Last weekend I attended James Madison University’s graduation ceremony – nothing unusual in that as I am a professor there. What was unusual was that of this year’s nine Masters graduates in Integrated Science & Technology, three were from Iraq. They had been fully supported by JMU and stood tall and proud; the scene reminded me of the day I graduated from the University of Baghdad thirty years ago.
On most days, I’m less upbeat about education for Iraqis. My motherland and its educational system have been struggling of late; as an educator and academic it pains me to see Iraq’s universities, formerly the educational Mecca in the region, now struggling to survive.
During Islam’s Golden Age, Iraq was the center of knowledge; thinkers and researchers from around stood united, regardless of religion, nationality or language, united in their common goal to serve and advance humanity.
Graduates from Iraq’s universities were the metric of excellence throughout the Middle East and around the world; Iraqi universities served both Arabic and non- Arabic students regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Whether from Baghdad, Basra or Mosul, Iraqi graduates were wont to excel and become prominent physicians, scientific pioneers, and global leaders in their chosen fields. That’s the legacy of Iraq’s education system.
Today, Iraq’s universities are short on such talent due to brain drain and targeted killings; more than 400 Iraqi professors have been assassinated and the system is near ruin. My sister, a former Iraqi professor, fled when her office at the University of Baghdad went down in flames following the invasion. She is one of thousands of Iraqi professors and professionals who have fled Iraq to stay alive.
It’s disheartening to see Iraq’s education system in a state of collapse, lacking modern technological tools and basic facilities while neighboring countries are opening advanced institutions and universities as memories of the Golden Age fade.
Faculty who remain in Iraq face unimaginable difficulties with minimal support within the country, insufficient external interaction and virtual abandonment by the rest of the world. Examples are as discouraging as they are numerous – to mention one, medical professors at the University of Mustansiriyah sought to initiate video-conferencing with academics outside Iraq only to realize they had no external contacts.
More broadly, security and stability in Iraq depend on boosting higher education from the development of a skilled workforce to providing the population with a sense of normalcy – both are necessary tools needed for building a better future for Iraq. The occupier, the United States, is carrying out a number of educational initiatives in Iraq, but current US exchange programs have probably reached only some 200 of Iraq’s 34,000 professors over the past seven years. Although the US has the largest foreign presence in Iraq, other countries are more involved in its higher education. An effort that most Iraqi faculty are familiar with is the initiative by the First Lady of Qatar that has supported the training of more than 300 Iraqi faculty and funded numerous equipment purchases since 2003. One can only hope others will emulate her fine example.
I witnessed the urgent need to act during a recent visit to Iraq where I met with over 200 faculty and administrators at seven universities. Their words still echo in my ears: “You gave us hope and the opportunity to connect with our peers outside Iraq and that is the first step,” said one; “We have been destroyed, nobody wants to help us and we are on our own,” said another; and many pointed out that US promises of aid have yet to materialize. This situation could be addressed if there were a strong commitment by regional leaders and academics to resurrect Iraq’s damaged system of higher education.
There are a number of steps we can take to begin to reverse the cynicism and begin to secure long-term stability in Iraq and the region.
There are more than 400 universities in Arabic countries; this number jumps above 600 when other Muslim countries are included. By setting up a network and database of interested faculty in each country in the region, we could unify to connect and support possible partners who could write joint proposals and compete for earmarked funding. By investing a small fraction of the region’s annual military expenditure, this program could potentially reach all of Iraq’s estimated 34,000 academics within a few years. The multiplier effect and the impact on their students and the Iraqi community at large would be tremendous, creating a far more positive impact than the much more costly – in terms of material resources and invaluable human lives – military and political maneuverings in the region.
Looking outward, regional leaders could also support the establishment of a network of universities, technical colleges, and faculty dedicated to reintegrating Iraqi faculty and institutions with the rest of the world, with the focus primarily on connecting Iraqis with their peers in the region. This needs to be a grass-root effort, faculty to faculty.
Iraq is known for its plethora of natural, mineral and human resources, and has faced many invasions throughout its history. Iraq will return to its feet, as it always has in the past, and will once again play an important role in the region, but to do this Iraq will need outside support.
The Middle East needs leadership that is progressive and visionary; a leadership that undertakes initiatives aimed at incorporating our Arabic and Muslim intellectuals and leaders with international academics and leaders. Globalization is an unstoppable force and the Middle East as a region, not just a few of its wealthier nations, needs to find a way to integrate constructively. We need more initiatives, like the one by the First Lady of Qatar, that envision and invest in the future of Iraq and that recognize and strive to address the problems in Iraq’s education in its regional dimensions. Investment in education is an essential ingredient to providing opportunities and to improving the future in the region and the world. Iraqis richly deserve the chance to be part of that future.
Imagine the regional impact of a faculty team of scientists and engineers from Iraq, Syria and Turkey collaborating at Education City in Qatar, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, or at the Masdar Institute in the UAE, developing improved water management or addressing desertification problems or becoming pioneers in renewable energy. Imagine a medical team composed of researchers from Iraq and Kuwait working together on a solution to the rising and alarming [cases of] cancer in their region. Imagine religious scholars congregating at Al-Azhar University in Cairo to work together on sectarian and religious reconciliation – an issue that’s plaguing the region. The positive effects of such initiatives would resound throughout the region and will send a powerful signal to the rest of the world that the Middle East is not merely a place to be splashed across the headlines in times of conflict, but a center of learning and innovation for addressing humanity’s challenges peacefully and collaboratively.
Imagine that. Better yet, imagine what we in the Middle East could accomplish if we were to set aside our differences and work together following the example of the First Lady of Qatar – imagine that. Only we can make it happen.