Iraqi Students’ Bleak Choice: US Occupation or Religious Fundamentalism.

Apr 6, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Baghdad-Students tried to close down Baghdad University on Monday, again. Given the US’s ham-handed missteps this week, it wasn’t surprising that students were in an uproar. First the US soldiers had closed down the Shia newspaper, Al Hawzah; then arrested a popular cleric, then killed scores of Shia protesters in Najaf and Baghdad.

Christina Asquith

What kind of democracy is this? Cries of hypocrisy rang through Baghdad, and I went onto campuses Monday morning to see what the students were saying. What I found was students are standing at a dangerous crossroads between US occupation and religious fundamentalism.

On my way out of the hotel that morning, I ran into Hussain Ali, 22, a Baghdad University student sent to the hotel to recruit journalists to cover the protest.

“We want to say we are with Moqdadar Sadr (the 31-year old Shia cleric) and we refuse the coalition forces. This demonstration will be peaceful, but the next one may not be,” said Hussain, an engineering student.

Hussain had a short-sleeved button down shirt, tucked into brown slacks, and wore thick glasses. His words were threatening, but he was geeky and sweet, and his demeanor brought to mind what my friend Sarmeed, 23, had told me earlier in the week, “the students are being used by these religious groups, and they don’t realize it.”

We drove to Baghdad University’s main campus, which is several kilometers wide and sits, like an oasis, on a grassy peninsula of Baghdad created by the snaking Tigris River. The entrance is marked by a giant sandstone archway, and, lately, two armed security checkpoints.

Back in June, every student I interviewed told me they either “loved the US troops” or ‘were happy they were here, but expected them to soon leave.”

These days, it is impossible to find even one student who likes the US troops. They all believe the ‘liberation’ has turned into an ‘occupation’ and that life has fewer freedoms due to lack of electricity, terrorism, no police force and traffic jams caused by the US military closing off roads.

As we drove through, Hussain summed up the student opinion: The terrorism and bombings of the last year was orchestrated by the CIA and Israeli intelligence to create chaos that would justify US troops staying longer. (Indeed, later that day The New York Times reported ‘US commanders are developing contingency plans for more troops in Iraq.”)

“But what about the Baath Party, haven’t they created any chaos?” I asked.

“Maybe some of it was the Baath Party,” Hussain said. “But the American intelligence made the Baath Party. Maybe now they’ve decided to get rid of them.”

On campus, more than 2,000 students milled between the three-story buildings, buying sodas from vendors or photocopies of texts (few classes can afford a one textbook for every student.) Evidence of a changing society is everywhere at Baghdad University, in the girls free-flowing hair and tight clothing, to the quickened pace of life due to mobile phones to the rising phenomenon of ‘secret couples’ in which girls have boyfriends but don’t tell their fathers or brothers. Only half the girls wore head scarves.

More than politics or terrorism, it is these broader societal changes that are provoking insecurity among certain young people– the fight between tradition and modernization, the old and the new.

“We have traditions and we want to keep them. If people leave traditions we think it will be a bad thing,” said Hussain.

Given the general anti-occupation feeling, I was surprised to see that the protest was tiny, with no more than 300 men, standing in a crowd near from the College of Architecture. A dozen men leading the group waved photos of Shia leaders and burned an Israeli flag (they did not burn a US flag.)

“We are not going to sell this country.” “No, no coalition forces.” “Shia or Sunni makes no difference- we will not leave this country to the enemy.”

“The Americans are rude. Yesterday there was a protest in London. No one was shot. Why do they shoot us?” asked 24-year old Uday.

Haider, 20, felt the same. “Why, when we want to demonstrate and express our feeling does the coalition shoot us? They dump on our voice. Besides, it’s been a year since they came here, and they have done nothing to help us. We don’t even have electricity.”

Women protested separately. Two dozen girls, most under 25 and married, stood silently in dark, ballooning cloaks and headscarves. Hussain pointed them out. “We call these girls good Muslims,” he said.

But, they are not participating, I said. How will women’s voices be heard?

“When a girl has a loud voice it’s shameful,” said Hussain. “Women have a role. They can teach and write. They don’t sit at home, but they stay within the limits of Islam.”

But this protest looked a lot more like Iran than Iraq. There was no debate or discussion, only shouting. And these girls look much more like Afghani women under the Taliban, than Iraqi women, who are career oriented, and dress conservatively in long sleeves and skirts, but usually don’t burden themselves with the black abaya . Many urban Iraqi women are career oriented, opinionated and the university is filled with female professors and Phd students. These women at the protest stood meekly in the back, and, in talking to me, denounced the influence of western culture on their society.

“These girls who dress in a Western way think they are expressing their freedom but they are wrong,” said Saba Nijim, 23, who is studying to be a teacher. “We are an Islamic country, and we don’t like thing like that. I am not allowed to show my hair or body. It is God’s test to me and on judgment day, God will say you were good.”

Sitting nearby, a very modern looking 21 year old Zainab explained why she wore her hair loosely. “I think the hajab is very beautiful and I respect it. But I choose not to wear it because my family never told me too. It’s not something I’ve ever done.”

The society I have heard most Iraqis advocate is one in which all women dress modestly, but can choose between an abaya , a head scarf or long sleeves and slacks. It is one in which women can be educated and have careers, but also put the family first-which to some women means staying home and to others it means having a career. It is one in which Islam is separate from education and scientific inquiry. It is one in which Islam is compatible with respect for basic human rights like free speech and free academic inquiry.

But this vision is growing increasingly unlikely in Iraq, for two reasons: because President Bush has put Iraqi democracy second to his military and financial goals here; and because the only group standing up to him are religious fundamentalists.

This is the crossroads upon which Iraqi students face– two extremist groups battling for control-The US occupiers against the religious fundamentalists, while 99 percent of the campus is becoming completely disenfranchised.

As the protest began to peter off, men dressed in solid black and with militant voices herded the crowd together like sheep. My translator whispered to me that they were Moqdadar Sadar’s army, Al Mahdi; a militia that considers themselves a higher authority than the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army. They were intimidating. The protesters promised Iraqi unity, but the presence of a militia group known for violence sent out a much clearer message. There was no room on campus for dissenting viewpoint. In fact, I began to worry for my own safety.

For a brief few months after the war, political and religious groups of all different persuasions flourished on campuses, and I walked freely talking to them all. Lately, the U.S. military is violently attacking the ones they don’t like. The Al Mahdi army is violently attacking the others.

Who will be left?

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