Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered

The dismantling of Iraqi intellectual life may have been a deliberate strategy, Roger Matthews learns

I first went to Iraq in 1984 to work on archaeological excavations near Mosul. Our workers were Yezidis from the neighbouring villages and together we worked long hours in the hot sun. Over the following few years I lived in Iraq as resident director of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and worked on projects all over the country. We suspected then that we might be living the last years of a golden age of Mesopotamian discovery, uncovering Iraq's uniquely rich and important cultural heritage in collaboration with colleagues from Iraq and many other countries.

Today, the discipline of Mesopotamian archaeology lies in tatters; Iraq's universities and its antiquities service face an uncertain future in the midst of a harrowing present; standards of education, literacy and international engagement have plummeted to levels unknown in the history of Iraq; and the world continues largely to turn its back on calls for assistance from our Iraqi friends and colleagues. All this in a country renowned throughout the Arab world and beyond for its sophistication and open-mindedness, epitomised in the Arabic saying "Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads".

The editors and authors of this book believe that the planners of the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq were not simply grossly negligent in allowing Iraq to descend into this hell. Their argument is that the planners consciously facilitated the dismantling of Iraq's intellectual, academic and cultural apparatus in order to wipe the slate clean as a prelude to the rebirth of the country as a neo-capitalist secular democracy that would serve as a model for change across the Middle East. "To be remade, a state must be rendered malleable", as the editors of this volume observe. Hulagu and his Mongol hordes doubtless understood this when they ransacked Baghdad in AD1258.

In pursuit of this argument, the authors evaluate the impact of the invasion and regime change on multiple aspects of life in Iraq since 2003. Chapters deal in turn with the ideology of neoconservatism, cultural cleansing as state policy, the destruction of Iraq's archaeological, historical, cultural and archive resources and memories, and the terrible impact of the invasion and the subsequent chaos on Iraq's many minority groups, of whom the Yezidis are but one. The core of the book concerns the fate of Iraq's academics, who have suffered dreadfully in the past seven years. A sombre appendix to this book states that at least 432 scholars (and probably many more) from across all disciplines have been murdered. No Iraqi academic is safe from the threat of kidnap, torture, death or all three.

Later this month, the Seventh International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (www.7icaane.org) will take place in London. Many papers will deal with the archaeology of Iraq/Mesopotamia. But they will be heard by pitifully few Iraqi ears. Iraqi academics wishing to attend cannot obtain visas in Baghdad: they must make the expensive and sometimes dangerous journey to Amman, where they may or may not succeed in obtaining their papers. Of a predicted 1,000 participants from around the world, we expect fewer than six Iraqi scholars - a shameful reflection on Britain's treatment of its academic colleagues in Iraq.

As for the Yezidis I worked with a quarter of a century ago, they are clinging to their lands and their holy places in the face of repeated shootings, bombings and persistent persecution. Let them stand as an emblem of today's Iraq, of a friendly, outgoing, clever people whose injustices and sufferings are laid bare in this angry, articulate book. For now, the emphasis and energies must shift to assisting Iraq and all its people in reclaiming their rightful place in the world. All of us, in academe and beyond, can help with that.

Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered

Edited by Raymond W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael and Tareq Y. Ismael

Pluto Press 312pp, £65.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9780745328133 and 8126

Published 14 December 2009

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