Saturday, May 31, 2014

An Intellectual Journey through Iraqi Kurdistan

Peacebuilding and Education in Iraq Conference
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending a conference, “Peace Building and Education in Iraq,” that was sponsored by the Center for Conflict Resolution and Negotiation at the University of Dohuk, and the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.  I also had the opportunity to give a talk at the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient in Erbil.  Both of these opportunities shed much light on current social and political developments in Iraq.

Since my last visit to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in 2008, there has been tremendous development.  I spent the first 2 days in Erbil with my colleague, Dr. Faris Kamal Nadhmi, who is a social psychologist at Salahiddin University with whom I am conducting research on Iraqi youth.  Dr. Faris, who formerly taught at Baghdad University, has developed a large network of academic colleagues in the Arab south and throughout the KRG.

The talk that Faris organized at the French Institute preceded the conference and was held in a stunning setting.  The Shihab Chalabi house is a beautiful example of  Ottoman era architecture located in the center of the Erbil Citadel (al-Qala’a), purportedly the oldest continuously inhabited town on earth.  

Dr. Faris Nadhmi introducing my lecture
Originally owned by a notable family, it has been carefully restored through an agreement between the Iraqi government, the KRG and the French government.  It houses the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient whose director, the prominent anthropologist, Dr. Hosham Dawood, gave me a tour, including the impressive library that is being established.
The lecture, “The Future of Democracy in Iraq,” was held in the courtyard of the Chalabi home and was followed by a spirited discussion.  Many faculty and intellectuals were in attendance from Kurdish universities, literary associations and civil society organizations, in addition to some university students.  A number of the attendees were former members of the Iraqi Communist Party.

Dr. Hosham Dawod - Director, Institut Francais
What was striking during the question and answer session that followed the presentation was the contradiction between the strong support for democratization, on the one hand, and pessimism about the possibilities for positive change, on the other.   Arguments were made that the system of organized corruption in Iraq is so pervasive that citizens have few options at their disposal to challenge it. 

I responded by pointing to the myriad Iraqi civil society organizations, intellectual circles and political movements, outside the circles of state power, that are engaged in articulating a vision of a democratic, non-sectarian Iraq, often at significant peril to themselves.  I noted that this activity constitutes what Antonio Gramsci calls a “war of position” and must precede the implementation of any meaningful change in society.

Gramsci differentiates between a “war of maneuver” – the actual attempt to change a political system, either through revolution or via the ballot box – and a “war of position.”  Unless citizens spend considerable time and effort developing a counter-hegemonic vision – one that resonates with large sectors of the populace – efforts to bring about change will fail because no well thought-through policies will be available to put in place for those of the defunct ancien regime.

The courtyard of the Shihab Chalabi House, the Arbil Citadel
The “war of position” involves extensive efforts to develop a vision of the future – a counter-hegemonic narrative to juxtapose to the would-be hegemony  of the state.  While the war of position may at times seem futile given the lack of systemic change, forces that seek to promote democratic change, and a political culture based on the norms of tolerance, pluralism and negotiation, will not be able to act if opportunities for change arise, without having carefully fashioned an effective counter-hegemonic discourse.  Of course, I noted it is easy for a Westerner to come and lecture in Iraq, compared to the obstacles, sometimes even fines and imprisonment, that Iraqi democracy activists experience on a regular basis.

al-Mada Editor-in-Chief, Fakhri Karim
Following my lecture, I had the opportunity to spend the remainder of the evening at the home of Fakhri Karim, Editor-in-Chief of Iraq’s most impressive newspaper, al-Mada, and president of Dar al-Mada that publishes a large number of important studies on Iraqi and Arab politics, culture, society and history.  The current state of Iraqi politics was the topic of the evening with arguments that continued until the early hours of the morning.

The next day, before Faris Nadhmi, his wife, Nareen, who also teaches at Salahiddin University, and I left for Dohuk, we visited the Dar al-Mada Bookstore in Arbil run by Nuri Karim, Fakhri’s brother.  The bookstore is very impressive and offers a wide array of volumes, most in Arabic.  On a stand in front of the bookstore, I discovered a great journal, Nirjis (Narcissus), that is concerned with women’s issues.  

The April 2014 issue consisted of a damning critique of the proposed Ja'fari Personal Status Law that was introduced by the Minister of Justice, Ali al-Shammari, and subsequently approved by Iraq’s Council of Ministers, much to the chagrin of much of Iraq’s citizenry.  It contains excellent articles by a number of Iraqi women activists, including a former judge and lawyers.

