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Democratic laboratory in Iraq

Iraqis will not be free until they’ve learnt to think for themselves. So the US wants to help them do so. The University Post reports from the new American University in Iraq

John Agresto, Provost of the American University in Iraq, is a full-faced, well-oiled PR machine. With one hand tightly gripping the armrest of his chair and the other gesticulating, he speaks at length, only stopping for air. He is talking about the background for the new American University in Iraqi Kurdistan:

»The university is based on American values like democracy, freedom of speech and thinking for yourself,« he says. »The Iraqis asked us to build the university, and the plan is for them to take it over when the first couple of generations of students have been educated.«

The American University in Iraq (AUI-S) is a miniature society, which can help serve as an example for Iraq, John Agresto explains.

»Our English teachers are, and I do not hesitate to say this, the world’s best. When the students start, few of them can speak a word of English, and in the course of just a year they learn to discuss Aristotle at an academic level,« he says.

It is quite possible that John Agresto is exaggerating, but the Iraqis need a good education, and even under the PR-varnish this sounds like it could be one of the few good things to have come out of the war.

Western ideas in a new context

AUI-S opened its doors in 2007 in the city of Sulaimani, in the Kurdish part of the country. After securing autonomy in 2005, Kurdistan is the safest place in Iraq and is – as a result – going through a boom in reconstruction.

The collage of modern malls, colourful bazaars, mosques and concrete skeletons of unfinished buildings may not make Sulaimani the prettiest place on Earth, but it has nonetheless become a symbol of that part of Iraq that is rising from the dust following a war that is now in its eighth year.

According to history professor Jonathan Loopstra, the university is literally creating democratic citizens. He can see it in action: how texts by John Locke or Montesquieu – whose ideas are taken for granted in the US and Europe – have a direct purpose here.

Teachers, not preachers

The students are taking thoughts from the Western history of ideas and putting them into a Middle Eastern context. Iraq is a workshop – a democracy in the making – and the cogs need oiling.

»It’s a revelation for many students to discover that many of the things people are struggle with in the Middle East today already took place in the Western world centuries ago. The reformation, individual rights, the balance between religion and democracy – these things are important to the Iraqi students. But they alway lead everything back into an Islamic context. To start with we had to convince many people that we weren’t missionaries,« Loopstra explains.

Applying new knowledge

So far, there are only American lecturers at the AUI-S, and that seems to be fine with the students. Outside the main building, the atmosphere is so good you could carve thick slices of good vibration from the air. The students we speak to are suffering from a complete and incurable optimism.

At the public Iraqi universities you can’t normally decide what you want to study for yourself. Instead, your grades determine what you will study. The most gifted students study medicine, the worst students – unfortunately – become teachers.

The freedom of choice at the American University gives students skills of a wider range, and this can help restructure Iraqi society.

So says the first student to enroll at AUI-S, Bayad Jamal, who will have finished his degree in Social Science and Business in a year and a half. Like many of his fellow students, he writes articles for the local newspapers. He explains that this is a way in which AUI-S students have started putting their studies into practice.

»This place has already created a generation of young journalists with new theoretical knowledge. For example, secular thinkers like Tocqueville have great relevance in Iraq today,« he says.

There is only one person on campus who is neither American nor Iraqi: AUI-S’ only exchange student Luzan Baban from Aalborg University, Denmark. After moving to Denmark at the age of seven, Luzan is now back in Kurdistan – has returned home, as she puts it. During her semester at AUI-S, she is shooting a documentary about the Kurdish youth for a Danish tv-channel. And she is impressed by how well the new university is doing.

»The students here are very disciplined and are working really hard. But I must say I prefer the Danish academic system compared to the American. There is a higher level of critical thinking in Danish universities than here, where the focus is more on multiple choice tests and learning by heart,« she says, and adds that class discussions are almost exclusively reserved for the history lessons.

Forgotten history

To the Iraqi Kurds, history has played out in favor of the Americans. It was the Americans who in 2003 toppled the government and pulled Saddam Hussein from his hiding hole in Tikrit. Saddam killed at least 182,000 Kurds during his time in power.

The 2003 invasion also led to the declaration of Kurdistan as an autonomous, federal state in Iraq in 2005 – the most independence that the Kurds have ever seen.

It is historically ironic that it is the Americans that the Kurds are now thanking for their freedom – and their free university.

When Saddam exterminated 4,000 Kurdish villages in the 1980’s and dropped poisonous gas on Kurds and their Iranian allies, he was supported by the US. After the massacre in the town of Halabja in ’88 – where over 6,000 Kurds were gassed – the Americans even initially tried to shift the blame on to Iran.

All of that is temporarily forgotten, and in Sulaimani, the US is remembered only for the deeds of the last decade. It is, however, not all hero worship, according to Professor Carl Carldwell, lecturer of Middle Eastern History.

»All the students are very nice to us, but at times you can also feel things bubbling under the surface. Not particularly against us professors, but also among the students themselves,« he says.

»There is a student on campus whose entire family was blown up in an American attack in Baghdad. And a girl whose boyfriend just died in combat. It is possible that it’s relatively peaceful here, but every now and then you are reminded that this is a country at war,« he says.

Breaking down ethnic barriers

And a country at war it is. The same day the Universitetsavisen visits the university, 25 people are killed by Al Qaeda-sympathisers in a village less than a hundred kilometres from Sulaimani.

There is still violent combat in Iraq, and the peace in, and around, Sulaimani is only possible because it is essentially impossible for Arabs to get into Kurdistan. Unless they are, for example, studying at AUI-S. The majority of the students are Kurds, but there are also Arabs, Turkmen and followers of the sectarian religion, Yazidi. They set aside their differences in the classroom, to discuss a common history that is full of stories of how the different peoples attempted to eradicate each other.

»It requires a certain balance in the classroom,« smiles Professor Jonathan Loopstra, but explains that it is actually going remarkably well. The university is accepted as neutral ground, in part because English is the only language allowed in class, so as not to single out any one ethnic group.

A good by-product of war

»The English language becomes a bridge in particular between Kurds and Arabs,« Loopstra explains. A bonus of letting ‘outsiders’ take an education in a country of conflict, is that it turns out to make people more tolerant of each other. Another bullet point in Provost John Agresto’s vision:

»We contribute to the breaking down of ethnic and religious barriers. Not by preaching, but by putting students from all over the country together in one classroom,« he says, pleased. He makes it convincing that this might be one of the few good stories from the war.

»A good story? It is a fantastic story!« John Agresto exclaims. »I don’t think the Iraqis will ever be a free people if they don’t learn to think for themselves and take charge of their education. And that’s one of the few good things, the US has left Iraq with.«