Erasing collective memory, eliminating the middle class

Erasing collective memory, eliminating the middle class
Comment: Without collective memory there can be no unifying national identity. And the middle class is crucial to both. But Iraq’s middle class has been decimated, writes Dirk Adriaensens.
6 min read
12 Apr, 2015
Iraq's National Museum. Memory is about identity [AFP]

The massive cultural destruction of Iraq had a devastating impact on two distinct levels.


The first pertains to all humanity because of Iraq’s unique provenance of artefacts and monuments that record in a well-documented, material way an unmatched sense of the continuity of human civilizations in this unique place.


     Policies pursued in post-invasion Iraq can fairly be characterized as the destruction of cultural memory.

The second level is crucial to the Iraqi people and their distinctive historical identity, shaped by the way they understand their own history.


Memory in all its forms, personal, cognitive, and social, provides the imaginative infrastructure of identity, whether of the individual or group, national or sub-national. Memory evokes emotionally charged images as well as desires, which link one’s past to the future through the present interpreted in light of recollection. However, memory is mortal in two senses: first it dies with the body. Second, it changes through forgetfulness. Hence, memory, particularly people’s or social memory, needs to be preserved actively to supply the continuity of social meaning from the past to the future.


The preservation of memory is the function of museums and historical monuments. The Baghdad Museum was memory-objectified, not only of the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization, but also for the Iraqi people. The Baghdad Museum enacted the permanence and continuity of a culture and a nation since time immemorial, to which archaeological sites and monuments bear witness.


Without a framework of collective memory, there is no mode of articulation for individual memory. Individual memory requires the context of group identity that is inseparable from the history and cultural artefacts that the Baghdad Museum, the National Library and the monument sites once preserved. However questions of intent on the part of the occupiers are eventually resolved, the actual consequences of policies pursued in post-invasion Iraq can fairly be characterized as the destruction of cultural memory.


This desecration of the past and undermining of contemporary social gains has now given way in occupied Iraq to the destruction of a meaningful future. Iraq is being handed over to the disintegrative forces of sectarianism and regionalism. Iraqis, stripped of their shared heritage and living today in the ruins of contemporary social institutions that sustained a coherent and unified society, are now bombarded by the forces of civil war, social and religious atavism and widespread criminality. Iraqi nationalism that had emerged through a prolonged process of state-building and social interaction is now routinely disparaged.


Dominant narratives now falsely claim that sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism have always been the basis of Iraqi society, recycling yet again the persistent and destructive myth of age-old conflicts with no resolution and for which the conquerors bear no responsibility.


Destroying social institutions


Concomitant with the ruination of so many of Iraq’s historical treasures has been the rampant destruction of Iraq’s social and cultural institutions. Iraq’s education system, once vaunted as the most advantaged in the region, has suffered a patterned process of degradation and dismantling. Under the occupation, according to a report by the United Nations University International Leadership Institute in Jordan, some 84 percent of Iraq’s institutions of higher education were burnt, looted, or destroyed.


Ongoing violence has destroyed school buildings and around a quarter of all Iraq’s primary schools need major rehabilitation. Since March 2003, more than 700 primary schools have been bombed, 200 have been burnt and over 3,000 looted.


Between March 2003 and October 2008, 31,598 violent attacks against educational institutions were reported in Iraq, according to the Ministry of Education.


John Agresto, in charge of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in 2003-2004, initially believed that the looting of Iraq’s universities was a positive act in that it would allow such institutions to begin again with a clean slate, with the newest equipment as well as a brand new curriculum. This curriculum removed any criticism to the US policy in the Middle East, as well as any reference to either the 1991 war or to Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories.


Iraqi academic institutions, once leaders among universities and research centres in the rest of the Arab World, were instrumental in creating a strong Iraqi national identity after years of colonization. The virtual collapse of Iraq’s educational infrastructure has gutted the vehicle that had served to cement a unifying history in the public mind.


The mind of a unified Iraq has been killed in what had all the earmarks of a systematic campaign of targeted assassinations. The decimation of professional ranks took place in the context of a generalized assault on Iraq’s professional middle class, including doctors, engineers, lawyers, judges as well as political and religious leaders.


The modern Iraqi educated middle class, vital now and in the future to run the state, the economy, and build Iraqi culture, has been undermined. Following systematic assassinations, imprisonment, military raids and sieges, threats and discrimination, most of what remained of that class left the country. The absence of this middle class has resulted in the breakdown of all public services for the entirety of Iraqi society.


A few examples showing the extent of the destruction of the Iraqi middle class:


An estimated 331 schoolteachers were slain in the first four months of 2006, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 250 doctors have been kidnapped since the 2003 U.S. invasion, and 180 teachers were killed between February and November 2006, according to the Brookings Institute in Washington. The International Medical Corps reported that populations of teachers in Baghdad had fallen by 80 percent and medical personnel seemed to have left in disproportionate numbers.


Roughly 40 percent of Iraq's middle class was believed to have fled by the end of 2006, the UN said. Most were fleeing systematic persecution and have no desire to return. Of the 34,000 medical doctors in Iraq, 18.000 have fled the country and 2,000 have been killed. Up to 75 percent of Iraq's doctors, pharmacists and nurses have left their jobs since the US-led invasion in 2003. More than half of those have emigrated, according to a Medact report of 16 Jan 2008.


The number of prominent Iraqi academics and professionals who fled the country approached 20,000. Of the 6,700 Iraqi professors who have fled since 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported in October 2008 that only 150 of them had returned.


The Iraqi minister of education said that 296 members of education staff were killed in 2005 alone. According to the UN office for humanitarian affairs 180 teachers have been killed since 2006 until March 2007, up to 100 have been kidnapped and over 3,250 have fled the country. The Brussells Tribunal’s list of murdered Iraqi academics contains more than 450 names.


Hundreds of legal workers have left the country. At least 210 lawyers and judges killed since the US-led invasion in 2003, in addition to dozens injured in attacks against them.


Since 2007, bombings at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad have killed or maimed more than 335 students and staff members,