Politicians and strategists argue about the utility and strength of coalition forces in Iraq. Numbers are compared and considered with thought to stability and security. Meanwhile, an exodus of Iraqi professionals from their homeland reflects increasing anarchy and dwindling economic hope.
Last Monday, November 14, gunmen surrounded and stormed the Ministry of Higher Education building in Baghdad. The raiders wore the latest Interior Ministry police uniforms, and as the building’s guards stood dumfounded, 150 functionaries, students, professors and visitors were abducted.
Some of the students were there obtaining official academic records as part of their effort to study outside Iraq. 40,000 students have had their grades and certificates released to institutions abroad, so that they might obtain an education amid stable surroundings and hopefully-hopefully-come back to their country during peacetime to help rebuild.
Only 30% of the students schooled under the auspices of the Ministry of Higher Education attended classes last month.
The leading indicators are not promising for these upwardly mobile young Iraqis. The Brookings Institution reported this month that an astounding 40% of Iraq’s professional class has fled the country in the three years since Saddam Hussein was deposed.
This wave adds woefully to those who left during the inter-war period of international sanctions against the transfer of "dual-use" items to Iraq. The embargo prohibited scholarly journals, research equipment and medical tools essential to experiments both sinister and benign.
Some four million are thought to have left Iraq during various phases of Saddam’s reign.
Of course, the government and its officials were able to maintain their lifestyle despite this professional dearth, but the "brain drain" was well underway.
The Association of Muslim Scholars estimated in February of this year that just two thousand Iraqi doctors still practice in the country, and that three hundred professionals have been assassinated since the US-led invasion.
Those who are afraid to teach are exceeded in number only by those who are afraid to learn. The national literacy rate has plummeted to around 50%, from 90% pre-1991. Fear of education hobbles the future more than the present, leading to stagnation of every kind.
No Comic Relief
Iraq’s cultural development is also locked in a sort of iceberg. That frigid block of restrained creativity thawed somewhat after Saddam’s Baathist press censorship fell with his government. Now, it is the stokers of sectarian violence who grapple for power with images, words and sounds as well as the lives they claim.
Iraqi comedian Walid Hassan, star of a satirical television program called "Caricature" that poked fun at daily life in the war-torn country, may have been a shared target of all the warring factions. Portraying the likes of corrupt policemen and telling jokes about insurgent parades, he displayed a taste for biting irony in an unironic and unambiguously torn land.
He was killed this Monday in Baghdad.
In today’s Iraq, children don’t grow up wanting to be a star like Hassan was. It is better to be nobody and keep your head down. The glass ceiling is there, and it is stained with blood.
This presents a major problem for anyone with hope for commercial, cultural, or political success in Mesopotamia.
Standardized education will become a thing of the past as Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish curricula spin off into their own worlds. Universities, which have lost some 160 lecturers to assassination since 2003, will struggle to provide students with a piece of paper that is worth anything on an international level. That is, if those students are able to complete their studies at all.
The country’s infrastructure is also in trouble. Civil engineers are essential to the rebuilding of Iraq, but without the rigorous training necessary to safely draft and construct roadways and other necessities, the US Army Corps of Engineers will continue to buttress the country.
Like Seeds to the Wind
If representative and multiethnic democracy is ever to take hold in Iraq, the seeds will be the members of the middle class. What leaders are left will have only power to tempt them if a vocal and well-educated populace does not keep them in check.
Iraq was an incubator of Pan-Arabism and Baathism, two strains of nationalist ideology that extolled populism but eschewed the people’s power to change things to their benefit. The natural resources with which the Persian Gulf region is so well endowed are wielded like a sword to this day, and human resources are ignored if not attacked.
As violence and disorder create a vacuum where there is no dominant power and no assumption of safety, those who can leave do so. And when the people who have the most to lose depart, those who have nothing to lose are left to determine the course of history. Nothing could be more frightening to anyone involved.