The Corner

Academic Independence in Iraqi Kurdistan

Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has Twittered that the new Kurdish cabinet must protect academic freedom and “prevent political influence.” Indeed.

How ironic, then, that at the American University of Iraq, located in Prime Minister Barham’s hometown of Sulaimani, the Board of Regents and Trustees, “the official policy making group for The American University of Iraq – Suliamani…charged to provide overall direction for the University” includes:

* Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan

* Iraq’s vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi

* Former prime minister (and Iraqi National Accord leader) Ayad Allawi

* Former — and likely future — Iraqi Kurdistan prime minister and Kurdistan Democratic party official Nechirvan Barzani; and

* Prime Minister Barham himself. 

Furthering the irony is that Talabani and Nechervan Barzani have led the drive to fire from public positions and from universities those suspected of such thought crimes as not voting for Talabani and Barzani. In addition, Nechirvan Barzani has little if any formal education, making his participation in setting policy for what purports to be an American-style liberal university bizarre. No other American University — in Cairo, in Beirut, or elsewhere — has such a high proportion of currently-serving politicians on its board of regents or trustees.

Prime Minister Barham is absolutely correct to push for educational reform. He should not leave out, however, the university for which he has been the driving force. Indeed, if the American University in Iraq is going to succeed — and if it is not going to sully its brand name — it should reconsider whether its role is to be a feather in Iraqi politicians’ caps, or whether it will instead lead by example.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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