الواجهـة العربيـة

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Babylon Democracy Promotion

Period: 2004-2005
Status: Complete

The Babylon Democracy Promotion project, which began on August 15th 2004, set out to encourage the students at the University of Babylon in Hillah, Iraq, to express their opinions freely about any issue, whether it be related to university life, politics, religion or simply being a student, and to tolerate the views of others. The project also sought to encourage respect for the freedom of individuals and increase students' understanding of democracy. The project aimed to meet these goals through a student-run fortnightly newsletter and student debates.

Overall, the project has been a great success and we plan to continue this project at the University of Babylon and to replicate it at other universities around Iraq.

Impact of the project

The newsletter and debating society, which the committee decided to call Al-Iraqi (The Iraqi), initially met much suspicion by students and staff at the university. This presented many difficulties at first, the most important of which was that the university refused to allow distribution of the newsletter on campus. However, when students saw that the newsletter was encouraging them to submit articles and that many articles were being published from varying opinions they began to warm to the newsletter and submissions began to increase rapidly. The major break through occurred when the committee announced the Annual General Meeting and asked for members of the society to submit nominations for the 2005-06 committee. This changed the perception of the society both within the student population but also with university staff since they could see the project was a student run project with no political motivation behind it, which simply wanted to offer a medium for students to express their opinions, share ideas and debate. Membership swelled to over 300, 27 nominations were submitted and 135 students attended the Annual General Meeting and cast their votes. University staff opened their doors and even allowed the Annual General Meeting to take place on campus. The student union took it upon themselves to distribute the newsletter on campus. While the university initially turned a blind eye to this since it had changed its perception of the newsletter, later in the academic year it officially made an exception for Al-Iraqi to its rule banning the distribution of written material on campus.

The greatest achievement that the project has made has been the change in atmosphere at Babylon University. Through the newsletter and debates, students feel confident in expressing their opinions and now expect their opinion to be challenged by others. Whether it is through articles on university life, politics, religion, the rights of women, etc. the project has provided a platform for discussions and the exchange of ideas to flourish.

Debates

The project held 21 debates. The debates were lively and on several occasions attracted local media to cover the event. Several students particularly became fond of the debates and the chance it presented for them to allow them to express their opinions to an audience and to improve their arguments. In fact, despite the project officially finishing on November 15, 2005, debates are still being held and organized by the students.

The following topics were debated:

1. Uniform dress at university
2. Women and the constitution

3. Separation of religion and state
4. Federalism for Iraq
5. Unemployment fuels terrorism
6. Early marriage

7. Political activism on campus
8. Saturday should be a holiday


9. Rule of the majority
10. Role of women in politics
11. Role of youth in politics
12. The National Assembly has the legitimacy to write the draft constitution
13. The rule of law is above any other law [i.e. divine]
14. The National Assembly is right to confront bureaucratic corruption
15. The writing of the constitution should be transparent
16. The referendum is a good way to approve/disapprove the constitution
17. The constitution is a solution for terrorism
18. The trial of Saddam is fair
19. Migration of young Iraqis is a solution to their problems
20. The Islamic veil limits freedom
21. NGOs should not be monitored by the state

Newsletter

At the outset, one of the aims of the project was to provide a moderate form of religion to combat the extremism and radical movements gripping many university campuses in Iraq, including the University of Babylon. The project therefore intentionally dedicated four pages of the newsletter to religious affairs, as well as ensured that some religious matters are covered within debates. This strategy has encouraged articles and debate participation from varying sides of the religious spectrum, and has advanced a progressive and moderate viewpoint on campuses. For example, at the beginning of the academic year, the largest society within the University of Babylon was the Islamic Student Union, which is aligned with the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Iraqi Society is now not only larger in membership to the Islamic Student Union, but many of Muqtada's supporters are now abandoning their original views and joining the Al-Iraqi. Another example is demonstrated by an article published in the early issues of the newsletter which described how Arab democrats like Chibli Mallat were inspired by the late Islamic thinker and scholar, Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, for his essentially democratic ideology. Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr were deeply unhappy with the article and were causing great tensions with Al-Iraqi, claiming that the article wrongfully labels Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr as a democrat and a "tool of America". As the newsletter has a policy of publishing varying viewpoints, Muqtada's supporters were invited to submit an article stating their own opinions of Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr's ideology - this in itself was a shock to them and made them take a step back and re-think their outlook on the issue. Although they did not submit a rebuttal to that particular article, they have warmed to the society and are now regular contributors to the newsletter and debates.

The Student Affairs section has become essential reading for many students and staff and truly reflects life at the University of Babylon. The following are a few examples of how influential some of the articles in this section have become:

  • Issue 3: An article was written about the poor state of student accommodation, the risks this posed and the shortcomings of the university. Within a few days of the issue being published all the student accommodations were revamped with new carpet, new fridges and were generally cleaned out.
  • Issue 16: An article questioned why the university had failed to recognize students who had graduated with merits or distinctions. After the issue was published the provincial council of Babylon invited all new graduates with merits or distinctions to a special ceremony in their honor.
  • Issue 17: A powerful editorial was written about the state of the university campus, how trash was over-flowing and how this affected the mood of students and risked their health. Only 2 days after the issue was distributed the university took the unprecedented step of launching a mass clean up operation and even planted the first trees on the campus to improve the studying environment for students!
  • Issue 19: An article by a student revealed that the university had a secret internet room on campus, but this was purely restricted for staff use. Following this article the university made the internet room available for students to use on certain days of the week.

