When Iraqi security forces retook eastern Mosul from Islamic State (IS) in early January, they made sure to raise the national flag at a strategic point. No, it was not a military position. Rather, the flag went up at Mosul University, which was once one of the premier educational institutions in the Middle East.
In its liberation, the school was reclaimed as a light of learning against the darkness imposed on the campus by the militant group. Students and faculty quickly made plans to restore the university’s legacy as a vital force in modernizing Iraq with advanced knowledge and the highest ideals of humanity.
After IS captured Mosul in 2014, it used the sprawling university as its headquarters in Iraq. Engineering labs were turned into chemical-weapons factories. Other buildings were used to make car bombs. IS burned much of the library. While some classes were retained, mainly to teach technical topics, courses in the humanities, law, political science, and the arts were banned or altered. These core topics, so essential to running modern societies, did not fit into the IS ideology. Much of the faculty was forced to flee while a few were killed. Female students were restricted to studying health care.
With international aid, many professors were given temporary posts in foreign universities. Via the internet, they taught thousands of their students who had also fled to cities such as Kirkuk. The desire for higher education among Iraqis could not be extinguished by IS.
Mosul University had long served as a melting pot for Iraq, welcoming students of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. This purpose helped reinforce the study of such concepts as individual rights and universal liberty and equality. These virtues can bind countries under a secular government that respects freedom of religion. In addition, societies that value higher education for girls are less vulnerable to jihadist demands for women to be excluded from much in public life.
Across the Arab world, education has become an important driver of progress. Between 1990 and 2010, the overall literacy rate in the region rose from 58 percent to 80 percent while postsecondary education has risen to nearly 25 percent.
In a United Nations report last year, a group of Arab scholars noted a shift among young people that is ushering in a new cultural epoch. “Already this generation of highly motivated and connected youth is upending expectations. More educated than their parents and highly empowered, they are part of a ‘Participation Revolution’ occurring across the region, where citizens are demanding roles in all aspects of their country’s political, economic, and social life,” the report stated.
The latest evidence of this trend can be found at Mosul University, freshly free and rebounding as a dynamic center for ideas and growth.