Iraqi exile activist returns to campus after extended leave

By Rachel Marder
The Justice - Jan. 17, 2006

Human rights activist Prof. Kanan Makiya (IMES) has spent most of the last four years in his native Iraq gathering evidence and accounts of human rights abuses committed under Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party regime. [Makiya is the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis.]

He returns to Brandeis this semester to teach "Describing Cruelty" (NEJS), which he said explores the importance of remembering and memorializing cruelty. He will also teach a new course on the post-Saddam era titled "War and Reconstruction in Iraq" (NEJS). "It's useful to take [the course] both for myself and for the students, to sit there and reflect on the last three years," Makiya said.

As the founder and president of the Baghdad-based Iraq Memory Foundation, Makiya said that over the last three years, he and his team have amassed approximately 11 million Ba'th Party documents, primarily from the party's intelligence services, have conducted around 100 interviews with survivors of atrocities and have collected between 50 and 60 pieces of artwork on "cruelty, violence, war, [and] uprising" by Iraqi artists.

"This is an enormous archive that will shape how future generations remember the Saddam era, remember what the war was all about and also begin to shape who they are in relation to that past," Makiya said.

The foundation is an outgrowth of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project (IRDP) at Harvard University, which Makiya began in 1992 to collect evidence of human rights violations committed under Saddam's regime since the first Persian Gulf War. Makiya was granted extended leave from Brandeis in 2002 to relocate the research program to Iraq.

Makiya said he is looking forward to returning to teaching. "While I've had a very exciting four years it's going to be very interesting to try to bring that to bear in the classroom," he said.

As the foundation of research in Iraq is in good shape right now, he said, he can afford to be away for a few months. "I felt Brandeis had been very generous in allowing me without questions to stay away for so long and it was time to come back."

As a principal author of the draft Iraqi constitution following the war and the convener of the Human Rights Committee in the Iraqi National Congress in 1992, Makiya said it was his duty to return to Iraq and hear victims of the regime express "the real experience of Iraq" and help create a new identity outside of the "rhetoric of the Ba'th Party [and] nationalist mythologies."

"I'd been an important person in the argument for the removal of this regime so going back was not even a choice," Makiya said.

Additionally, the foundation has aired 40 interviews with survivors on Iraqi television, and is in the process of working on 50 more interviews. "We'll have 100 in-depth interviews with individuals who've suffered terrible, terrible pain and cruelty in their lives."

Makiya said in the next few months the foundation will also make its holdings available to scholars and researchers over the Arabic and English translated Web site, which already has an active discussion forum.

Continuing as president of the foundation, Makiya plans to visit Baghdad for ten days during the mid-semester break. "I think that should just allow me to do what I have to do," he said.

University President Jehuda Reinharz, "delighted" that Makiya is returning to Brandeis, wrote in an e-mail to the Justice that Makiya's knowledge of human rights abuses under Saddam's regime and his experience creating the Iraqi constitution offer a magnificent learning opportunity. "Students will gain a unique first hand perspective from his experience as one who has been involved in the day-to-day struggles of the Iraqi people during and after Saddam."

Makiya is the author of three books, including Republic of Fear, a 1989 bestseller, and Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World, which received the 1993 Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book on international relations in English.