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Back Home Again

Feisal Istrabadi seems to live in cycles.

feisal istrabadiAs a child, he moved from America to his ancestral home of Iraq and back again; as a lawyer, he continued a family legacy, helping to draft an Iraqi constitution 80 years after his grandfather had done the same. Now, as a scholar, Feisal Istrabadi has returned to teach at the same university that gave him his law degree 20 years ago – and, in doing so, has come back to his childhood home.

"I grew up in Bloomington more than anywhere else,” he says. “I have family here – my sister teaches here, my mother lives here as well. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but I seem to have done it.”

After graduating from IU, Istrabadi spent 15 years practicing law, then returned to Iraq in 2003 to work with Adnan Pachachi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council who he describes as his “mentor.” Under Pachichi, he helped draft the interim Iraqi constitution that would form the basis for a permanent rule of law.

In 2004, he was appointed Deputy Permanent Representative of the Iraqi Mission to the United Nations, as well as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has also served as a frequent analyst for media outlets such as CNN and CNN International, MSNBC, and the BBC.

He returned to Bloomington this past fall with appointments in SPEA, Law, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and the Center for the Study of Global Change. What drew him back, he says, was the ability to work in so many disciplines that are crucial to understanding international affairs.

“It’s still very rare to see, in most universities, recognition of the fact that you cannot regard international problems as being just a public affairs concern or a legal concern,” he says. “When I was serving as an ambassador, I gave something between 50 and 60 lectures at campuses literally from Harvard to Stanford, and yet there are things that are happening at this university that I really haven’t seen anywhere else. There is a capacity to bring an interdisciplinary approach to issues like democratization and constitutionalism that you don’t see elsewhere. It seems that this university gets it.”

He refers to this past summer’s conference held by the Indiana Democracy Consortium, which focused on the theme of “Democracy and the Modern World: Prospects and Challenges.” The event brought together faculty from SPEA, Law, Political Science, and language and area studies, in addition to practitioners from around the world.

“The consortium had the capacity to bring together a first-rate group of people to discuss one of the most important issues of our time. There just was no other place that could have put that program together. It’s the kind of thing that interested me in coming to Bloomington in the first place,” he says.

At SPEA, Istrabadi’s current course is a graduate seminar on “Democratization in the Middle East.” He is pleased to see that the course has interdisciplinary appeal: His students come not only from SPEA, but also the School of Journalism and the College of Arts and Sciences. “The insights that the students have coming from the different disciplines are obvious when you listen to their discussions. Each student has a slightly different view of the issues,” he says. “It’s more than a bit challenging, frankly, to teach in that environment. But it just forces one to listen and to reconsider how best to communicate these ideas.”

He has been impressed, he says, with the types of international experiences the students bring with them.

“There is one student who has some expertise on Turkey, for instance, and I was trying to make a certain point and he was a couple steps ahead of me. He was forcing me to come up a step or two in my teaching, and it was very interesting to the other students and very interesting to me,” he says.

Sometimes these insights are enough to stop him in his tracks. He describes one conversation about granting amnesty to perpetrators of violence in exchange for peace – a strategy that is rejected by nearly all scholars of international relations.

istrabadi at UN“In that class I had a number of officers who served in Iraq, and I don’t mean they flew a desk. With one officer in particular, we started talking about Rwanda and what happened there – 800,000 people killed in six months, and it wasn’t mass executions, it was people being macheted to death. So I posed the question with respect to amnesty: What if two months into it, somebody now wants to put a stop to this, but the price is leaving the perpetrator alone?

“We went through the scholarly arguments against that, but one of the officers, somebody who had been under fire, said, ‘You mean to tell me that the international community is going to step back and do nothing and then prevent me from negotiating to bring the violence to an end?’ That was a sort of a jarring experience really. There were a number of those sorts of experiences.”

As a whole, he finds that students are more knowledgeable with respect to international relations than they were when he was in school, due to more ready access to information.

“I recall when CNN began broadcasting – I believe it was in 1980. It was a very different world in terms of what you knew about what was going on across the state, much less across the world. Students clearly have access to information that they didn’t have when I was their age, in a very easy form,” he says.

The danger of this easy access, however, is the ease with which misinformation is spread, he says.

He points to three common misperceptions that he regularly encounters: the notion that there has been no progress toward democracy in the Middle East; the idea that Iraq is an “artificial country” that can’t be unified because of the different ethnic and religious groups represented within it; and the popular belief that “tribes have been killing each other for thousands of years” in the Middle East.

With respect to the first two, reminding students of American history helps to debunk the idea that democracy happens at all once, guaranteeing instant rights to everybody, and to affirm that a country need not represent only one ethnicity and religion in order to be unified.

As far as the third error, he says, “There’s just absolutely no basis for that statement. There has never been neighbor-on-neighbor violence in Iraq. It has always been the central government perpetrating violence against identifiable groups.”

The last few decades have in fact been the most violent in Iraq’s history, Istrabadi says. He has only to think back to the time of his grandfather to remember a more hopeful, more progressive era in Iraq.

“The constitution my grandfather helped to write was actually more liberal than Iraq’s current constitution,” he says. “In 1925, it represented a very different era in Iraq’s history – a vibrancy and optimism. The 2005 constitution is much more of a document that reflects fears and awareness of the tragic history that Iraq has had in the 35 years preceding it.”

For this reason, Istrabadi hopes that genealogical cycle of nation-building ends with him.

“I hope that my grandchildren are not in the position of trying to reformulate the state of Iraq,” he says.

– Elisabeth Andrews