Peacebuilding and Education in Iraq conference participants
Arriving in Dohuk, we were presented with an impressive 3 day conference, organized by the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies, the University of Dohuk, and the Center for Global Affairs’ School of Continuing and Professional Studies at New York University.  While an enormous amount of effort went into organizing the conference, the main organizers were Dr. Jotyar Sadeeq, the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies and Dr. Thomas Hill of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.
Dr. Thomas Hill visiting the University of Dohuk

Beginning on Tuesday morning, May 13th, and ending on Thursday evening, May 15th, participants attended a wide variety of panels and workshops.  In 12 panels in all, and 2 workshops – “Leaving Iraq to Study Peacebuilding,” led by Tom Hill, and, “ Establishing Creative Space for Peacebuilding,” led by Michelle O’Connor-Hill, Brisa Munoz, Kristy Kadish and Naddia Siddiqui, 19 of 45 presenters were women (professors or practitioners), 10 were faculty from the University of Dohuk or Kirkuk University, and  20 were faculty from Arab universities or organizations in the south.
The conference boasted a large and impressive contingent of foreign scholars and practitioners.  They included particpants from the UK, Italy, Pakistan, Israel, the US, Malaysia, Switzerland, Poland, Columbia, and Lebanon.  Given the centrality of the Palestine-Israeli conflict to the Middle East, I thought the presentation by Gershon Baskin of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information was particularly important, both in terms of its substance and what it symbolized about confronting, rather than avoiding, resolving long-standing crises in the Middle East.

Dr. Sherko Kirmanj
It is not possible to summarize all the excellent presentations. , However, I did find some of the papers especially enlightening.  Dr. Sherko Kirmanj, School of International Studies, Utara University, Malaysia, delivered a critique of KRG school textbooks, “The KRG’s Islamic Education Textbooks and the Question of Peaceful Coexistence in Kurdistan.”

His content analysis of Islamic education textbooks illustrated that, contrary to the proclamations of the KRG that it promotes tolerance and cultural pluralism, the texts used by the Ministry of Religious Affairs that he analyzed promote an interpretation of Islam that provides no cultural space for minority religions, i.e., the Christian, Yazidi and Shabak religions.

It was particularly telling when Dr. Kirmanj demonstrated the limited space allotted to minority religions in the small section at the end of the textbook.  As he noted, the end of textbooks are usually not completed during the KRG academic year.  Indeed, unlike earlier sections of the textbook, he found no student underlings or notes in this final section.

Dr. Ammara Farooq Malik
Another excellent paper,  was presented by Dr. Ammara Farooq Malik and Katarzyna Szutkowski of the Seeds of Education, Policy & Legal Awareness Association (SEPLAA) Foundation in Lahore, Pakistan.  The presenters discussed the foundation’s successful efforts to reorient poor, unemployed youth away from terrorist organizations and bomb building to jobs that promote community development.  

What was especially significant about this presentation was the foundation’s eschewing of a Western development discourse in favor of situating its efforts and communications in terminology that draws upon local cultural expressions and terminology.  This focus on what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "local knowledge" indicated SEPLAA's sensitivity to the cultural dimension of peace building.

In “Reconciliation through Education in Iraq,” Christine van den Toorn, professor at the American University of Sulimani (AUIS) from 2009-2013, discussed efforts at the university to build cultural bridges between Iraqi Kurdish, Arab, Yazidi, Turcoman and Christian students.   Her paper demonstrated how students from different ethnic and confessional groups were able to bridge the lack of trust through sharing their respective histories of suffering  (see her post on The New Middle East, May 23, 2014).

In his photographic essay, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, founding co-Director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), detailed the efforts of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis to create a mutual dialogue through an examination of their respective narratives as reflected in history textbooks.  While he detailed the obstacles those committed to peace education in Israel and Palestine face, the achievements of his organization to date are impressive nevertheless.
Gershon Baskin with President Mahmud Abbas

Naseen al-Daghastani and Dr. Rami Boulus al-Baazi
“Learning Through Joy,” a paper presented by Dr. Rami Boulus al-Baazi and poet-activist Ms. Naseem Radeef al-Daghastani, spoke to the issue of how early childhood education can offset authoritarian tendencies in society by countering the impact that such education often has in stifling a child’s innate, inborn curiosity and creativity.  In their paper, the presenters offered a variety of strategies to make early childhood education a liberating process rather than one that forces the child to conform to restrictive social and cultural norms.
Another excellent paper, “The Effectiveness of Peace Education Programs in Decreasing Aggressive Behavior in Iraqi Children,” was presented by Dr. Rana al-Abassi of the School of Education and Ms. Nagham Hassan of the Department of Educational Psychology,  both of al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. 

