By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Robert Kozloff

The professors and intellectuals who have lived through a human rights tragedy reveal a persuasive narrative about the power of ideas.”
—Matthew Schweitzer
Second-year in the College

Iraq was widely considered the intellectual center of the Middle East in the 1970s, full of world-class universities, professors, and poets, and street markets of books. But due to the strife of recent decades, says second-year Matthew Schweitzer, the country’s intellectual foundation is “almost completely destroyed.”

Before, “people came to Iraq’s universities from across the region,” Schweitzer says. Those modern scholars were continuing an ancient tradition of intellectual and literary culture.

Schweitzer and other UChicago researchers are sorting through the damage to Iraq over the last few decades. Together with Law School Prof. Tom Ginsburg, an expert in international law, they are documenting how the country’s universities and intellectuals have fared and how the nation’s most recent constitution was created in this environment. They have found that the cumulative effects of economic sanctions, persecution during Saddam Hussein’s regime, the fallout from two international invasions, and a far-reaching civil war have left the country cut off from its history of learning.

This interdisciplinary project, supported by UChicago’s Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, has brought together academics at the Oriental Institute, Brown University, the London School of Economics, and at many universities inside Iraq. Together, the researchers have begun interviewing Iraqi professors about their lives and work.

“These interviews will be among the primary resources for documenting the modern history of intellectual life in Iraq,” says Ginsburg, the Leo A. Spitz Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. The team hopes to collect the stories of more than 100 professors in the country and in the diaspora.

Interest began in high school

Schweitzer first conceived the project when he was in high school, when stories from Iraq slipped off the front pages as American troops withdrew. The United States had been at war for much of Schweitzer’s life, and he wondered if important history was being lost as people tried to move on from the troubled and unpopular war. 

“The Iraq War influenced how I understand my own country’s role in the world,” Schweitzer says. He was curious about how it would be explained and assimilated into history. So he reached out to people who had witnessed it.

Schweitzer started collecting his observations, news clippings, and interviews on a website called Post-War Watch. Among others, he has spoken with Marty Indik, former ambassador to Israel; Sir Lawrence Freedman, who led the inquiry of Britain’s role in the Iraq War; philosopher and Iraq War opponent Noam Chomsky, and Saad Jawad, formerly a political scientist in Iraq and now at the London School of Economics.

Jawad’s stories of life at a university under Saddam Hussein and in the chaos that followed were the initial inspiration for Schweitzer and Ginsburg’s sweeping research project, called Iraq’s Intelligentsia Under Siege.

The researchers are uncovering a grim history. University professors and students endured years of sanctions and persecution during Hussein’s rule. They have been looted, bombed, and terrorized since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Hundreds of professors have been targeted and assassinated in the last decade, but the killers and their motives are still mostly unknown.

“We’re encountering some puzzling questions about the conflicts as we delve into the lives of the scholars and intellectual leaders of Iraq,” Ginsburg says. Why, for example, were authors, German literature professors, and university administrators assassinated during the civil war that followed the U.S. invasion?

Violence transforms Iraqi university

As a case study, Schweitzer points to the story of Mustansiria University in Baghdad, where 78 people were killed in a single day by a car bomb in 2007. “A slaughter of this magnitude is unimaginable at a university campus in the United States, and it was common during the civil war,” Schweitzer says. Now hiding behind concrete blast walls, the university is a shadow of its former self.

Team members already have completed a tenth of the interviews, conducted so far by local students and professors in the country. Each interview is more than four hours long, in Arabic.

“We’re still figuring out the depth of what we have,” Ginsburg says, noting that a research project of this scope will likely take five years.

Schweitzer and Ginsburg’s research has been complicated by a lack of reliable sources and the constant threat of violence in a country in which people are still settling scores from the wars.

Even in the United States, where memories of the Iraq War are fresh and public opinion about the war is still highly politicized, this research can be a minefield.

“I’m a history student,” Schweitzer explains. “I think it’s a responsibility of the people who live in the U.S. to at least understand the effects of the war on a human level, whether or not you think it was worthwhile.”

Schweitzer chose to attend the University of Chicago, in part, to take advantage of the school’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research.

“Here, people do research not to publish a product, but solely for the sake of advancing human knowledge,” he says.

This research already has taken Schweitzer to London and Istanbul for interviews with Iraqis and with some of the people who are advising him. Over the recent winter break, he took his first trip to Iraq.

An interest in the Iraq War from someone so young has garnered a lot of attention, and Schweitzer has been interviewed about his research by Voice of America and has published preliminary findings in Le Monde diplomatique , Al Jazeera English, and other international affairs publications.

While much of the country tries to turn away from the wounds of the war, Schweitzer believes he is uncovering meaning and beauty in these stories.

“The professors and intellectuals who have lived through a human rights tragedy reveal a persuasive narrative about the power of ideas,” he says.

Originally published on January 6, 2014.