Within the university, the newsletter has become an authority for both students and staff to refer to. The newsletter has become the main port of call for students to raise concerns about the university. The university has respected and valued the opinions expressed by the students regarding the university and has on most occasions either taken action to rectify an issue, or have responded with an article/letter explaining their position. One of the most successful columns that the newsletter has run was 'I Want This Resolved', in which an article by a student is published regarding a particular problem they have at university. In many instances the submissions were investigative articles which exposed a problem at the university and which commonly led to the university taking action. In turn, the university recently approached the newsletter committee and requested they be given a regular column to reply to some of the concerns that are raised in the Student Affairs section of the newsletter and to explain the steps they are taking.

Several students with a special talent for writing have almost become regular columnists in the Opinions section of the newsletter and have been transformed into mini-celebrities on campus! Many students have expressed their appreciation that the newsletter has allowed them to develop their writing and journalistic skills and has been an open forum for them to debate many issues.

Very early on, the newsletter committee realized that the Opinions section would have to be expanded from the initial 5 pages that they had set aside for it to 8, which is half the newsletter, purely because so many impressive articles were being submitted. Over 200 opinion pieces, which the committee approved as being of high enough standard for publication, were submitted in the final week alone.

Except for the issues published during the first phase, every issue of the newsletter contained a cut-out feedback form. The results of these feedback forms are as follows:


Fig. 1 Respondents who felt articles were either good or excellent from Phases 2 through to 4. The dip in respondent's opinions about the quality of the articles may be due to the growing expectations of the newsletter and the fact that the newly elected team, who lacked the experience the previous team had gained, took over during the 4th phase.


Fig. 2 Respondents who thought articles express their university concerns from Phase 2 through to 4. The newsletter committee reacted very well to the poor results of the 2nd phase and improved this section so much so that it now truly reflects the pulse of the school. While almost all respondents thought that articles expressed their university concerns to some degree in both the 3rd and 4th phase, those who thought articles did this to a good or excellent degree has continued to increase from each phase.



Fig. 3 (above) Respondents who felt the newsletter, to varying degrees exposed them to opinions different to their & Fig. 4 (Below) Respondents who felt the newsletter articles initiated a degree of discussion amongst them and their friends. Almost universally, respondents increasingly feel that the newsletter has presented them with different opinions to theirs and sparked some degree of debate amongst their friends.



Fig 5 Respondents who felt the newsletter covers a good to excellent range of opinions. At first glance this graph shows that during the second phase 76% of respondents felt the newsletter covered a good to excellent range of opinions, which increased to 94% in the third phase, but this dramatically dropped to 65% in the fourth phase. However, the answer to the previous questions indicates that this may be more of a subjective answer by the respondents rather than an objective one. In fact, this can even be seen to be encouraging as it may be that the topics being discussed are ones which many students feel passionately about and may feel disappointed that equal space is being given to other opinions.


Fig 6 Respondent who felt the newsletter increased their understanding of civil society and politics. At every phase surveyed, respondents felt that the newsletter was increasing their understanding of civil society and politics. This result is very rewarding for the newsletter team as it means Al-Iraqi is not only achieving the stated aims of encouraging debate, freedom of speech and tolerance, it is also providing valuable civic education to students at Babylon University.

Conclusion

The Babylon Democracy Promotion project has helped the students at the University of Babylon to freely express their opinions, as well as to expose them to varying viewpoints. The project has helped to develop a lively and tolerant atmosphere of debate and civilized discussion within the university on different levels: informal debates within circles of friends, exchanges of differing opinions in the newsletter, as well as in formal debates conducted by the Al-Iraqi Society. The equal opportunity given to students of all opinions to express their views in the newsletter and at debates, without censorship or favoritism, has fostered a culture of tolerance and respect of individuals. At the debates, as there are no pre-selected debaters, every attending student has an equal and fair opportunity to nominate themselves to represent the proposition or opposition. Furthermore, a society based on a constitution has given both the coordinators, as well as members of the society, the opportunity to practice democracy on campus - coordinators are bound by their constitutional rights and duties, and the members were given the opportunity to participate in a free and fair election, as well as the opportunity to freely express their opinions without censorship or prejudice.

The successes achieved thus far by the Babylon Democracy Promotion project should be built upon and the positive experience this has provided to the University of Babylon students up until now should be continued and offered to the students attending the university next year as well. The sense of ownership that students feel towards the Al-Iraqi Society should be nurtured further as students are now, more than ever, truly able to contribute and be part of an institution that encourages vital pillars of democracy.

 

© 2007 Iraqi Prospect Organisation
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