Developing an experimental study of 80 children between the ages of 10 and 12 in Baghdad, who were divided into control and experiment groups, the presenters demonstrated how they used peace education to offset aggressive and sectarian behavior through teaching children to respect difference and the rights of others, engage in problem-solving exercises, and develop an understanding of alternatives to violence in solving problems.

Panel 1 - delivering my paper "In Search of National Reconciliation"
In my paper, “In Search of National Reconciliation: the Use of Historical memory, Education and Civil Society in Building the New Iraq,” I criticized both Kurdish and Arab history school textbooks for failing to inform students about the cross-ethnic, tolerant and cooperative nature of the Iraqi nationalist movement, especially prior to 1963.  I summarized this positive historical memory and tried to demonstrate how it informs a large number of civil society organizations in which Iraqi youth currently play a central role.
Panelists Kelsey Shanks, Christine van den Toorn and Eric Davis answer questions 

I argued that the “sins of omission” that characterize history textbooks used by Arab students in the south and Kurdish students in the north are meant to promote a political agenda that supports a narrative of the past in which the 2 ethnic groups were always in a state of conflict.  I sought to demonstrate that this narrative is not supported by the historical record.  One of my suggestions was to develop a website with downloadable material in Arabic and Kurdish that teachers could use in classrooms to offset the “knowledge vacuum” that currently characterizes history textbooks in Iraqi schools, both Arab and Kurdish.
Dr. Faris Nadhmi, Naseen al-Daghjastani and Nasreen Mamkak
The Peacebuilding and Education in Iraq Conference was a truly seminal event.  While the panels and the debate that they engendered stimulated many new concepts and ideas, the interaction between Kurdish, Arab and foreign scholars and practitioners during coffee breaks and during lunch and dinner created new academic relationships and furthered the important discourse of building peace in Iraq, a country that has known war almost continuously since the onset of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980.

I learned much about the academic environment in Kurdish universities.  In some classes, female instructors who do not wear the veil (al-hijab) are harassed by a small but abusive group of so-called Islamist students  (I say "so-called" because most of these students have little knowledge of Islamic doctrine).  These students write on blackboards before class that the instructors will “burn in Hell” as a result.  In class, when students are asked to study minority religions, Islamists refuse to answer questions about these religions on examinations. (These remarks paralleled those of a professor at Tikrit University who I met at another conference in Iraq last February who indicated that he has to confront students who are taught ideas about Islam in the home that are totally at variance with Islamic beliefs).
In other instances, Islamists reject the study of linguistics, e.g., the theories of Noam Chomsky, arguing that “only God can create languages.” Nevertheless, a professor of communications at a large Kurdish university indicated that, over the past 5 years, the number of students in his classes espousing intolerant Islamist ideas has declined.  All Kurdish faculty members with whom I spoke pointed to the powerful impact that social media is having on their students.

Unfortunately, most Kurdish universities have not developed curricula that produce high quality graduates.  Many students are still accepted based on political ties rather than on merit.  Faculty with whom I spoke expressed frustration with the instructional process and the lack of empirical research conducted by social science faculty beyond the university, e.g., survey research. 

One conclusion I reached is that it is important for the KRG to remain within a (truly) federal Iraq to continue to provide serious Kurdish students with the opportunity to study in Arab universities in the south.  Even today, many Kurds continue to attend Mosul University despite the danger in the Mosul area (one Arab professor told me that 3 people were shot dead in front of him as he walked down a main street in Mosul).

It was rewarding to see the close ties that many Kurdish and Arab professors have developed, especially those from Mosul University and the University of Dohuk that are only 30 minutes apart on the highway that connects the 2 cities.  Indeed, many Kurdish professors still have homes in the Mosul area stemming from the period prior to 2003.

The conference on Peace Building and Education in Iraq was a unique event.  Dr. Jotyar Sadeeq and Dr. Thomas Hill, supported by a terrific staff lead by Alex Munoz at the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at the University of Dohuk, and Anna Mosher at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, have made a major contribution to promoting peace education in Iraq.  It was a privilege to have been able to participate in this intellectually and personally rewarding event.  

No comments: