Dr. Jiyar Aghapouri is the head of AUK’s Center for Peace and Human Security (CPHS). Like most of the students and many of the other workers at AUK, he is Kurdish, but his origins lie in Iranian Kurdistan instead of the Iraqi part. He lived and worked in New Zealand and has citizenship of that country. He is quite an expert on international relations generally speaking, but the Middle East tends to be the focus of his research and teaching at AUK. Content Writer Michael Collins interviewed him to learn more from one of AUK’s distinguished instructors.
You are a New Zealand citizen now working in a university setting intentionally patterned after American models. How has adjusting to a US scheme been challenging for you, if it has been?
Dr. Jiyar Aghapouri:
“Adjusting to a US educational scheme has not been so difficult for me, although I spent the past 10 years in New Zealand’s education system, as a student, researcher, and lecturer. As for the differences between American education and New Zealand education [which is very similar to the British system], I can categorize the differences as those in structures and those in content. To speak on structural differences, we can highlight things such as the timing of semesters and the way course credits are counted. For example, January and February are summer holidays in New Zealander universities, while in the Northern Hemisphere the first semester starts in January. Also, in New Zealand’s undergraduate studies, students are given fewer courses [called ‘papers’], but the courses are deeper. Actually, this emphasis on depth does not start at the university level, but in high schools. Nevertheless, even in New Zealand, students often find that they have a hard time transitioning from the hand-holding environment of their final year of high school to the very independent and self-motivated style of learning at universities. American universities tend to have more supportive environments and feature a more interactive style of learning.
I would like to speak specifically on how this relates to AUK, which exhibits and promotes American education in the Middle East. At AUK, professors promote small classes, critical thinking, and one-on-one teaching methods, whilst in New Zealand there are sometimes classes with more than 100 students. In such a context, tutors or lecturers would be hard-pressed to remember students’ names, much less get to know them and their learning styles. Also, the New Zealand style of teaching encourages more group work in the classroom and independent study outside of it. Most interaction between teachers and students occurs via email or pre-arranged appointments outside of class. There are other differences, for instance in types of assessments and requirements for admission.”
You are at the helm of AUK’s Center for Peace and Human Security. How would you describe the center’s mission, and how does it fit into the larger mission of AUK on the university level?
Dr. Jiyar Aghapouri:
“The Center for Peace and Human Security [CPHS] at AUK has just been revived. We aim to become a leading hub for research, education, policy recommendations, and community outreach initiatives in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. We address the major contemporary challenges to peace and human security by focusing on the following: Inclusion, Diversity, and Minorities; Citizenship and Nation-Building; Migration and Displacement; Gender, Justice, and Security; Climate Change and Environmental Security; Cyber Warfare and Online Security; and Crime Prevention and Victim Support.
The CPHS’s mission fits well into the broader vision of the university, as CPHS produces high-quality academic research and policy for not only the Kurdistan Region but also Iraq as a whole, the Middle East as a region, and the broader international community. CPHS will promote an academic research culture by producing first-hand, peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary, and methodological research on relevant subjects. But we will not be limited to producing just academic research or policy recommendations. We want, in addition, to reach out to diverse communities to apply the Center’s findings, to advance peace and human security in the society. Moreover, the Center aims to develop research partnerships with reputable academic institutions, research centers, and organizations throughout the world; this will increase AUK’s reputation and global visibility.”
Many sets of eyes in the Middle East and the rest of the world are on the events in Iran nowadays. In your view and in your words, what is happening in Iran right now?
Dr. Jiyar Aghapouri:
“What is happening in Iran is a large-scale protest; many people are calling it an ongoing revolution. People in Iran have been suffering from crises in economy, culture, and politics over the past four decades. Iran is a multi-ethnic state, and in each part of the country there have been protests at various points since the Islamic Revolution at the end of the 1970s, so the notion of protests is nothing new or confined to the past few months. For example, Kurds in Iran have always had an uneasy relationship with the central government of Iran; other minorities in Iran have had similar experiences. The reason that the earlier protests and dissatisfaction could not be heard so well within Iran or garner much of a global reaction was that those protests were scattered, never joining together under a common cause.
