Rebuilding the House of Wisdom

The memory of ancient glories can serve to lift spirits from a troubled present and to trigger new hope. This is what Alan Goodman, President of the Institute of International Education, sought to do in a beautifully modulated speech at a conference held in Amman a couple of weeks ago dedicated to the "Reconstruction of Higher Education in Post Conflict Iraq." Evoking the Islamic Golden Age of the Abbasid Khalifs, he recalled how back in the ninth century the Beit al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, was humanity's most eminent seat of learning, translating and safeguarding the knowledge handed down by the Greco-Roman and Indian past and breaking new ground in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography.

That is all, of course, a long time ago. Yet much more recently Iraq achieved a high degree of literacy and developed some of the finest universities in the Middle East. Unlike Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, Iraq has ingrained traditions of learning, including the professional academic preparation of women. Iraqi education suffered, of course, from the effects of a tyrannical regime, but even more from the sanctions against that regime. Like poisoning the wells of a besieged city, sanctions are not selective in whom they punish, and the leaders it aims to castigate are those who suffer least. Worse was to come. Whatever can be said for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, it devastated Iraqi higher education along with all of its state institutions and their infrastructure. In the disorder and sectarian violence that followed, more than 450 academics were assassinated. Many fled.

Several of these scholars were rescued, relocated and placed with host institutions in several countries, notably Jordan, thanks to the IIE's Scholars Rescue Fund. The scope of the fund is international, but 50% of the scholars who received its assistance are Iraqi. The conference was intended to bring together such refugee scholars with higher education officials currently in office in Iraq, including 22 university presidents, with the idea of facilitating their return home. Nothing could be more desirable for Iraq than the return of such intellectual capital, made all the more valuable by the emigrant scholars' broadened knowledge and exposure to vibrant centers of learning. Conversely, one would imagine that exiles would naturally want to go home. The U.S. State Department is eager to see it happen.

The encounter was planned as a discussion about the state and outlook of Iraqi higher education. A number of emigrant scholars presented papers on the resources allocated to Iraqi universities, quality control, planning and management systems, the state of various fields such as engineering and biotechnology, the role of women in higher education and the effects of post traumatic stress among the emigrant intellectuals.

The quality of the papers was uneven. Some of the numbers in the data presented didn't add up. But the gist was clear: Of the countless millions of foreign and Iraqi money spent in reconstruction, only a tiny fraction has gone to the universities. There is, above all, no comprehensive strategy and no leadership engaged in guiding the future of Iraqi higher education. These assertions were angrily contested by the members of the current Iraqi educational establishment present. There had been great progress they said: classes and labs were well equipped, proper institutional procedures were in place, careers open to talent. It is true that the emigrants appeared eager to find fault: with the occupying power, with the donor community, with the current government of Iraq. There was little about what reformed and reconstituted Iraqi system of higher education would or should look like. If money had been made available, how would it best have been spent? The two groups talked at each other or, at best, past each other, but not to each other.

In reality, it's hard to make the case that Iraq is truly ready to reintegrate its emigrant intellectuals. It is not safe. The "post-conflict Iraq" of the conference's title is still more an aspiration than a reality. Besides the generally poor conditions of security in most of the country, each emigrant has his or her own particular fears: The Shia, the Sunni, this or that clan or ethnic group, the carry-over of a family feud or a personal threat or offense. Iraqi society is still far from being able to reintegrate its cantankerous diversity. For all their nostalgia many emigrants do not want to go back and leave behind good jobs, well furnished libraries and labs, and attachments of all kinds they have formed in the meanwhile.

Iraqi Kurdistan, however, where The American University of Iraq - Sulaimani is located, might be an exception. The minister of higher education of the Kurdistan Regional Government was quick to point out that emigrants could "come home" to Iraq by coming to his stable and well-policed region, and offered his own ideas for innovation and quality control in the region's universities. He proudly noted that all presidents of Kurdish universities were present at the conference. Yet there was also an undertone of bitter satisfaction in extending his welcome to Arab academics as fellow Iraqis, inviting them to take up opportunities in what had been a marginalized, disadvantaged and persecuted region, but is today a safe haven. It was a little like offering a return to Ireland as a homecoming opportunity to refugees from an imaginary war-torn Britain.

How difficult it still is to pull Iraqi society together is evident from the fact that there was no place in Iraq itself where a meeting such as this could take place. The insecurity, the lack of trust between factions and fragmented interests is such that to find a place where everyone feels safe and no one is afraid of losing face one needs to go to Jordan. Clearly, well planned conferences and the good will of foreign friends notwithstanding, there is still a lot to be done to allay the passions that divide Iraqis and to enable them to pull together in rebuilding their country.