The state of intellectual and academic freedom in Iraq can be used to measure forward progress. That’s assuming any forward progress is happening. EDIT: Arif has weighed in down in the comments section and he seems to think there is positive progress happening in Mosul, at least. I spent a week in Mosul in mid-2006 and the city felt dangerous as hell from where I stood (I was in uniform and an occupier). It would be nice to be invited to go back and see how things have changed for the better. I would welcome an opportunity to see higher education as it exists in 2010 and to participate in any civic activities going on.
Scholars in Iraq are still relatively isolated from the outside world, Kadhim said, citing the pertinent example of the difficulty of securing a visa for foreign research. Domestically, he added, most have severely limited and unreliable Internet access, if they have access at all. Though not to the extent that it was during the Saddam regime, Kadhim said, academic freedom is still constrained in Iraq. Inside the classroom, he said, the free flow of ideas between student and professor is limited by former customs. For example, he noted that many Iraqis consider the questioning or challenging of a professor publicly an “act of hostility.” Even the wider academic curriculum cannot offer a diversity of interests or values to students, he said, noting that degrees are “cookie cutter” by design and leave no room for electives. Scholars are similarly constrained by administrators and government officials, Kadhim said, calling the university just another “mini dictatorship.” Though Saddam has been deposed, he said many “Saddamists” still exercise their control over academe. He noted that many unfairly awarded degrees were given to some academic administrators now in control in Iraq. Some, for example, wrote their dissertations on topics such as the “economic genius” and the “eloquence of the speeches” of Saddam Hussein.
The United States’ failure to grant academics visas is tragic and short sighted. Discourse, visitations and relationships between academics and intellectuals should be encouraged, not discouraged.
Encouraging to some is the increase in educational opportunities for Iraqis. Amal Shlash, director of the Bayt al-Hikma Research Centre in Baghdad, described higher education as the “only achieving activity in the country.” In 2002-3, the academic year of the United States invasion of Iraq, there were 19 public universities and three private universities in major towns throughout the country — four of which were in Baghdad. Now, the country hosts 23 public universities and 23 private universities. The country went from educating 322,000 students in 2002-03 to educating around 370,000 students this year. Shlash said that, during the Saddam era, universities were only allowed to be built in cities with populations greater than one million. Now, she said, universities can be built anywhere in the country. This has resulted in a higher number of female enrollees than ever before because many young women now no longer have to leave home to attend a university. At Baghdad University, the enrollment is 57 percent female. Even more striking, in the southern city of Nasiriyah, the university’s enrollment is 71 percent female.
Long term, Iraq may see more intellectual freedom, but only if the more radical Islamic fundamentalists are restrained. Iraq is a long way from being a good place to raise a family, and a long way from most other desirable measures of quality of life. Educational choices are one key measure of quality of life. The fact that Iraq has more universities is hopeful.
I will say that Iraq has become free when I can book a ticket to Baghdad on the Internet to attend a fine arts photography class at one of the city’s universities. Hopefully by the end of the century.