Obituary: Mohammed Fadhil Jamali

Click to follow
As a politician, educator and diplomat Mohammed Fadhil Jamali devoted 29 years to the task of transforming Iraq into a modern nation- state.

Then, in July 1958, came the massacre of Iraq's Hashemite royal family which jolted the pendulum of change and set it swinging towards the tyranny and abuses prevailing in Iraq today - abuses uncannily similar to those that flourished there under the rule of the Georgian slave-pashas (mamluks) in the early 19th century.

Like other leaders of the monarchist regime Jamali was tried and condemned to death. Though the sentence was commuted he was imprisoned for three years until 1961 when his release was obtained through the intervention of world figures including King Mohammed V of Morocco, Dag Hammarskjold and Pope John XXIII. For the remainder of his life he lived in exile and was politically inactive.

When speaking of his career Jamali always insisted that education had been his great passion. When he was born Iraq was an obscure outpost of the Ottoman Empire; and it was not until after Turkey's defeat in the First World War that it acquired a separate existence. In 1921, soon after the British government gained its mandate over the territory, a kingdom was established. Its first ruler, Faisal I, had no doubt of the importance of education in creating a self-reliant state; and it was he who noticed Jamali's gifts and sponsored his higher education at the American University of Beirut and then at Columbia University in the United States where he acquired his doctorate.

Jamali grew up in the holy city of Kadhimain. Situated amid palm groves on the outskirts of Baghdad, its beauty lay in the cerulean-blue tiles and golden domes of its shrines; and it was here that Jamali's father served the Shia community as a guide and religious teacher. Despite this conservative ambiance, Jamali soon emerged as a committed moderniser. Returning from his first student year in Beirut he caused a furore by publicly urging the emancipation of women and the removal of their veils.

In 1929 Jamali began his association with Satia al-Husri who was seeking to establish an educational system designed to inculcate notions of progress, nationality and race deriving from the works of European thinkers like Johann Fichte and from examples provided by the recently formed states of Italy and Germany. As an Arab nationalist he pleased Husri by his commitment to causes like the Palestinian struggle against Zionism; and he was successful in resisting pressures from British "advisers" when, for example, they sought to endow Iraq with a British-controlled, English-style public school. But he clashed with Husri on several points of educational principle and eventually superseded him as Director General of education. Whereas Husri argued that universal education should await "the cultivation of an enlightened class", Jamali, deeply imbued with American ideals, championed education for everyone, even including Iraq's Bedouin tribesmen, on which subject he had prepared his doctoral thesis.

In 1944 Jamali transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and assumed the roles for which he is best remembered outside Iraq - as Foreign Minister and as Iraq's lively and loquacious representative at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

With the advantages of hindsight it is now obvious that Jamali's policies were at times mistaken and contributed to the tragedy to which he fell victim in 1958. Like his colleague and occasional adversary, Nuri al-Said, he was keenly aware that Iraq was geographically the closest Arab state to Soviet Russia. Gripped by Cold War paranoia, he refused to trust the efficacy of the collective all-Arab security alliance favoured by President Abdul Nasser of Egypt. Instead he emphasised reliance on Britain and the United States, launched a powerful anti-Communist propaganda campaign and fostered alliances with Turkey, Pakistan and Iran.

Though this "Northern Tier" alignment, best known as the Baghdad Pact, was excellent in military terms, its main effect was dangerous as it increased Nasser's hostility to the Iraqi leadership and drove his legions of supporters - including a huge number of Iraqis - yet closer to the Communist enemy. On the positive side, however, Jamali won much respect and gratitude for his ardent support of the Palestinians, Eritreans, Tunisians and other anti-colonialists in moments of crisis.

As Prime Minister in 1953 and 1954, Jamali combined humane motives with a shrewd realisation of the value of internal reform as a further means of countering Communism.

Opening the parliament in December 1953, the 18-year-old king, Faisal II, outlined reforms including the expansion of social services, increased wages for government employees and the encouragement of small ownership of agricultural land. Clearly such measures - which increasing oil revenues had now made quite affordable - could have done much to strengthen Iraq's Hashemite monarchy. Instead they were quietly sabotaged by industrialists, tribal sheikhs and landowners - and also by the omnipotent Nuri al-Said, who was now at loggerheads with the Crown Prince, Abd al-Ilah, of whom Jamali had become a close ally.

Despite his religious background Jamali was a secularist who strongly condemned discrimination between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Thus when he was Director General of Education he promoted standard education for Shias and Sunnis alike; and, despite being a Shia himself, he undermined the power of the ancient Shia seminaries in the shrine cities of Kadhimain, Najaf and Karbala. Likewise, as an Arab nationalist, he constantly urged Sunnis and Shias to identify themselves with Iraq rather with narrow sectarian communities or tribes. As an advocate of tolerance he set an example by converting to the Sunni persuasion so as to secure an Islamic sanction for his marriage to his beloved Canadian wife. But it was noted that he appointed many more Shia than Sunni teachers.

Jamali's private commitment to Islam was immensely strengthened by the ordeal of his trial and imprisonment after the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy. Whereas in the 1950s he would accept the occasional drink, his adherence to Islam was unwavering during his long exile.

In those final years Jamali lived in Tunis, where he was a friend of President Bourguiba. He wrote several books on Islam and educational issues and was employed as Professor of the Philosophy of Education at the University of Tunis. Still a vigorous opponent of Communism, he also devoted much energy to the Moral Rearmament Movement and maintained an important role as a freemason.

As he surveyed recent events in Iraq, Jamali must surely have felt as sad as his first mentor, King Faisal I, who shortly before his death wrote: "There is still - and I say this with a heart full of sorrow - no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings . . . giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise - against any government whatever."

Mohammed Fadhil Jamali, educationalist and politician: born Baghdad 20 April 1903; Prime Minister of Iraq 1953-54; married Sarah Powell (three sons); died Tunis 24 May 1997.