Iraq's Legacy of Literacy and Illiteracy, of Nation building and Nation un-building
I have had a few articles posted on Common Dreams.org in the last few weeks. My last one, Human Narrative Still Missing in Iraq, tries to convey the enormous losses suffered by Iraq and by Iraqis. Reading Faiza's post this morning as she reflects on who the new angry people are that are marauding in Iraq, reminds me of the everlasting impact of our experiences--both negative and positive. As an educator, I am particularly aware of how early experiences and critical things such as education, access to adequate food, shelter and safety contribute to who and what the child will be as she or he grows and mature.
Who, I wonder, in terms of ordinary citizens, men and women struggling to live in Iraq, does President Obama and Sec. of State John Kerry imagine is in a position to pull their shattered country together. In addition to the militarization of Iraq, the vast destruction of the infrastructure and institutions , there has been an incredible brain drain of academics, artists, engineers and doctors to name just a few professions. Many of those who did not flee were killed; there is a list in tribute to murdered academics in the excellent book Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered, edited by Raymond W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael and Tareq V. Ismael. The opening essay talks about the job of "state-destruction" as opposed to the well-understood idea of "state-building"…the task Iraq was set on before the 1990 war.
"To be remade, a state must be rendered malleable. Obstacles to this goal in Iraq included an impressive intelligentsia committed to a different societal model and the unifying culture they shared. The actions of the occupying forces indicate they understood that the emergence of the new Iraq would require liberation from the grip of the inherited intelligentsia and culture of a unified Iraq. Iraq under occupation would see both human and cultural erasures that advanced these goals. Thus, state destruction in Iraq entailed more than regime change and more than political and economic restructuring. It also required cultural cleansing, understood in the Iraqi case as the degrading of a unifying culture and the depletion of an intelligentsia tied to the old order." (page 6)
Culture and literacy have been synonymous with Iraq from the beginning. What many people don't know, on some level one of the great ironies of the calamatiy in Iraq, is that the first piece of literature, the poetic drama of creation, The Epic of Gilgamesh (2000-1400 B.C.) was written in ancient Mesoptamia, the site of the modern country of Iraq. And, probably next to no one knows that in 1982 Iraq was awarded a prize by UNESCO for eradicating illiteracy. This was achieved as a result of three acts of legislation: The Illiteracy Eradication Law, 1971, The Free Education Law, 1974 and The Compulsory Education Law, 1978. As a result of this legislation, education was mandatory for both girls and boys through grade 6, and free through university.
Everything changed after the first Gulf War. UNESCO bemoaned the decline saying" The education system in Iraq prior to 1991 was one of the best in the region, with over 100% gross enrollment rate for primary schooling, and a high level of literacy, both of men and women. The Higher Education, especially the scientific and technological institutions, were of an international standard, staffed by high qualification personnel. In 2004 they put the literacy rate at 74% and by 2007 Education International estimated the rate had fallen to 65% (54% women and 74% men)
This should come as no surprise. Iraq's Ministry of Education reported only 30% of school-age children were attending classes in early 2007. 84% of higher institutes of education and schools were damaged and/or destroyed in the two wars(UNESCO). Lots of parents kept children home out of fear for their safety; many children left school to earn money to help support their families. Those who attended classes often sat in building without running water or heat or adequate supplies including books. Books and supplies such as pencils could not be imported under the UN Sanctions. As a result, everyone in this once literate culture has fallen behind.
Fallen behind is a gross understatement. Children out of school for years, missing exams, unable to re-enter the system out of shame for their lack of academic skills. Teachers without adequate facilities for students, without up-to-date text books or with no text books at all. This includes teachers in the medical colleges. Imagine "keeping up" with your profession, trying to train new doctors and nurses in Iraq during the years 1990 to 2013 without medical journals, or current text books or any professional connection to the outside world.
All the media babble about bringing democracy to Iraq, and our own government statements both then and now calling on Iraqis to pull together, to take control and re-build their country are nothing but hogwash.
Democray depends on a literate society and functioning institutional structures. We have bombed and sanctioned Iraq back into a state of illiteracy and dismantled the very structures necessary to re-build. Our project of state-destruction is complete. Mission, in this case, accomplished.