Navigating the Minefield

SAAD JAWAD – The 2003 invasion created a far more dangerous period for Iraqi intellectuals than under Saddam, and fractured Iraq’s political landscape.  


In the interview with Noam Chomsky, he discussed the situation for intellectuals in the Middle East. How does the ability for intellectuals to speak freely in post-invasion Iraq compare to their ability to do so under Saddam’s rule, and has this situation evolved or devolved since 2003?

Before 2003, the Freedom of speech was severely curtailed in Iraq under the one-party system. The security apparatus established by the Ba’ath Party was loath to accept any real freedom of speech. Yet there existed a sort of freedom of speaking without commenting on the president. It was possible to say what one wanted, as long as those comments were not personally critical of Saddam or his sons. At the university, we would use and sometimes benefit from this style of freedom, by talking politely and putting our point of view objectively. Under the Baath regime — although the Baathists academics were favored — at times of crisis the government always chose to consult non Baathist independent academics. These people were given the freedom to speak freely their opinion, while the other side listened and never penalized them for their views, which were mostly contrasting government policies. I have never heard of such process after 2003.

Unfortunately, this freedom of speech disappeared completely after 2003. Especially during the first few months after the invasion, Iraqi academics were targeted directly by sectarian religious conservative parties, by the American presence, and by the newcomers who were not tolerant of us at all, and who regarded anyone who lived in Baghdad before 2003 as a stooge of Saddam Hussein. This intolerance was one reason for the initiation of widespread assassination attempts against Iraqi academics. There were other reasons, of course. Some groups targeted scientists, others targeted those who were involved in the military industry and atomic energy programs. The underlying reason for these killings were differences in point of view. People were assassinated because they were Ba’athist or secular. The underlying reason for these killings were not only differences in point of view, but were also motivated by the desire to cripple the ambitious scientific programs of Iraq. Thus people were assassinated because they were Ba’athist or secular or efficient scientists.

Essentially, before 2003 there was a fear that if one criticized the president, his sons, or even some influential members of his family, one would get in trouble, perhaps imprisoned for a while, but not always killed. Only those who were seriously trying to undermine the regime or otherwise smear it would be assassinated. But after 2003 one could be assassinated for a simple reason. The Kurds might assassinate someone who said they did not deserve a separate political entity. The Shia might assassinate someone who attacked one of their twelve religious leaders. The Sunni might attack someone who attacked one of their religious personalities. There are many more reasons I could list. These killings continued relatively unchecked due to the chaos and lack of order.

Since the invasion, intellectuals in the United States and much of the western world widely condemned the invasion as folly, although in 2003 criticism was far less pronounced. How did Iraqi academics view the debate in the United States?  

In my view there were two categories of American intellectuals. There were those who supported military action against Saddam. They would come to Iraq, visiting the universities promising to help Iraqi academics. We never saw any of these promises kept, though.

Another category were those who spoke against the invasion, and condemned it afterwards. However, these people had very little influence on US politics. Before 2003, when we used to speak to US intellectuals, criticizing their bias towards Israel or their indifference to Iraq, they told us that American politics are not ruled by people but by institutions, and that public opinion drives the system. Yet in 2002 and 2003 we learned that public opinion did not change the minds of the Bush Administration to invade Iraq. This is when we realized that American academics who opposed the war were relatively powerless.

In many countries, universities are seen as sources of policy and reform. You taught at the University of Baghdad. How were Iraqi Universities structured before 2003, and how were they affected by sanctions and then the 2003 invasion?

I taught in Baghdad for thirty years, through the Iran-Iraq War and six years of the US occupation. During that time I learned that members of the University fell into two broad categories. There were those who were members of the Ba’ath Party, and were somehow in the majority. They would staff the academic administration. Non-Ba’athists like myself were not allowed to become dean of the college, head of the university, and we were sometimes not allowed to become head of a department. And this was the situation across Iraq.

The minority was composed of independents, members of other opposing parties, like Kurds, Shia, and Sunni, for example, and members of other secret opposing parties which were not allowed to function. They were not free enough to express their views, and were thus all regarded as non-Ba’athist partners. Especially in the Political Science Department, we were allowed to author our own textbooks. The Ba’ath administrators would review any writing or research we did, and sometimes they wanted to include some chapter about the Ba’ath Party. For example, I used to teach African Studies. There was nothing to discuss about the Ba’ath Party in African politics. So I spoke about Iraqi relations with African countries. And while teaching, nobody interfered in my lectures, especially in my higher-level final-year and postgraduate seminars.

The Ba’athists were different. They voluntarily taught a subject called Ba’athist Ideology and Ba’athism. Each year there was a program called “Social and National Studies” which was really about Saddam’s ideology and related Arab issues. This subject was changed after 2003, and it was replaced by a program called “Freedom and Liberty.” The funny thing about this change was that those who used to teach Ba’athist studies were the ones who took over the democracy courses. There was no attempt to replace these old academics with newcomers or welcome new professors to the University. That shows just how truly Ba’athist these people were.

