What is the Islamic State’s vision for universities? The residents of Mosul, Iraq are finding out.
Closed since the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg takeover of much of northern Iraq and Syria this summer, the University of Mosul is supposed to open again on November 25.
But, dotted by machine-gun nests and administered by Islamic State officials who have imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law on campus, the largest higher-education institution in Iraq’s second-largest city is a shell of its former self. Women appear to be in for a particularly difficult time.
“The university is a real horror,” said a literature professor who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety. “I am not going there. It is full of arms and weapons. I am afraid something will happen while I am there.”
“I do not think there will be learning,” he added. “Many professors are outside Mosul now. Professors from religious and ethnic minorities were forced to leave the city too. There is a marked shortage of staff.”
Around 30,000 students studied at Mosul University last year. After the Islamic State’s defeat of the Iraqi army this summer, many students fled to Iraqi Kurdistan or Baghdad. Some took their final exams in Mosul earlier this month but aren’t sure if the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education will recognize those tests. Others left Mosul to take exams in other universities under government control, but don’t know whether they should return to Mosul for courses. Many are struggling to survive either in Islamic State-held territory or as refugees elsewhere.
On campus, the Islamic State has imposed gender segregation on students and staff, including during exams held in early November.
“Girls are suffering from a religious nightmare,” said a medical professor who also asked to remain anonymous. “’Hisbah’ members, or enforcers of an Islamic doctrine that means ‘accountability’, are now wandering in the campus with loudspeakers shouting orders such as ‘loosen your belt!’ They have prohibited belts so as not to show female waists even if women wear the black Islamic gown. Or they yell ‘Cover your face,’ to prevent showing even the eyes. Girls will be punished if they talk with a man. They even ask any man who accompanies a girl to the campus to declare his relationship to her.”
Female students are worried they’ll never be able to complete their studies under such oppressive conditions.
“All female students have to wear veils—the professors agreed to this,” said S. M., a Mosul university student who asked to be identified only by her initials. “If they segregate the staff too, it will lead to severe shortages in many departments.”
The literature professor agreed.
“They will not allow male professors to give lectures to female students,” said the literature professor. “There is lack of female staff—the numbers are not enough and have mostly never been available, in some faculties. This will deprive female students of many specialties.”
In a paper issued October 18 by the Islamic State’s replacement for the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education, the “Diwan of Education”—a diwan is a medieval Islamic term for a governmental department—the Islamic State eliminated the faculties of archaeology, fine arts, law, philosophy, political science, sports, tourism and hotel administration. The diwan was published on the Internet and distributed as a leaflet in the city.
The diwan also canceled classes involving studies of democracy, non-Islamic culture and human rights in all faculties. It forbids studies of drama and novels, money lending, ethnic and geographical divisions, historical events contradicting Islamic State’s revisionism and Iraqi civics. On all official documents at the university, the name of the “Islamic State” has replaced references to “The Republic of Iraq.”
At the same time, the Islamic State seems to be trying to offer some flexibility to students and academics in Mosul in an attempt to keep the talent it needs to run the city and support its army.
The militants allowed students to take their final exams in Kirkuk, Baghdad, Kurdistan and elsewhere if they pledged before a religious court that they would return back to Mosul and not join Kurdish Peshmerga or Iraqi Army forces fighting against the Islamic State.
But, despite those gestures, academics in Mosul reached by Al-Fanar Media stressed the difficulty of living under the Islamic State’s totalitarian rule over the city and university. To solve the problem of staff shortages, for example, the militants distributed notices last month that told professors to return to work or have their homes and possessions confiscated.
“Regarding academics, they have to choose between two bad options: If you leave Mosul, your home and possessions might be confiscated and your family might be hurt for being apostates.” said the medical professor. “Only rich people and minorities left Mosul. Some people, like me, cannot leave because we have elderly relatives that we cannot leave alone. I cannot leave my home to find my library burned by IS.”
Still, many professors were trying to follow a semblance of normal life amid the Islamic State’s totalitarian rule.
“Many deans were forced to start working,” said the medical professor. “Islamic State members are watching them and were preventing them from sending questions via e-mails to the examination centers in other governorates. Some professors from outside Mosul communicated with those who are inside, asking their colleagues about exam questions.”
Where the Islamic State hasn’t altered academic conditions, they have still created a brutal atmosphere around the campus—including gun posts, checkpoints, rumors of bombs set to explode on campus and roving militants.
“The curricula remain the same, at least in the medical college,” the medical professor said. “But the university is led by ignorant people. Many doors are broken inside the buildings and many laptops were lost.”
Carrying out the Islamic State’s higher-education policy is a leader known as Dhul-Qarnayn, a nickname that means “the possessor of two horns,” a figure mentioned in the Quran. An Egyptian who studied education management in Germany and who fought in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq before the American withdrawal, he was active in Syria before coming to Mosul.
Professors who have met with Dhul-Qarnayn said he believed children should begin school at the age of four, learn how to read and write and at 5 begin religious studies, including Arabic lessons to understand the Quran. At age 15, he allegedly said, students should study weapons and electronics. Later, a committee should decide the student’s occupation based on his abilities.
The new Islamic State-installed president of Mosul University is Khalid Mohammed Jamil, a Turkmen. He has declared that university students should concentrate on physical fitness and religion, said a history professor who asked for his name to be withheld. Jamil believes boys and girls should wear Afghani attire and veils, respectively, at age 6, the professor said.
At least one female student said she preferred not to go to university rather than suffer the Islamic State’s rules. Islam, 20, a Mosul University student who declined to share her last name, said she’s back in Mosul after taking her final exams for last year in Kirkuk. She can’t bear to go back to the university, where livestock roam free on quads where students once read and relaxed.
“I am not going to attend,” said “Nobody will recognize our studies. I will wait for the army to liberate the city. The university is miserable now and it was heartbreaking to see donkeys being raised in the gardens of the second largest university in Iraq.”