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Iraq's Deadliest Zone: Schools

By Abdul Sattar Jawad
Monday, November 27, 2006

The mass kidnappings of scholars in Iraq underscore the chilling fact that the most dangerous place in Iraq is not the mosque, the marketplace or the military checkpoint, but the classroom. More than 250 academics have been killed since 2003, targeted by so many warring factions that it seems to be the only issue they can agree on. To date, not one person has been arrested for these murders.

Fundamentalist Sunni, Shiite, Baathist, anti-Baathist and other anti-American militants all have taken credit for these murders. Some are groups of students doing the Mahdi Army's bidding and willing to take matters into their own violent hands. But they all share a common feature: the use of terrorism as a weapon to murder academics, plunge university life into chaos and threaten learning at its source.

Fanatics targeting Iraqi academics are wreaking havoc on the educational system by threatening, kidnapping and killing innocent professors. I know well the nature of the threat. In seeking to bring education, debate and intellectual curiosity to Iraq, I was forced to flee when my life was threatened.

I became a target for a variety of twisted reasons. I was editor of the Baghdad Mirror, the only English-language weekly. Zealots who mistakenly assumed we were aligned with Western sensibilities bombed our building in March 2005, causing extensive damage but, mercifully, no loss of life. It was too dangerous to continue operating, and I reluctantly closed the paper the next day.

At the time, I had just started as dean of the College of Arts at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. Several weeks after the newspaper bombing, I was surrounded by students dressed in white shrouds and chanting death threats at me. Being a secular person, like most scholars, I was getting a chilling message of intimidation and violence.

Today the Mahdi Army is running university life in Baghdad, installing its political agenda by canceling classes, altering syllabuses to include its version of religion courses and ultimately driving away professors and students alike.

Virtually overnight I became an editor without a newspaper and a professor without students or a university. And the army of murderers continued to pursue me. One morning in April 2005 I was about to leave my home in Baghdad when I saw my terrified driver gesture for me to stay inside. There were two cars waiting outside, Kalashnikov rifles pointing out their windows. It was clear that the threats were going to escalate, placing my family, my colleagues and me at risk. I knew I had to leave.

My decision to flee was incredibly painful but necessary. I had to leave my wife and three children, and students whom I cherish. Before daybreak on a summer morning in 2005, a driver who knew how to avoid routes peppered with armed insurgents took me to Jordan.

That summer I was granted a visiting fellowship through a partnership between the Scholar Rescue Fund at the Institute of International Education and Duke University. The fund matches scholars, such as professors, doctors and journalists, with host institutions where they can continue their vital work free from fear. At Duke, I am teaching courses in Arabic literature. I am one of the lucky ones.

The Scholar Rescue Fund is grimly conscious that it cannot dedicate its work to Iraqi scholars alone. Despots around the world are waging terror campaigns against intellectuals and academicians. By year's end, perhaps as many as 500 scholars across the globe will be dead, targeted by groups that range from narco-terrorists to religious fundamentalists fighting in suicide and "martyr" brigades. In the struggle to save lives threatened on the classroom battleground, the Scholar Rescue Fund has much to do and little in the way of time or resources to do it.

I am determined to return to Iraq as soon as it is safe for me. Without an open and unfettered educational system, there can be no democracy. We cannot rebuild our country without academic freedom. We will never be able to provide an incubator for a new nation unless professors and students can freely discuss and debate literature and culture or listen to controversial positions on social, economic and political issues.

We are fighting not only for the streets of Baghdad but also for the classrooms. Rescuing our scholars has become as crucial in determining the future of Iraq as disarming the insurgents.

We may ultimately view victory in Iraq as the ability to restore Baghdad to its historical role as a home to intellectual greatness so that universities may once again buzz with the energy of our culture and literature and the celebration of the human mind. Until then, we must continue to find a "lifeboat" for every scholar who faces the murderous mob.

The writer is a visiting professor at the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies at Duke University.

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