It’s Time To End The Boycott Of Iraqi And Syrian Academics

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A picture taken on March 12, 2016 shows visitors at Qasr al-Abbasi Palace in the al-Maiden neighbourhood of Baghdad during a ceremony marking one year after the destruction done by the Islamic State group (IS) at the archaeological site of Nimrud.
A picture taken on March 12, 2016 shows visitors at Qasr al-Abbasi Palace in the al-Maiden neighbourhood of Baghdad during a ceremony marking one year after the destruction done by the Islamic State group (IS) at the archaeological site of Nimrud.
SABAH ARAR via Getty Images

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.

What is the world doing to help these scholars? Sadly the answer is, far too little. Even though we have it in our power to help these academics and thus help to stop ethnic cleansing and preserve cultural heritage in the most ancient region of the world, we don’t do it. Today universities and cultural institutions in the United States have opportunities for postdoctoral researchers and visiting professorships that are open to all applicants without discrimination. But those scholars from Iraq and Syria who have won such fellowships have often been denied the visas that would permit them to take them up. Last year, a member of my own archaeological team in Iraq was awarded a prestigious postdoctoral research scholarship after competing for it against top scholars in her field from the United States and around the world. Although against all odds she won the fellowship, she is unable to come to New York to take it up because, as an Iraqi, her visa was denied. Because of visa restrictions Iraqi and Syrian scholars have been unable to attend international conferences on heritage preservation that concern their own countries. A conference that that took place at Yale University earlier this spring, and was attended by Ban Ki Moon and the director of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, as well as many scholars from outside the US, discussed the destruction of archaeological sites and museums in ISIS controlled territories, but the scholars who have worked on those very sites, the direct victims of the attacks and the experts on the matter, were denied the possibility of attending simply because they did not have the right passport.

In other historical periods of violence, for example during the Second World War, or the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, special visas where made available for scholars and artists. Scholar rescue programs were established for academics at risk. My own field, Art History and Archaeology, benefited immensely from the Jewish refugee scholars who came to America in the 1930s. Indeed, the Chair that I hold at Columbia University carries the name of a refugee scholar who came to New York from Vienna in 1937. My friend and mentor, Dr. Edith Porada became the world’s leading authority on ancient Near Eastern art because she was permitted to do her work in the US, where she made invaluable contributions to scholarship. In short, American academia has a long tradition of welcoming colleagues who face persecution in their own countries. The question is then, why are we boycotting scholars from Iraq and Syria?

There are now millions of refugees who need a safe haven, many of them from Iraq and Syria. We must not let that daunting number paralyze us into inaction. The scholars who are applying for visiting fellowships at our universities, museums and research institutions are specialists in their field who are already well known to colleagues in the United States and Western Europe. They are not terror risks as some might fear; they are people with whom we have worked, and from whom we have learned, for many years. They are also the people who will play a major part in any possible future for these lands and who are on the first line of defense in the protection of the region’s historical heritage. Their work is vital to the future of Iraq and Syria, and to the protection of the world’s cultural and historical environments for all humanity. The targeting of scholars, monuments and historical archives are all well-known strategies of cultural genocide. We must do our part to counter this horrendous erasure as academics, as citizens and as human beings.

Zainab Bahrani
Edith Porada Professor of Art History and Archaeology
Columbia University, New York

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