Ultimately, the class dynamic all depended on the lecturer. For example, myself and a few other people used to give the students the freedom to discuss key issues. I used to teach the “Kurdish Question” at the postgraduate level; I was not a supporter of Saddam’s Kurdish policy, and I would share these opinions with my students. I even taught from my book about the Kurds for two or three years.

In Iraq now, the situation is roughly the same, although the percentage of sectarian, conservative, and ethnical parties is greater than before. Judging by the issues taught in the postgraduate courses, one can say that religious and sectarian ideology is spread even more than was Ba’athism. Even the subjects chosen for graduate dissertations are all related to sectarian issues, according to the area where the given university is situated and the dominant sect or ethnicity there.

It is also important to discuss the inhuman and harsh sanctions that were imposed on Iraq for almost 13 years. During that time the suffering of the people was inexplicable and cannot be described in a few words. Suffice to say that these sanctions cost Iraq more than one million and eight hundred thousand victims, among them more than half a million infants and small children. To speak about the affect of these sanctions on the academic field one could fairly say that they tried, and sometimes succeeded, in damaging and retarding it. Books together with materials for laboratories where prohibited. Also the sanctions brought the value of the Iraqi Dinar, the currency, to its lowest level. The salary of a university professor equalled roughly ten to fifteen dollars in US currency: A situation that caused a big brain drainage as well as initiated corruption in the academic field because of the poverty of the teaching staff. Following the invasion nothing was done to bridge the gap that was created by these sanction

I understand that you have conducted a great deal of research into the Iraqi Constitution. To what degree was there civil involvement in the constitutional drafting process, that is, were Iraqi citizens, intellectuals, and analysts consulted?

In my opinion, there was no real consultation with Iraqi intellectuals, at least those who were specialists in the writing of a constitution. I know people who were constitutional law experts at the University of Baghdad; none of them were consulted. The United States, after presenting the draft of the constitution, invited a group of Iraqis, myself included, twice — when they found out there was a great opposition to the draft — to discuss the constitution, in Amman, Jordan. Those of us who were invited were very critical of the people who wrote the constitution. At the end of these two meetings the only person who was picked up as an expert to help redraft the constitution was a gentleman from South Africa. None of the Iraqis were consulted further.

When the draft came to Iraq, the committee established to review it included only members of the ruling political parties and the Kurds. Even the Sunnis were kept away for a while, until the opposition grew in strength, after which point they were included. There were 15 members representing the Sunnis that were picked to join the drafting committee, but the most influential, outspoken and opposing three to the draft were soon assassinated in Baghdad. The opposition was sufficiently intimidated so that the Constitution was ultimately adopted in much the same form as it was drafted by experts in the United States.

Today, everybody in Iraq complains about the Constitution, apart from the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masoud al-Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of Jalal al-Talbani (the two dominant parties in Iraqi Kurdistan), who are not complaining because most of the document is in their favor. Even the Prime Minister Maliki complains almost everyday on television about the Constitution. Reading the Constitution is like going through a minefield.

There is an important distinction to be made between nation- and state-building, especially in Iraq, where US policymakers aimed to build a nation when they should have focused on constructing a viable state. Some policymakers now think that at the heart of the instability in Iraq lies regional differences, articulated in terms of religion and ethnicity, particularly the Kurds, Shia, and Sunni. Can western notions of national unity be reconciled with this fractured reality?

The Iraqi politicians since 1921 tried to build a modern state united by an Iraqi national feeling to supersede any racial, ethnic, religious or sectarian differences. I should think they have succeeded to a certain extent. There was always the struggle between Arab nationalism and Iraqi nationalism. Of course Arab nationalists were tagging along, accentuating the Arab identity of the Iraqi state. When the Americans invaded, they destroyed what unified state did exist, and never replaced it with anything viable. What they introduced were Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish political power groups. There was little to unite these groups, and certainly nothing to bring the individual people together. Yet despite the sectarian conflict which raged in Iraq between 2004 and 2007, the conflict did not lead to a complete and general war inside the country. Yes, there were differences and problems, but the majority of Iraqis showed that they were not willing to go into a full civil war because of these issues.

The last election also showed that the Religious, Sectarian Kurdish, and National party influence was not as great as it was during the first elections. The Kurds lost more or less half of their seats. The government has the ability to bar certain parties from political participation by branding them as terrorists or Ba’athists, yet the same faces keep emerging in Iraq’s political circles.  


SAAD JAWAD is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science, starting in 2010. He taught at the University of Baghdad for more than 30 years, and his research specialties include Iraqi Kurds, the war in Iraq and its effect on the Middle East, and the regional influence of Iraq’s neighbors.

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