"Now everything is available"
Last night, Dr. Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraqi National Library, appeared on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. The interview isn't yet available on the Charlie Rose web site; I'll provide a link once it gets posted. In the meantime, here are a few highlights as I remember them:
-Five of Dr. Eskander's staff have been murdered during the post-Saddam violence, along with two of the library's drivers. About 180 library staff have received death threats, forcing many of them to flee their homes and, in some cases, even the country.
-On a more optimistic note, Dr. Eskander confirmed that there has been a substantial reduction of violence in Baghdad over the last three months. According to him, both Sunni and Shia residents of the city are turning against the Islamist thugs in their midst.
Dr. Eskander is currently in North America on a two week speaking tour. David Mehegan of the Boston Globe had the opportunity to interview him, and wrote an excellent profile that makes clear just how amazing Dr. Eskander's achievements are:
"Every person has a cause to fight for," Eskander said in an interview during a visit to Boston this week. "This was my cause. If every one of us leaves the country, who will win? The forces of darkness, the extremists, the ignorant. It was important to stay and fight, and my sphere was culture."
Since the library was looted and all but destroyed in the aftermath of the March 2003 invasion, Eskander has reopened the main reading room, created a conservation lab and modern computer systems, put much of the catalog online, and opened the library to all students and scholars. He also built a new 300-person staff of men and women spanning ethnic and religious groups and created a democratic structure of internal decision-making. Meanwhile violence reigned outside, which Eskander documented on a widely read online diary.
Of particular interest are some additional comments from Dr. Eskander that Mehegan posted on his blog. These are worth quoting at length:
Q. What do you hope for, from the West?
A. People or governments?
A. For people, my message is that cultural heritage is not just Iraqi; it is the world's cultural heritage. What has happened in Iraq does not only represent a disaster to Iraq; it was a disaster for everybody in the West, because we are a part of something called humankind. We all go back to the same civilizations, so what happens to Iraq affects you directly. The destruction of our culture is the destruction of your cultural heritage as well.
For governments, that you cannot use guns to defeat terrorism, and the forces of extremism. You need to invest in culture, and in helping cultural institutions in the Third World, I mean secular educational institutions, to fight terror. So you need to fight it first with ideas, with culture, with books, before you fight it with arms.
On the one hand, Dr. Eskander is right that radical Islamism must be fought with ideas. It is essential that Muslim freethinkers and reformers be empowered to challenge the dogmatism and intolerance of the Islamists. Unfortunately, against a movement with a long track record of murdering "apostates" and burning their books, ideas are not enough. Yes, libraries are essential to countering Islamism, but not if the books are destroyed and librarians murdered. Just as force was necessary to defeat German National Socialism and Soviet Communism, so it is required to rid the world of Salafist-jihadism.
For all the horrors and hardships of the last five years, Dr. Eskander explains why his efforts and those of his staff do matter:
Q. But what about the library users?
A. They are very grateful. They always come to me to thank me for this transition because they used the library during Saddam's time, when there were security agents inside the library, there was censorship, they couldn't read certain books and publications. Now everything is available.