How Iraqi academics are overcoming a legacy of intellectual isolation  

  

In recent months, hundreds of online academic webinars have been organised from Iraq as an outcome of the situation arising from COVID-19. Across a wide range of topics and fields of research and discussion – from arts and heritage and archaeology to medicine and engineering – this new trend in Iraqi academia is helping Iraqi academics overcome decades of academic and intellectual isolation.  

Online meetings or webinars, including symposiums, lectures and conferences, are not only about academic conversations. They are ultimately focused on using more creatively and constructively online platforms such as Zoom, Free Conference Call and Google Hangouts for cultural exchange. Overcoming physical barriers, not least in terms of geography and problems of inaccessibility, online intellectual exchange has produced lively debates about the ways in which Iraqi academics can contribute to the development of their country and help breakdown in the process decades of isolation.  

Significantly, as seen from the images (link provided below) of these seminars and lectures, there has been an overwhelming focus on humanities and social sciences. This represents a major positive development as Iraqi researchers and academics recognise that these new forms of communication can provide an important alternative to physical meetings. In this context, online platforms have made it much easier to instigate and engage in conversations with academics and researchers, which have seen the participation of thousands of Iraqi academics as speakers and attendees. 

Online meetings have been a way in which Iraqis who have returned to the country after completing their education in the US and Europe and other parts of the world can continue to engage in international academic debates and ensure their connections to those countries and their colleagues are not severed. In the UK, these exchanges have included participants and speakers from University College London, the University of Greenwich, Lancaster University and Oxford University, to name just a handful. Another positive development is that webinars have seen a rapid growth in the number of female–led lectures and have also provided a space for addressing gender balance in terms of participants.  

There are several factors as to why this is happening now. The first is to do with financial costs.  Inviting foreign academics to Iraq has been prohibitively expensive and Iraqi academics also find it difficult for cost reasons to visit other countries. Iraq’s security situation continues to be a key challenge for UK and other academics to visit the country. COVID-19 has also made it difficult to visit Iraq. Visa issues have been another obstacle.  

Webinars have provided an opportunity for academic exchange between Iraqi universities, who have otherwise found it difficult to communicate with each other. As seen from webinar invitations, there has also been significant exchange between Iraqi academics and their counterparts in the Middle East, including Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. This marks a major change from years of Iraq’s isolation and cut-off from the region and this exchange is also helping Iraqis communicate with Gulf neighbours and universities in ways that have been not possible since the 1980s. This has importantly been a way to break down barriers resulting from conflict of the past three decades in the region.  

In this spirit, and acknowledging the challenges faced by Iraqi academia in recent years, online academic and cultural exchange have been widely encouraged by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and university leaders. Much of these webinars have however been organised by individual academics and university departments, telling of some positive change within the university system in Iraq.  

A significant number of these initiatives have been led by Nahrein Network’s partners in Iraq, including Mosul University, Kufa University and University of Al-Qadisiyah, Mustansiryah University and DhiQar University. Within a matter of a few months, and since the Nahrein Network started its work in late 2017, we have witnessed a remarkable increase in academic and intellectual activity in the country.  

 The Nahrein Network has actively participated and supported these positive developments. In 2019, the Nahrein Network implemented three workshops funded by the British Academy to support Iraqi academics improve the quantity and quality of research production in the country. Academics from London School of Economics, University College London and the University of Glasgow, were able to visit and implement the Iraq Publishing Workshops in Kufa University, Mustansiryah University and Sulaimani Polytechnic University. Whilst webinars are not perfect substitutes for tangible presence, they should be widely encouraged as important alternatives.  

 Recently, the Nahrein Network issued a grant to Bristol University to work closely with Mosul University and Kufa University to develop Open Educational Resources (OER) as a way to improve awareness of Iraq’s cultural heritage (see further https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/large-research-grants-awarded). An introductory online meeting was recently held which saw the participation of numerous academics from both universities. The former Minister of Higher Education also participated in these debates. 

In an online meeting in early June, Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Ali Naji, also led a discussion about peace and  the role of heritage in Iraq. Dr Ali Naji recently completed a scholarship at University College London and is now also working on a grant to document historic buildings and heritage in the old town of Kufa (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/small-research-grants-awarded). This particular discussion saw the participation of Dr Hassan Nadhem, UNESCO Chair for Inter-Religious Dialogue, who has recently assumed the position of Minister of Culture in Iraq. To listen to this discussion, which is in large part in Arabic, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXP9FJ7upJ4&feature=youtu.be 

There have been many other Nahrein Network friends and colleagues who have actively participated in Iraqi organised seminars. To view some of the topics discussed in the past few months, I’ve prepared, with the support of Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Dhiaa Kareem of Kufa University, some of these invitations and images. It provides a snapshot of the topics covered in Iraqi webinars. You can view them here to get a better picture of the type of discussions happening in Iraq today: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/q6mtb7uel85z87o/AABDM5fVjEzj-b42GaBqV0v5a?dl=0 

Online platforms, in Arabic and English, have been a central way for Iraqi academics to decide on topics that concern them most and have as an outcome provided significant agency to Iraqi universities and researchers. There is as an outcome of these recent activities obviously a ‘democratisation’ of learning that is taking place as knowledge and cultural exchange is made more accessible to people directly from their homes.     

Development is about gradual change and sometimes shifts, as we are seeing in recent months. These hundreds of webinars and online conferences and lectures that have taken place in a short period of time are not only about academic exchange but represent a thirst for engagement in a country that has suffered from many decades of conflict and political instability.  Taken together, they also represent an expression for moving beyond the challenges of the past few years.  

There is much to be done to support academics, universities and researchers who are now increasingly becoming an integral part of the country’s national development. We all can be part of this change.   

Published originally on the Nahrein Network website http://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein in 2020.

About Mehiyar

Dr Mehiyar Kathem is a researcher at University College London (UCL). Mehiyar completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. During this research, he looked at the gradual evolution of Iraq from totalitarian dictatorship through the country’s emerging domestic organisations. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. In 2012 and 2013, Mehiyar conducted field research in Iraq for his PhD programme, spending a year meeting with and interviewing domestic NGO actors, political parties, government officials and international donors. Previously, Mehiyar worked on a number of grassroots programmes geared to build the capacity of civil society organisations and continues to advise international donors on the effective design and delivery of projects in Iraq. He tweets at @mehiyar

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