Iraq's Schools: Sectarian Split

The ceremony was no ordinary after-school activity. Prayer flags and banners were plastered across walls at east Baghdad's Mustansiriya University last spring to commemorate the birth of Hassan al Askari, a Shiite imam. Devout activists urged students to join a celebration at the school stadium after class. Hamid Duleimi, a 22-year-old physics major, tried to slip off campus, but he didn't get far. An AK-47-toting guard halted him at the school gate. "If this was a celebration for Saddam's birthday," the guard said, "would you be leaving so soon?" The guard demanded to see Duleimi's jensiya—his national ID. "To be asked for my jensiya means they want to know my sect," says the light-bearded Sunni. He flashed his school ID instead and shuffled off, promising to bring his jensiya the following day.

A group of black-clad men, the signature outfit of the Mahdi Army militia, loitered near the guard shack the next day. Two of Duleimi's classmates had recently been kidnapped, and one was later found dead. So Duleimi (who, like all Iraqis quoted in this story, asked not to use his real name, for safety) fled when one of the militiamen headed toward him. He hasn't gone back. "I'm still wanted by those Mahdi Army members," he says. "Mustansiriya isn't a place for learning anymore."

That's true of many Iraqi universities. Amid Iraq's low-grade civil war, hundreds of students and teachers have been kidnapped or killed since 2003. "Some academics are assassinated by Shia militants because they are suspected of collaborating with the regime under Saddam Hussein; others are killed by Sunnis because they did not," says a report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (A UNESCO official says roughly 10,000 teachers have fled the country in the past five years.) Like many other Iraqi institutions, the university system is fracturing along sectarian lines. Students now make a habit of finding out whether instructors and classmates are Shiite or Sunni before signing up for courses. Majors and entire campuses are seen as being dominated by one sect or the other. Rather than places where minds are broadened and communities mix, campuses are becoming furnaces in which sectarian identities are forged.

At Baghdad University, for instance, students see the College of Medicine and College of Pharmacy as Sunni schools, and the College of Education as Shiite. Would-be majors have to gauge where they'll be able to speak most freely and have the fewest confrontations. "Every student who wants to enter a university now needs to ask: Is the college Sunni or Shia? Is the dean or president a Sunni or Shia?" says a Baghdad U undergrad. Students worry about allas ("chewers")—informants who may be watching their movements or listening to their conversations.

The sectarian shift at Mustansiriya, which used to have a reputation for liberalism, has been dramatic. Students and professors say the government-appointed security force for the campus, the Facilities Protection Service, is largely made up of Mahdi Army fighters, loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. Posters of him and his father, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, are dotted around campus; pro-Sadr (and anti-American) graffiti is spray-painted on walls. The faculty includes many Sadr supporters; most teachers who don't like the new regime have either left or learned to keep their mouths shut. "Mustansiriya is a university totally controlled by the Sadr faction," says a Shiite instructor there. "Before, nobody could speak ill about Saddam. Now nobody can speak ill about Moqtada."

Some students capitalize on this fear. During finals last semester, one student scared an instructor into giving him a passing grade by claiming to be in the Mahdi Army and leaving threatening notes on the teacher's car. On religious holidays, local clerics descend on the campus with bullhorns to preach, and female students, whether Shiite or Sunni, are warned they'll go to hell if they don't wear a hijab. Secular professors say the creeping religious influence is affecting student behavior. Recently a group of Shiite students beat their chests to protest poor dorm conditions—"the same way they do during [the Shiite festival of] Ashura," says one professor. "I was shocked."

The militiamen who guard the campus are a most divisive issue. While Sunnis like Duleimi see them as a threat, many Shiites are grateful for their presence. In January, two car bombs and a suicide bomber killed more than 70 people and wounded approximately 170 at Mustansiriya. One month later, a female suicide bomber hit the College of Economy and Administration and killed at least 40 people. Attacks across Baghdad are down recently. But Iraqis' defensive barriers—both physical and mental—are not going away soon.