Black flags and veils as religion returns to campuses of Iraq

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

29 March 2004

The black flags of Muharram are draped over the front of the School of Arts, banners of mourning erected by Shias at the vast campus of the University of Baghdad. The words praise Imam Hussein's revolution in the seventh century against the Omayads and they seek to draw all students - Christian as well as Sunni - into their tears of martyrdom.

"Yes, yes for the Army of Mehdi," says one. There are other, more political emotions displayed; posters of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader assassinated by Israel last Monday, wishing his soul a swift path to paradise, condemnation of American killing of civilians in the Sunni city of Fallujah.

Religion is now being established on the campus. Before the American invasion, about half the female students would wear the veil. Today, almost 75 per cent of the girls wear head scarves. Not necessarily a bad thing if this is their choice, but lecturers are reporting an unhappy phenomenon: students who demand to leave class to take part in demonstrations, suggestions that lecturers are not sufficiently sympathetic to religious students, claims that God deserves a large part in class. Another poster notes ruefully: "When Danger is Past, God is Forgotten."

On the other side of town, at the ancient University of Mustanseriyah, the dean removed pictures of Ayatollah Ali Sistani and other Iraqi Shia leaders from walls. Shia students closed the university for two days, preventing those of other sects from entering the building and objecting to the dean, Dr Abdul-Samia al-Janabi.

You would think there were more pressing problems. The library of Baghdad University was gutted by arsonists a year ago, although a Japanese donor has offered to rebuild it. But one lecturer made the remarkable observation that the occupation, though widely hated among students, has ignited an interest in American drama. Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller are now set books. Who would have thought American tanks could promote Death of a Salesman?

One teacher invited me to his drama lecture yesterday morning and to ask his students anything I wished. Of the 19 women, I noticed, 15 wore the veil. One of them spoke first - but hers were not the prepared words of the Saddam era. "I want to tell you that we are suffering and you should care more about us," she said. "We don't have enough books and we live in insecurity ... and we as a people are being humiliated by your American and British occupation." Then she smiled sadly and added: "You do not care about us." All the girls and about half the 10 male students nodded.

But surely, I said - "but surely" has become the occupier's all-purpose get-out phrase in Iraq - but surely you can now speak freely. Just over a year ago, I said, Iraqi secret policemen would have been listening to our conversation - which would not have been a conversation at all. There was laughter. "But now we have freedom without law," another girl said.

So I asked about Saddam. At this point something almost palpable drifted darkly through the room, a silence so acute that we could hear the voice of the lecturer in the next room. My host leant towards me. "This is one taboo I don't think they have got over yet," he muttered.