• October 30, 2014

In Iraq, a Surge in Violence Unsettles Academics


This is an article from Al Fanar, an online publication that covers higher education in the Arab world. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.


When Ali Anbori heard about the killing of his friend and colleague Ahmed Shaker, a professor at the University of Baghdad this month, he recalled how he himself has been the target of death threats during the past few years.

“Someone put a piece of paper under my door and it said, ‘you have to be careful. This is the last warning and next time it won’t be a warning, we will execute you and your children,’” he recalled of the latest threat, a few months ago.  “I felt terrified. We are threatened every day…(in our lives), going to our work place.’”

Anbori is the chairman of the Iraqi Society for Health Administration and Promotion and part of Iraq’s professional class of academics, scholars, and doctors who over the past 10 years have been on-going targets of assassinations and kidnappings.

Although the number of killings of academics, scholar, and doctors has decreased in the last few years, a resurgence of violence and the recent murder of Shaker has renewed fears that academics and doctors are again being targeted by militias.

“(We) are extremely concerned that if this slide back into violence accelerates that there will be a visible resurgence of a targeted campaign against academics,” said Kate Robertson, the deputy director and Middle East program manager for the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA),  in London.

Shaker, who taught at the College of Medicine at the University of Baghdad, was killed after a bomb planted on his car exploded in Zaafaraniyya, south of Baghdad. His wife was also seriously injured in the attack. The spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, Brigadier General Saad Maan, said that an investigation into the killing of Shaker was still open, but that the assassination had all the markings of an Al Qaeda attack.

Muhamad Nasier, a surgeon and head of the Iraqi Union for the Protection of Doctors, in Kirkuk, as well as a friend and former student of Shaker, said that Shaker fled to the relatively peaceful Kurdish region in the north of the country in 2003 out of concern for his safety. After one year, Shaker heard that the situation was improving and returned to Baghdad to be with his family.

Since the toppling of Saddam in 2003, more than 20,000 academics and professionals have fled the country, and more than 400 have been killed, according to information compiled by Brussels Tribunal, an activist think tank and peace organization. Since last year, that includes the gunning down in July 2012 of Mohammed Jasim Abul Ajeel, a professor at the University of Mosul; a fatal bomb attack on the vehicle of university lecturer Mohammed Salih al-Jumaily in Fallujah in September 2012, and a bomb attack in December at Tikrit University killing Sabah Bahaa al-Din Al-Hallawi and two students when their car exploded.

Scholars are targeted because of their high-profile position in society, and to get maximum news impact, say academics. Universities and colleges across the country have suffered bomb blasts, ransacking and the intimidation of staff members. This has led to the most highly qualified Iraqis leaving in large numbers, resulting in universities that are understaffed and hospitals without highly skilled doctors and surgeons. Although some are now returning, the situation is far from stable.

“The recent killing and other incidents highlight how volatile the situation can be and we would renew earlier calls for the government to redouble efforts at ensuring protection of higher-education communities,” said Robert Quinn, founding executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, in New York.

“Academics occupy a critical space in society,” he added. “They represent a version of society; one where violence and force and who is physically stronger doesn’t necessarily win. . . Violent attacks try to destroy that culture of security – they force people to keep thoughts to themselves. When you do this it destroys the environment for learning and teaching.”

This spring, the death toll across the country due to sectarian violence rose to numbers not seen since the height of the 2006-2008 civil war. Between April and June, the U.N. reported that more than 2,500 Iraqis were killed in the violence. The increase in violence stems from discontent among the Sunni minority in response to the policies of Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al-Mailiki, as well as reprisal attacks carried out by Shia militias.

“The government is no more able to protect academics than it is the rest of the population,” said Robertson. “The factional divisions on the street are reflected within the universities, which remain highly politicized.”

Dr. S, a professor at Mosul University, who asked that his name be withheld for his safety, knows that well. He says that Mosul – one of the most violent cities in Iraq and part of the disputed territory between the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and the rest of the country, has become increasingly dangerous in the last five years.

Among the faculty members at the university, fear hangs thick in the air, he says, and speaking out against militia groups can be deadly.

“Sometimes students ask me questions that could get me in trouble – I don’t trust all of my students,” he said. “These people who threaten us try to convince us that Shias are our enemies – we are academics so we refuse this. I have written papers that I can’t publish because of this there is no academic freedom in Iraq.”

“I love my country,” he added. “My advisor told me that my life is in danger and that I should leave. I say, ‘but if everyone leaves then there will be no one left.’ This has a very dangerous impact. This has led to the lowering of education standards, and sometimes we can’t find a specialist in a certain field because they have already gone.”

Robertson says that these targeted attacks have a specific goals and that they are working to the detriment of the country and its academic vibrancy: “To reseed fears, drive the educated to leave Iraq and silence those who remain.”

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