In Iraq, universities are pushing to educate students about democracy

By KEVIN DOUGHERTY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 24, 2004

BAGHDAD — During Saddam Hussein’s rule, the university that bore his name engaged in a bit of scholarly subterfuge that ranged from indirect criticism of his policies to readily exposing students to Western ideas, according to faculty members.

In one instance, a couple of years ago, a lecturer working on her doctoral thesis was astonished to find in a school library a copy of the latest book written by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. She happily grabbed it off the shelf for further study.

Emad A. Salem said he and other teachers would, whenever it was academically appropriate, infuse lectures with Western thoughts or anti-Saddam views. They did so in roundabout rhetorical ruminations to avoid suspicion, though there was a degree of tolerance allowed by the Baath Party in the name of academia.

“I could see in the eyes of our students that they understood,” Salem, the assistant dean of the economics and political science department, said through an interpreter.

Though risky, Salem believed it was his duty as a scholar to level with his students.

Saddam “had no idea what was going on,” said Hudab Falh, the doctoral candidate. “You had to be careful how you talked, the words you used. You talked in hidden ways.”

When U.S. forces captured Baghdad last spring, the faculty at Saddam University changed the school’s name to Al-Nahrain, which in Arabic means “the two rivers,” a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates.

Western scholars often refer to ancient Mesopotamia, now part of modern-day Iraq, as “the cradle of civilization.” This is where farming and domesticated life took root, where writing began, where wheeled vehicles were introduced and where astrology, literature, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and science blossomed.

These days the United States and its allies would like to see Iraq become the cradle of democracy in the Arab world.

They’re not alone.

“We need to educate people about democracy,” said Hisham Al Azawi, a political science teacher at the small but prestigious school.

The U.S. military has planned educational exchanges, such as a recent one involving West Point instructors. There are also efforts to provide supplies and fix schools, but it pretty much ends there.

“We don’t get involved in that [curriculum], in terms of what they teach,” said Capt. Steve Brown, a 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division spokesman. “We try to stay out of that arena.”

Al-Nahrain and Baghdad University are adjacent to each other along the banks of the Tigris River. While the latter is a public university, the former is a private institution with high academic standards and, during Saddam’s time, strong Baath Party ties.

To get in, prospective students must finish at the top of their preparatory school and pass a battery of exams, including an IQ test. In short, the students who matriculate at Al-Nahrain are widely regarded as among the best and brightest in all of Iraq.

Like many U.S. college students, they are a restive lot, quick to question and challenge. With the United States now in control of Iraq, the students’ skepticism is aimed squarely on “the invaders.”

When asked, all 17 students in attendance said they wanted the U.S. military out of Iraq.

“What about [weapons of mass destruction]? Where is it?” asked a 20-year-old student named Firas.

Salem, who teaches economics, acknowledged that faculty members have had “difficulties convincing the students” that Saddam’s ouster and democracy are in the country’s long-term interest.

“The people of Iraq are impatient,” Salem explained.

Under Saddam, he added, the government met many of the peoples’ basic needs, such as security, medicine and transportation. That’s no longer the case, he maintained.

Just as Salem was finishing his sentence, the electricity went out in his office. Salem and Falh laughed at the irony, but seized the moment to emphasize that people are willing to wait awhile longer for the power of democracy to light the way.

And Salem remains hopeful that, in time, Iraq can be a beacon of progress in the Middle East.

“My students,” he said, “just need time to feel the way I’m feeling.”

Hisham Al Azawi, right, talks with several members of his political science class at Al-Nahrain University in Baghdad.

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