BAGHDAD – This was once the pinnacle of world culture. Al-Mustansariya University is older than the Sorbonne. During Saddam Hussein’s time, even with United Nations sanctions, it was still churning out the best and the brightest in Iraq. Sons of wealthy families in Lebanon, Jordan, the Emirates and North Africa were still being sent by their parents to study in Mustansariya. Its reputation was sterling all over the Arab world.

Today, young teachers at al-Mustansariya – who insist on remaining anonymous, for their own protection – paint a bleak picture of university life.

It all started back in 2003. Most of the professors who received their PhD or master’s degree abroad went back to Western Europe or the United States. The few who remain have just finished their higher education. “During Saddam they were all forced to enroll in the Ba’ath Party. That was the only way to get a job,” says a teacher. “Almost all of them were in high positions.” Immediately after the invasion and the beginning of the occupation, many left for Syria or Yemen.

Then came the purges. The director of the university’s education department was killed in 2003, as well as the heads of the departments of psychology and literature. Sons of teachers were also killed – after their parents were fired. Almost all of the law professors at the University of Baghdad were also killed. The University of Baghdad, in the Jadriya district and not related to al-Mustansariya, is attended by a much higher percentage of Sunni Arab and Kurdish students.

Courses, anyway, remain on schedule. “But it’s only theory, not practice; there is no budget for it in sciences,” says a teacher. Classes run from 8 to 11:30am and then from noon to 3pm. At 4pm everything is closed. Students still wear the traditional white-and-gray uniform. In many cases they attend classes only once a week.

“And the teachers never confront them,” says a professor. After final examinations, everyone is approved. There are countless cases of students threatening teachers with a “bullet” message – a bullet wrapped in a piece of paper – in case they fail their exams. Copying during exams is commonplace. “The students can do anything they want,” says a professor.

What many want is to finish their courses and leave Iraq as soon as possible. The refugee demand in neighboring Syria for access to Western European countries, for instance, is enormous, and chances are boosted with a higher-education diploma.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army controls all the security arrangements at al-Mustansariya. Photos of Muqtada are ubiquitous. There are a number of well-educated Mehdi Army students – in literature and education. “But not many in the faculty of sciences,” comments a teacher. The majority of students nowadays come from Sadr City, Talbiya (an annex to Sadr City), New Baghdad and Palestine Street – all Shi’ite areas.

Not surprisingly, 90% of the students are Shi’ite, only 10% Sunni. A psychology teacher says she is not allowed to discuss hot political and social issues. She is allowed, though, “to prevent disputes among students”. There has been an express order by Muqtada al-Sadr that no Sunni professors should be executed, presumably by rogue Mehdi Army elements; in fact, they should be protected.

There is a bus station and a special entrance at the university for teachers, who carry special identification, and a parking lot for the students. Everyone is searched at the entrance, but not thoroughly. Mobile telephones with cameras are okay – even though “all the bombings in this area are coordinated by mobile phone”, according to a teacher.

A simple monument at the entrance of the university commemorates the victims – mostly girls – of the horrific January bombing that killed 107 and wounded more than 280. Now female students attend classes twice a week at the most. The university still receives threats via the Internet from Salafi-jihadists to “stop education”. Snipers routinely shoot university guards. This is considered by Salafi-jihadists a “Shi’ite university” – thus a prime target.

Whatever happens politically in Iraq, most of Sunni Baghdad – and even secular, educated Shi’ites – still fear Sadr City. It is undeniably a class-struggle issue. This is manifest in the extremely derogative expression chroqui (loosely translatable as “bad person”) applied to people from Sadr City. Or even worse: meedi (meaning “low class who used to live with cows”).

Wealthy Baghdadis refer to most Shi’ites who come from southern Iraq – and settle in the teeming suburbs – as “dirty thieves”. It would take a lot of Freudian and Jungian insight to analyze Sadr City’s inferiority complex. Sunni taxi drivers, just as in Saddam’s time, still refuse to take passengers to Sadr City (“it’s full of kidnappers”).

Final exams at al-Mustansariya are almost over. Soon there will be a graduation ball – inside the university compound, of course. Most of the graduates will be the “dirty thieves” of Sadr City. Democratization of culture or degree zero of culture? Call it the revenge of the excluded: the Mehdi Army is on a roll – sprinkled with university diplomas.