Keith Watenpaugh: Iraq Needs Help Rebuilding Its Schools

Roundup: Historians' Take

Keith Watenpaugh, in a lecture delivered at the Villanova Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies (Sept. 29, 2004):

When Professor Maghan Keita first asked me to speak on issues of higher education, academic conditions and intellectual life in Iraq just a few months ago, one of the first things I had to do was come up with a title. “The Rebuilding of Iraq’s Academic Community” was the easy part: a generation of brutish Baathist rule, a decade-long cruel, indifferent and corrupt UN sanctions regime and a brief, humiliating war followed by a period of mass looting has left Iraq’s once-remarkable higher educational system in a state of collapse. “Rebuilding,” is quite frankly, all it can do. But the second part of the title left me stumped “In a time of what?” And I had to do so something historians should never do: predict the future. That’s better left to soothsayers and their modern equivalent, the legions of “political analysts” of the 24-hour news cycle. I had to ask myself what would Iraq look like in a couple months’ time. And I choose the term “civil war.”

The daily car-bombings and drive-by shootings, the assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings, the guerilla attacks on coalition and pro-US Iraqi forces, the establishment of no-go areas in central Iraq, precise and not-so precise bombing raids on civilian urban centers, intense ethnic tensions in those areas bordering Syria and Turkey and the cold-war between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq may not as yet fulfill the normative definition of civil war employed by political scientists, but it must be close. Militias have been formed and armed, and most Iraqis being killed are being killed by other Iraqis, though large numbers are also being killed by Americans. Lines are being drawn in anticipation of an American withdrawal, and US forces are fighting elements of the Iraqi body politic that welcomed us a year ago, primarily the Shia of Sadr City. Clearly, the status quo in Iraq is much more than a mere insurgency pitting a rag-tag guerilla force against an occupational army in the way America’s Vietnam war was more than just a conflict with the Viet Cong, in the way France’s Algerian war was more than just about protecting their pied-noir colonists, even in the way Britain’s war in North American in the late-18th century was more than the mere suppression of a New England tax rebellion.

We are at war with Iraqi society and Iraqi society is at war with itself.

This statement should be the central principle for understanding what is happening in Iraq and contribute to how we respond to the needs of Iraq’s people.

The invasion, the insurgency and America’s less than competent administration of post-war Iraq has caused crucial pre-existing divisions in Iraqi society – and here I don’t mean merely Sunni-Shia or Kurd-Arab – but rather divisions of class, urban/rural and those that divide the conservative, religiously-minded from secular modernists to emerge in a rapid, explosive and uncontrolled manner. These differences had been suppressed by the authoritarian and divide-and-rule style of Baathist rule and ironically, by the UN sanctions that starved the countryside and impoverished Iraq’s middle class alike.

One of the most significant outcomes of the explosive decompression of those strains of conflict is that the genie of radicalized Arab-Islamism, which had rested furtively at the margins of Arab society — al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, in particular – is out of the proverbial bottle in a very big way. And that ideology has the potential to move to the very center of a viable mass, authentic political movement as the war in Iraq continues. This amorphous, rather indistinct ideology, which we in the West are only now beginning to try to understand and take seriously brings hope to the disaffected and proletarianized middle-class young people of big Arab cities like Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus, as well as a measure of dignity to their poorer brothers and sisters who live in the slums south of Beirut, the refugee camps in Gaza and the Sadr City ghetto. America’s invasion of Iraq has handed this new ideology its greatest victory – regardless of the outcome of the next few months or even years: if the US withdraws unilaterally having Iraqified the war or if it stays and retakes the no-go areas with a brutal combination of airpower and “boots on the ground,” this movement will survive, prosper and spread.

Understanding Iraq’s civil war, what it will do to Iraqi society and to the larger Middle East is a daunting question; this evening I want to address just one element of that larger society: Higher Education. And while it may seem superfluous to think about universities and colleges, research institutions and foreign exchange programs while Iraq seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, it is precisely higher education’s role as a fundament of civil society, as a device in ameliorating forms of economic and class difference, and as a tool for building national community that should put it a the very center of all of our efforts in Iraq and the Middle East, at large.

Large-scale, free (or almost free), merit-based secondary and higher education, combined with strategic and directed programs of economic development, is the only way to lessen the magnetic attraction of radicalized Arab-Islamist nationalism. And while analysts often point to the corrosive asymmetries of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the American occupation and support of Saudi Arabia as the chief causes for this radicalism, these are merely symptoms of a more pernicious disease that wastes the human capital and potential of the Arab world.

This is not to say that Higher Education is a cure all or that if the Arabs just had an educational system more like ours then all would be well. Rather if the US is prepared to make a multi-generational commitment to investing in education in the Middle East (not just Iraq), to opening our college campuses to young people from the region, to sending American students and professors there to study, to learn and to teach, and, at home, to expanding the teaching of Middle Eastern languages, cultures and history beyond research universities and integrating those topics into standard core curricula and offerings throughout the US, then we and the peoples of the Middle East have a fighting chance; certainly a better chance than with a military option. What I’m advocating isn’t cheap, in fact it will cost a great deal. But it’s much less expensive than the alternative....


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