Education under Attack: Mass Kidnapping in Iraq Hits Home for MHC Professor

Friday, November 17, 2006 - 2:30pm

This article ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, November 15, 2006.

By Kristin Palpini, Staff Writer

Mohammed Jiyad, a Mount Holyoke College professor from Iraq, said his heart was broken by Tuesday's mass kidnapping of dozens of higher education employees in Baghdad, but the news came as no surprise.

"Hundreds of professors and specialists are being chased out of the country," said Jiyad from his home in Montague. These "events are really what's going to lead the rest of whoever is there to wise up and leave the country."

Some 80 gunmen dressed as police commandos kidnapped scores of staff members and visitors to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Scholarships and Cultural Relations Directorate in a 10-to-15-minute raid Tuesday. Witnesses and authorities said the gunmen raced through all four stories of the building, forced men and women into separate rooms, handcuffed the men and loaded them aboard about 20 pickup trucks. It was one of the biggest mass abductions since the start of the U.S. occupation.

By late Tuesday, government officials were giving wildly varying figures for the number abducted, with the higher education ministry saying about 130 were missing and the prime minister's office saying about 50 were taken and 20 of them had been released.

The facility appeared to be an easy target for the kidnappers, whose motives remain unknown but may be linked to Iraq's sectarian violence. Police spokesman Maj. Mahir Hamad said four guards put up no resistance and were unharmed.

Abed Theyab, the higher education minister, ordered all universities closed, saying he was 'not ready to see more professors get killed,' but later rescinded the directive after the government promised to increase security.

Six senior police officers - including the neighborhood police chief - were arrested in connection with the crime, the Iraqi government said.

Recent weeks have seen a university dean and prominent Sunni geologist murdered, bringing the death toll among educators to at least 155 since the war began.

"People are either assassinated or they escaped from the country," said Jiyad, who left Iraq in 1978. He said he has a number of colleagues who have been killed in Iraq. "The country is being stripped of its intellectual class."

News Spreads Fast

Jiyad, a professor of Asian studies and Five College senior lecturer in Arabic, received news of the attack on the government research institute before media outlets did yesterday. His friends still living in the country emailed him about the assault. His sister, who had escaped to Jordan from Iraq with her family just one night before the kidnapping, informed Jiyad of the fallout after the attack.

"They lived in a neighborhood full of professors," Jiyad explained. "So many were gone, so many of their husbands had been taken. It is just a mess.

"Quite honestly, this breaks my heart," Jiyad continued. "It makes me angry to talk about it because I compare the days when I was in Iraq and what is going on right now and it's a total disaster."

Alaa Makki, head of the Iraqi parliament's education committee, said the gunmen had a list of names of those to take, and claimed to be helping the government's anti-corruption body check on security ahead of a planned visit by the U.S. ambassador. Those kidnapped included the office's deputy general directors, employees and visitors, both Sunni and Shiites, he said. Women were separated from the group and were not kidnapped.

Police and witnesses said the gunmen had closed off streets surrounding the Ministry of Higher Education institute, which is responsible for granting scholarships to Iraqi professors and students wishing to study abroad.

Exodus of Professors

Although Tuesday's kidnapping of higher education employees temporarily shut down the country's system, Jiyad said higher education in Iraq has not been functioning well for years. For a long time now, women have not been attending college or universities out of fear of being kidnapped, raped and killed, he said. Many other institutes of higher education were also closed before the attack due to a lack of professors.

Jiyad said the higher education system is failing because it is not safe for professors or students to be in class.

"Big numbers of professors have just run away," Jiyad said. "If you don't have professors going to classes anymore - what is the point? It's a disaster, a complete disaster."

In the Pioneer Valley, Middle Eastern and political experts said the ramifications of the massive and well-organized assault on Iraq higher education will be dire for the country's intellectuals and Iraq's future.

"Scientists and scholars have recently been leaving the country in droves, as part of an exodus that is leaving Iraq even more prone to a pattern of ever-widening disorder," said David Mednicoff. Mednicoff is a professor of legal studies and public policy and administration at the University of Massachusetts who is spending a year on leave as a Fulbright professor in Qatar. He spoke with the Gazette via email.

Sohail Hashmi, a Mount Holyoke College associate professor of international relations, said he is concerned about the future of Iraq if the educated people are driven out. He is also worried that kidnapping may become a more popular insurgent strategy.

"This will have a tremendous impact on students there that are being educated for jobs for the leadership in the new Iraq," Hashmi said. "This may alter future events and lead to more kidnapping and more demands. They can march into campus, take hostages, the faculty who is teaching in a way they don't want to be taught - it completely destroys the integrity of the whole academic office."

The Future of Iraq

Jiyad said the attack on the research institute Tuesday signals the continued decline of civilization in his homeland.

In Iraq, the highways are controlled by militias, making travel close to impossible, Jiyad said. There is "local civil war" in communities, and more than a million people have been displaced by violence and live in tents, he said.

"This country is heading toward open civil war, and no one can stop it," Jiyad said. "There is a total collapse of authority, or security, and of order. The country is in bad shape; this is part of it. Higher education is totally in collapse," he said.

Jiyad said he fears for his two sisters, who are still living in southern Iraq in or around his home town of Nasirieh. One of his sisters has been threatened, told to leave "or else," he said. "And 'or else' means rape and killing them," Jiyad explained. 'And they can't go because all the highways have been cut off."

Jiyad blames the crumbling of the Iraqi citizenry on the American-led war to depose Saddam Hussein. Instead of securing the country - as was the proclaimed goal of Operation Iraqi Freedom - authority has been handed over to religious fanatics and "butchers," Jiyad said.

Although Jiyad said he feels frustrated because he can't do anything about the situation in Iraq, he does believe the collective American community can have an impact. Jiyad said the American people have to find a way to help Iraqi refugees living in and outside of the country.

An estimated 1.5 million Iraqis have fled their homes to other areas of Iraq, including more than 365,000 since February. An additional 1.6 million have fled the country, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

"Winter is coming, and these families were kicked out of their houses and are living in tents all over the country, all over Iraq," Jiyad said. "The American people have to do something about it."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.


Related Links:

Mohammed Jiyad - Faculty Profile

Sohail Hashmi - Faculty Profile