so-called caliphate. That is why on 18 August, 2015, Khaled al-Ass’ad, the archaeologist in charge of Palmyra, was publicly beheaded and crucified by ISIS. And while this assassination, received considerable media coverage in the US and UK, the many other scholars before him who faced a similar fate at the hands of ISIS and other terrorist groups have passed unnoticed. The community of academics, scholars and intellectuals in Iraq has been targeted in very direct and deliberate ways since 2003. This systematic attack on scholars is part and parcel of a project of ethnic cleansing.

In the wake of the US and Coalition invasion, Issam al-Rawi, a professor of geology at the University of Baghdad and chairman of the association of university professors, created a register of assassinated academics. Every time a colleague was killed, he made a record of the murders and logged it into his ledger. By September 2003, in the first six months of the occupation, he had recorded the deaths of about 250 colleagues, and in the first three years of the war and occupation he recorded the deaths of hundreds more scholars, experts across various fields in the arts and sciences, and of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. He catalogued the names, university affiliations and dates of death of hundreds of professors and scientists who were killed between 2003 and 2006.

On October 30th, 2006 Professor al-Rawi himself was assassinated, thus becoming a part of the list that he had started.

As there has never been any official count of all Iraq’s war dead, academic or not, we would not know these academics’ names, and we would probably not imagine such a list, if it had not been for al-Rawi’s obsessive effort to provide a record of some kind, however limited. Since his death, many more scholars have been targeted in both Iraq and Syria. ...




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