Baghdad Bulletin: Death Stalks the Campus

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Geology and theology — Essam al-Rawi saw no contradiction between his two passions. "Being a scientist makes me appreciate God better," he told me last summer. "My education and training give me a better understanding of His creation, so I feel a greater sense of awe toward Him." Both soft-spoken and outspoken, Al-Rawi was entirely comfortable being a professor of geology and a prominent member of the Association of Muslim Scholars — Iraq's main Sunni clerical group, long suspected of ties to the insurgency.

Recently, the professor had taken on a third role: As president of the University Professors' Union, he was trying to draw attention to the many dangers that now lurk on Iraq's campuses and the daily perils facing their professors. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, more than 180 Iraqi academics have been murdered. Some were targeted by terrorists determined to sow chaos into post-Saddam Iraq; others were victims of a murderous campaign by Shi'ite death squads against former members of Saddam's Ba'ath party. "In Saddam's day, you had to be a member of the party if you wanted to be a teacher," al-Rawi told me. "Most of us were members only in name, not by conviction — but now it's come back to haunt us. Any day now, I expect them to come for me."

They did.

Monday morning, as the professor left his home in the Dawoodi neighborhood, three unknown gunmen stopped his car and sprayed it with automatic weapons. Police say al-Rawi and one of his bodyguards died instantly. Another guard is in hospital, seriously hurt. TIME's bureau in Baghdad had previously been in Dawoodi; the professor was our neighbor.

We may never know exactly who killed Prof. Al-Rawi, or why they did it. Baghdad police, faced with scores of murders every day, rarely bother to investigate. Even though Al-Rawi insisted that his membership of the Association of Muslim Scholars had more to do with his faith than his politics, his killers may simply have seen him as a Sunni activist, the sectarian enemy.

But it's equally possible that he was just another victim of an ongoing campaign to eliminate academics — on Thursday, gunmen shot dead yet another prominent professor, Jassim al-Asadi, dean of the University of Baghdad's school of administration and economics. Al-Assadi, his wife and son were shot dead as they drove through the mainly Sunni Adhamiya neighborhood. The al-Assadis were Shi'ites.

Unsurprisingly, many Iraqi teachers fear for themselves and their families. Sectarian violence has become a fact of life on many campuses, with Shi'ite political parties and religious groups goading students to attack Sunni teachers. Many educators have simply thrown in the towel, taking their skills to other countries. In August, the Ministry of Higher Education said over 3,250 professors had fled Iraq since the outbreak of sectarian killings in February, when the major Shi'ite shrine in Samarra was bombed.

The exodus has forced many universities to fast-track underqualified teachers to full professorship, or simply to suspend entire departments. This means Iraq's students are getting a poor education, with disastrous consequences for the country's future. It's hard to believe now, but in the 1960s and '70s, Iraq's academia was the envy of the Arab world. Now, it lies in tatters.

Prof. Al-Rawi would likely have left, too, if it hadn't been for his interest in the AMS — and his commitment to the professors' union. "If we all leave, we condemn the next generation of Iraqis to backwardness," he told me. "Without an intelligentsia, our society will retreat to the Middle Ages."

In the end, it doesn't matter which one of Prof. Al-Rawi's passions led to his murder. He once told me it would take "men of science and men of God to work together, to rebuild the body and soul of this country." This week Iraq has lost two more people who could have made a difference.