Kamel Shiaa Abdullah, who was assassinated in Baghdad on 23 August 2008 at the age of 54, was one of a small number of distinguished Iraqi intellectuals who had returned to their country after the US-led invasion in the hope of bringing reason into the political, ideological and social chaos afflicting the country and the wider region. He had been working in the post of Adviser to the Ministry of Culture, serving four different ministers including a police officer and an Imam, appointed under the policy of sectarian rotation. He was also a Chair of the National Co-ordination Committee for Safeguarding of the Cultural Heritage of Iraq at UNESCO. Abdullah's wide learning (and fluency in four European languages) would have made him a key figure in the Ministry of Culture.
Kamel Shiaa Abdullah was born in February 1954, the second son of a large Baghdadi family. Educated in a progressive and socially mobile Iraq under General Kassem and the early years of Baath domination, before the accession of Saddam Hussein to the presidency, he trained as an English teacher. Like other intellectuals, however, he refused to join the Baath party when (under Saddam) it was taking control of the education system, and left the country in 1979, settling in Leuven (Louvain), Belgium, in 1983 after short periods in Algeria (teaching English) and Italy (where he published an English/Italian/Arabic dictionary for Arab travellers). He obtained an M.A. in Philosophy at the Catholic University at Louvain; his thesis 'Utopia as a Critique' earning him a triple A with distinction.
During the exile years Abdullah expanded his interest in European literature and philosophy to embrace painting, film, theatre and photography, and wrote and lectured on a wide variety of subjects, becoming well known in the Iraqi exile community and making friends from different nationalities and backgrounds. Exile was a recurrent theme in his work, but not a subject on which he cared to strike attitudes: '... If any language might be able to capture this real experience, it is that of the ordinary, passing exchanges of daily conversation.' This utter absence of pretension was invariably accompanied by a smiling, courteous and quietly-spoken focus on any subject and any interlocutor, fed by an astonishing range of references.
While he was living in Leuven, Kamel worked as a journalist and wrote on different subjects for Al Hayat (a pan Arab newspaper based in London), Al Wasat Magazine (based in London), Mawaqiff (quarterly magazine), Al Thakafa Al Jadidah (monthly magazine based in Baghdad), VRT (International Radio Service, Arabic section - Brussels) and APTN. When he returned to Iraq he encouraged young journalists to grab the initiative and learn more about their role in the era of the media emergence. Kamel was a great believer that media is the 'fabric of democracy' in particular in a fragile state like Iraq after the invasion, in fuelling or calming conflict, in state building and citizen building.
Like other exiles, having welcomed the toppling of Saddam Hussein while disapproving of the US project in Iraq, Abdullah initially had no wish to be involved in what soon began to look something of a disaster. But in late 2003, deciding that Iraq needed people like him to bring reason into public discourse, he brushed aside the objections of family members and friends and returned to Iraq, soon afterwards being appointed to the job he held until his death.
Kamel Abdullah was shot dead in what appeared to be a planned professional assassination on the way from Al Mutanabi Books Market to his mother's house for lunch, his driver being wounded in the attack. He disliked excessive security and had no other bodyguard that day. But his killing comes among a flurry of murders of independent Iraqi journalists; some, but not all, working for foreign news organisations. Seen in that light, it could be described as part of a campaign to suppress objective voices on behalf of an anti-rational, anti-historical project; one of several such perhaps .
By Faysal Abdullah