'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, July 24, 2004

The Assassination of Intellectuals in Iraq  

The Angry Arab News Service recently pointed out a statement from the International Coalition of Academics Against Occupation:

Overlooked by the U.S. Press is the escalating assassination of Iraqi academics, intellectuals, and lecturers. More than 250 college professors since April 30, 2003, according to the Iraqi Union of University Lecturers, have been the targets of assassination. Among the 250 professors assassinated to date include: Muhammad al-Rawi, President of Baghdad University (July 27, 2003); Dr. Abdul Latif al-Mayah a Professor of Political Science at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University (late January 2003); Dr. Nafa Aboud, a Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Baghdad; Dr Sabri al-Bayati; a Geographer at the University of Baghdad; Dr. Falah al-Dulaimi, Assistant Dean of College at Mustansariya University; Dr. Hissam Sharif, Department of History of the University of Baghdad; and Professor Wajih Mahjoub of the College of Physical Education.

Whoever is responsible for these targeted assassinations, the U.S. and its Coalition of Allies [ ... ] -- all of them commanding and controlling the ongoing de facto occupation of Iraq—bear an international responsibility and obligation to protect civilians living under occupation and who are protected by the 4th Article of the Geneva Convention.

I've been following this story for a while but haven't posted about it because I don't have much to add. The question is who is doing this and why, and no one seems to know. Robert Fisk recently wrote on this subject and dealt a little with the possible reasons for the killings:

Other university staff suspect that there is a campaign to strip Iraq of its academics, to complete the destruction of Iraq's cultural identity which began with the destruction of the Baghdad Koranic library, the national archives and the looting of the archaeological museum when the American army entered Baghdad.

"Maybe the Kuwaitis want to take their revenge for what we did to them in 1991," a lecturer said. "Maybe the Israelis are trying to make sure that we can never have an intellectual infrastructure here.

"Yes, you suggest it could be the 'resistance'. But what is the 'resistance'? We don't know who it is. Is it nationalist? Why should they want to get rid of us? Is it religious? The arts department has become a pulpit for Islamism. But these people are part of the university."

The easy answer and the BushCo-sanctioned answer, of course, is that the killings are religiously motivated, that they are the work of fundamentalists acting out against modernity and secularism -- which may be the case ... However, sources like the one cited above consistently stress that the situation is not nearly so clear-cut. Furthermore, Fisk suggests a connection between the systematic murder of Iraq's academics and the systematic destruction of Iraq's cultural history that took place in the chaos after the war. Fisk pointed out in a column from 2003 that those sacking museums and burning libraries seemed to be acting in a highly organized manner, not like a marauding mob:

I spotted another fire, three kilometres away. I drove to the scene to find flames curling out of all the windows of the Ministry of Higher Education's Department of Computer Science. And right next to it, perched on a wall, was a US Marine, who said he was guarding a neighbouring hospital and didn't know who had lit the next door fire because "you can't look everywhere at once".

Now I'm sure the marine was not being facetious or dishonest – should the Americans not believe this story, he was Corporal Ted Nyholm of the 3rd Regiment, 4th Marines and, yes, I called his fiancée, Jessica, in the States for him to pass on his love – but something is terribly wrong when US soldiers are ordered simply to watch vast ministries being burnt by mobs and do nothing about it.

Because there is also something dangerous – and deeply disturbing – about the crowds setting light to the buildings of Baghdad, including the great libraries and state archives. For they are not looters. The looters come first. The arsonists turn up later, often in blue-and-white buses. I followed one after its passengers had set the Ministry of Trade on fire and it sped out of town.

The official US line on all this is that the looting is revenge – an explanation that is growing very thin – and that the fires are started by "remnants of Saddam's regime", the same "criminal elements", no doubt, who feature in the marines' curfew orders. But people in Baghdad don't believe Saddam's former supporters are starting these fires. And neither do I.

The looters make money from their rampages but the arsonists have to be paid. The passengers in those buses are clearly being directed to their targets. If Saddam had pre-paid them, they wouldn't start the fires. The moment he disappeared, they would have pocketed the money and forgotten the whole project.

So who are they, this army of arsonists? I recognised one the other day, a middle-aged, unshaven man in a red T-shirt, and the second time he saw me he pointed a Kalashnikov at me. What was he frightened of? Who was he working for? In whose interest is it to destroy the entire physical infrastructure of the state, with its cultural heritage? Why didn't the Americans stop this?

If those responsible for the organized destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage are the same group as those beheading professors, does it make sense to talk about vigilante religious extremists railing against Arab sell-outs to Western culture -- Would vigilante religious extremists burn down the Baghdad Koranic Library?

Anyway, it's a testament to the extent of the failure of the occupation that it cannot provide security to the institutions in Iraq that most clearly represent the ideals of modernity and secularism.

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