Q & A: Academic Insights from an Iraqi Insider

Writer: 
March 31, 2006

Jawad: "free press" for hire in Iraq

Jawad: "free press" for hire in Iraq. Photo: Megan Morr.

 

Abdul Sattar Jawad taught literature and journalism in Iraq for forty years, most recently at Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad. He edited the Baghdad Mirror, an English-language weekly newspaper, and Al-Siyada, an Arabic daily, and was the author of fourteen books. After his newspaper offices were bombed and his safety at the university threatened, he was offered a position as a research professor at Duke's John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, where he teaches courses in modern Arabic literature and advanced Arabic reading and continues his research on T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare. In Iraq, Jawad was often interviewed by Western journalists as an insider. Now, he discusses the state of the media and the academy in his home country from his post at Duke.

What was it like to teach American literature in Iraq?

In Iraq, we are quite familiar with American literature. We have put into Arabic works like Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, some novels by William Faulkner, and almost all stories and novels by Hemingway [and poetry by] Robert Frost. I myself was teaching [American] literary criticism and critical approach to literature, but unfortunately now this course has been canceled.

When was it canceled?

In 2004. The fanatics, the clerics--the religious animals I call them--are overruling the Iraqi universities, and, unfortunately, they are meddling in everything. They want to change the curricula and inject new topics, new programs related to what they dub religion. Iraqi [academe] is the first casualty of the wave of fanaticism in Iraq. The elite are fleeing the country because of the harassment and the threat they were exposed to at the hands of bullying students who work for religious militias from different tribes.

They have changed some of the programs, some of the classes, and canceled some, especially in the departments of philosophy, Arabic literature, religion, and history. I myself was dean of the college of arts. I was harassed and threatened by Moqtada al Sadr's militia, and forced to resign.

Did you experience this kind of harassment under Saddam Hussein?

Iraq was a secular country [in spite] of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a lunatic, and he deserved kicking out, but unfortunately, what is going on in our universities is opposite to our anticipations. What we have now is worse than Saddam Hussein. You cannot criticize any faction. You cannot find fault with any religious group. Two of my colleagues at the university were killed last week. The religious militias have the upper hand. It is a theocracy, not a democracy. We traded a lunatic dictator [for] chaos and killing. The worst of all is the rising of religious clerics who hide behind religion. Both Shiites and Sunnis.

What are the benefits of a liberal education system for Iraq?

We are in desperate need of modernity and postmodernity. And the process of democratization cannot be vital unless we pave the way and work on solid cultur[al] ground. I think the liberal ideas, free speech, free media, free researching and writing and publishing will help push forward the process of democratization. We should start with the youth, with education. Democracy is a culture. It cannot be imported or imposed.

In this country, there is a lot of debate about U.S. troops being in Iraq, about whether there should be a timetable for withdrawal, and about the different strategies. Is that debate active in Iraq?

Iraq is looking to the States, really, to the media, to the Congress, in particular, to hammer out a strategy for the country, and for the American troops. This strategy should be based on sound judgment. It shouldn't be based on a political game between the Democrats and the Republicans.

There is a glimpse of hope I think now. I'm hearing that [al Qaeda is] being ferreted out by the Sunni militias. I think now it is in the hands of the American military generals to convince the Sunnis to play a more vital, dynamic role in the political arena. We need a strong Iraqi government that will not fall under the Iranian influence.

How much are those debates and those issues talked about in the Iraqi media?

We don't now have free media. We have partisan press organs. Every embassy has its own paper and magazine. [There are] many magazines and many daily papers financed by Iran. I saw the Iranian press secretary in Baghdad carrying a Samsonite bag with dollars, spreading dollars on journalists. This is a problem. We don't have a media system. If we have a national consensus and national conference, a political compromise, then we should have a journalism credo or media ethics, and everybody should abide by this code of ethics.

Do you see the media as being an important mechanism for democratic change?

They go hand in hand. But any corruption in one end of the equation will rock the whole process. The media should work to illuminate, enlighten the minds of the people. It should promote free speech and give everything its due attention. It shouldn't be partisan, biased, and full of libels.

How accurately do you think the American media portray the situation in Iraq?

I think the American media is doing its best to paint the American public a picture of what is going on. There is, of course, a lot of misleading. We cannot say that the American media is 100 percent objective because of the political debate, which is now sometimes a political game. But the investigative reporting is an American creation, and we recognize that. I know a number of American reporters who are doing their best to portray the actuality in Iraq, but the problem is the politicians meet those reports with a deaf ear because they have their own different agendas.

How does the average Iraqi now view the United States?

Honestly speaking, they are disappointed to a very large extent. We, in Iraq, after the invasion, after getting rid of Saddam, were very keen to see modernity, modernization, globalization, to see free country, free media. [Instead,] they saw their museums, their libraries, their hospitals looted. The American soldiers couldn't do anything to check the process of looting and destroying.

Here, different people think we went to war with Iraq and Saddam Hussein for different reasons. They all have their own explanations. Why do you, or why do the Iraqi people, think the United States came to fight Saddam Hussein?

Saddam Hussein was a headache. To kick him out is a very good step. But the United States is there for this reason: to kick out Saddam Hussein and to have a stronghold in the Middle East. To have a beachhead there, to promote and maintain their interest there. This is the reason. They know that.