Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Islamic Activists Pressure Students

Teaching staff and students complain of harassment by groups trying to force narrow religious views on campus.
By Ali Naji

Religious student groups – some backed by political parties – are attempting to enforce strict Islamic standards of behaviour at Iraqi universities and are intimidating anyone who tries to stop them, lecturers and other students say.


Abd al-Jabbar Ahmed, who teaches political science at Baghdad University, told IWPR that in January this year, an Islamist student leader punched him after he intervened on behalf of a woman whom the man had accused of wearing too short a skirt.


"The head of the student union verbally attacked the girl in front of me, ignoring my presence and the 'haram al-jamaa', the sanctity of the university," said Ahmed.


"I was being abused by a student leader who was supported by one of the parties or Islamist movements," said the woman in question, Heba Munir, 23. "Doctor Abd al-Jabbar Ahmed intervened, but the student got very agitated and attacked the professor, so I ran away for fear that he would hit me too."


The student leader, Ghasan Mohammed, 25, and a member of the Shia-led Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said the professor threw the first punch, "He tried to hit me while he was defending the girl who didn't respect the Islamic character of the country, so I had to stop him."


Post-war Iraq has seen a flowering of student activist groups, known as unions.


In Saddam Hussein's day, the National Federation for Iraqi Youth and Students, run by the president's son Uday, was the only such group in the country. In contrast, a student conference in Baghdad's convention centre in February this year drew over 100 delegations.


But teaching staff and students say that some of the groups are wings of political parties and are trying to enforce their religious agenda on others.


Some members of the groups admit their political links. "We are members of student groups, and members of political parties," said Hossam Muhammad Salih, 25, head of the Free Students' Movement at al-Mustansiriya university. "I am a member of the Iraqi Islamic party. There isn't a problem if we disseminate our ideas at the university. Other students can make decisions for themselves."


Islamist groups also prevent students from holding parties and other on-campus festivities, classmates say.


"Any time that we try to have a musical group come on campus, they prevent it," said Alaa Hussein, an engineering student at al-Mustansiriya. "We've taken to having all our parties off campus."


"They can have these parties without bands," responded Salih.


But critics say the student unions back up their ideology with the threat of violence.


"I am afraid to confront any student union," said Hilal Mohammed Yusuf, dean of Baghdad's al-Rafidain private college.


Yusuf once challenged a Shia group which insisted that classes should be cancelled on religious holidays. "The result was an anonymous threatening letter at my home," he said.


Non-Islamist student activists, meanwhile, say that they have little luck in dealing with their religiously-inspired counterparts.


Miran Muhammed, spokesman for the Kurdistan Student Union at al-Mustansiriya university, says that the religious groups treat their more secular counterparts with contempt.


"They accuse us [the Kurds] of being secessionists, the Communists of being infidels, and the Iraqi National Accord [led by former intelligence officer Iyad al-Allawi] of being Baathists," he said.


Ali Naji is a trainee journalist with IWPR in Baghdad.