A Conference on Iraq in Jordan
I thought I’d post something about the travails of historians outside of the US or Europe. To be a historian in Iraq is to be a target for all sorts of hostile forces: students who hate your politics, students who hate the grades you’ve given them, anonymous obscurantist religious forces who hate your “Western” suits and ties, and, as has been repeatedly stated, frightening elements that want to kill you just because you’re educated, and are educating other Iraqis. For many reasons, then, a number of Iraqi professors have been murdered, kidnapped and scared off from going back to work.
In this maelstrom of politics and revenge/ politics and gangland style killings, I called upon several professors that I know (and some I don’t know) to attend a conference in Amman, Jordan on the history and politics of identity in Iraq. Some cannot come, because they’re ill or are worried about leaving their families. Others rose to the challenge, even though it meant crossing the most dangerous road in the world, that linking Baghdad to Amman, bypassing Fallujah, Ramadi and a host of other Anbari towns that are being laid siege to by the Americans for their “anti-Iraq” elements (this is the new term coined by the US forces to label the insurgents). I am full of admiration for those brave souls, the more so that whatever tangible benefits that accrue to them for attending the conference – making new contacts, presenting their case to a broad rostrum of international scholars, and generally opening up to the world – cannot possibly make up for the life-threatening conditions that they live in. Just to put this into perspective, we hired a coordinator to assemble the Iraqi professors and see that their papers are in order for the trip to Jordan. On his way to Baghdad by road to accomplish this task, he was stopped twice, the second time by a group of mujahideen (the local term for “anti-Iraq” forces) who wanted to know if anybody in the car had a Western passport, and frisked everyone thoroughly just in case anyone was lying.
I am all the more impressed by those Iraqi professors’ determination to come to Jordan to present their case because even simple opinions have repercussions nowadays, and not only in Iraq. I asked a Kurdish historian, and several scholars of Sunni and Shi’i backgrounds (including a woman) to attend the conference; I’m still not sure that all of them will attend (I asked fifteen historians in all) but I’m certain that in the end we will have as representative a group of Iraqis as anyone can hope for. But I believe that those historians will present much more nuanced examinations of identity than others; even those historians espousing a polemical and sectarian line will add to our knowledge on Iraq simply because it springs from their life work and experience. They must be heard, even though at times they will contradict what Western scholars of Iraq espouse.
I say this because, regrettably, a politically correct version of contemporary events in the present Iraqi context has developed among North American and European scholars. Focusing on rigid sectarian and ethnic lines, and in some cases, providing the background for a possible partition of Iraq, these professional political scientists and historians are grossly misrepresenting what is a very complex situation. I find this version of events all the more appalling because those scholars are not Iraqi. Surely this would be considered unwarranted intervention by Iraqis interested in promoting democracy? Happily, none of the Western scholars invited to our conference completely share those views. But how long can we stave off the onslaught of the more narrow minded members of our profession? Perhaps our conference, a drop of water in a large sea, can help. I fervently hope so.
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Hala Fattah - 12/13/2004
Yes, the Iraqi historians that are coming to this conference are courageous indeed. We received a tentative offer from Cambridge University Press to publish the proceedings, which is a rare invitation, since CUP doesn't normally handle the publication of conference papers.
Ralph E. Luker - 12/13/2004
Hala, The courage of Iraqi historians in the face of near impossible conditions is just remarkable. I hope that it will be possible for you to gather papers and reflections from this conference and create a public record of it by publishing them.