All around the world university campuses have always been hotbeds of political discussion and dissent. However earlier this year Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said he thought that Iraqi universities should be kept out of politics, especially in light of the upcoming provincial elections in September.
Visiting Wasit university in Kut, southern Iraq, al-Abadi said education was key to combatting terrorism and extremism in Iraq and that was why students should be kept out of politics.
This is not the first time that al-Abadi has expressed this opinion. In July 2016, he dismissed the then-minister of higher education, Hussein al-Shahristani, partially for failing to insulate academic institutions from political pressure. There have been many complaints in the past that partisan political or sectarian agendas in Iraq’s universities taint the lessons, research and academic standards there.
Making false promises and the way they use students for their own political ends is not acceptable.
But the new minister in the job, Abdul Razzaq al-Issa, does not appear to have been able to do much better after a year in office. The ministry often stands by while politicians come and go as they please on Iraqi campuses, giving speeches or handing out favours – and this phenomenon is only growing as the elections near; this is even though at the moment it is looking likely that provincial elections will be postponed again, for security reasons.
One example is the call put out by Qais al-Khazali, leader of one of the most feared and extreme militias, the League of the Righteous, for the formation of militias made up of university students, that mimic the often-controversial volunteer militias formed when the extremist Islamic State group first attacked Mosul in 2014.
“Iraqi students need to organize themselves,” al-Khazali said. “If they do, they can overthrow any corrupt regime. To achieve this, we should organize ourselves in the same way we did when we formed the volunteer militias. And we should agree on our vision and objectives, in order to unite the willing students.”
Iraq’s students tend to put themselves in one political camp or another, explains Ali al-Adeeb, a senior member of the State of Law party and an ex-minister of higher education. “So when there is political or religious propaganda, there is always chaos and conflict among the students.”
“Saying that universities should not engage with politics does not make sense,” adds Amer Hassen Fayad, a professor and the dean of the political science department at Nahrain University in Baghdad. “Universities should however keep a distance from political or party affiliations. But not from the entire political process.”
Tertiary students regularly participate in the political process in other countries and the democratic process requires that they do so, Fayad told NIQASH. “But the making of false promises by politicians and the way they use students for their own political ends is not acceptable,” he added.
“Most of the political parties don’t hesitate to use all means at their disposal to win elections,” says Hashim Hassan, a journalist and professor, head of the media department at Baghdad University. “Educational institutions should keep their distance from the current political atmosphere in Baghdad,” he suggested, noting that political parties are pressuring the Ministry of Higher Education to allow them to get more involved on campuses, as the provincial elections near.
What is more important is that Iraq’s university students get a good education in civics so they can keep their own distance from politics, suggests MP Habib al-Tarafi. “These people are going to be the leaders of Iraq in the future and we will need them,” he argues.