However, in September 2022, something unique happened, starting in Iranian Kurdistan [also known as Rojhelat/East Kurdistan]. A Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini , travelled with her family from her hometown Saqez in Rojhelat to the national capital, Tehran. She was walking with her brother in one of the streets of Tehran when she was arrested by the Morality Police, for ‘not covering her hair properly’ [a phenomenon called ‘bad/improper hijab’ by the Islamic Republic of Iran]. A few hours later, she went into a coma; two days later, she died. Mahsa Amini’s death ignited a firestorm of protest, unprecedented in the 44 years of the Islamic Republic. From the very first day, this tragic story provoked one of the biggest reactions on social media, with the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini going viral on Twitter. The formerly scattered voices have been united, and the protests have developed into a broad-based movement, calling for radical reforms or a regime change across Iranian society, under the slogan ‘Woman, Life, Freedom.’ The slogan has its roots in the Kurdish national movement but has spilled over to other parts of Iran and throughout the world. So far in the protests, hundreds of people have been killed, thousands have been injured, and hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned for participating. Unfortunately, national minorities, such as Kurds and Baluchs, have suffered the most and paid the highest price.
The last three months have had a tremendous impact on me, and, to be honest, it has been very difficult to concentrate on my work. As someone working on peace and human security professionally and even just as a human being, I cannot separate myself from the people who are being killed merely for voicing basic demands.”
Being an Iranian Kurd now living and working in Iraqi Kurdistan, you are more qualified than most to answer the following pair of questions. What makes the separate national groups of Kurds different, and what unites them all?
Dr. Jiyar Aghapouri:
“I can say that the Kurds in Rojhelat share common social, cultural, and historical characteristics with the Kurds in other areas of the Middle East. In this sense, the meaning of ‘Kurdish’ is echoed by scholars on the Kurdish ethno-national identity, stressing a common culture, language, territory [now, as you said, spread over several neighboring countries], set of symbols, experience, and future political aspirations. In other words, many Kurds believe that they are one nation, divided into four parts by external forces. Thus, the political dimension of Kurdish identity stems from its relationship with the establishment of modern nation-states in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria under the Sykes-Picot Agreement and other colonial measures, for which France and the UK are responsible. Now, for me as a Kurd from Iran, I cannot forget my ethnic and cultural ties with my fellow Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, or Syria. At the same time, I cannot ignore the political and legal realities arising from the fact that I am still considered an ‘Iranian’ citizen, and this status implies certain rights and responsibilities to Iran. Although I have never quite felt that I am a stranger or even an expat in Duhok, when it comes to legal issues, despite being a Kurd, I still need an ‘iqama’ as Americans do to reside in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
You were a panelist at this past November’s MEPS Forum at AUK. I know there was generally not enough time for panelists to say everything they would have liked to say. So, here is your chance. What else do you wish you could have said during your panel?
Dr. Jiyar Aghapouri:
“I actually think I said enough during my panel, which was on migration and economy in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, but please allow me to say something beyond my panel topic. It was my first time attending MEPS, and I can say that the prestigious forum is one of the positive initiatives staged at AUK. I believe there should be more focus on the academic side of the conference, and AUK should try to feature more local Kurdish scholars in the panels and workshops. We have a good number of academics and policy makers in Kurdistan, and it is important for their voices to be heard in such fora.”
“World peace” is an elusive ideal, but much of your research and teaching relates to it. What do you think is the single most important ingredient to world peace?
Dr. Jiyar Aghapouri:
“This is a question that most peace and security scholars have been trying to answer for the last century or so. The word ‘peace’ has both philosophical and empirical aspects. Philosophically, it is related to a concept of harmony and societal amity, without war, conflict, violence and hostility. However, such a definition is too abstract and subjective.
Systematically studying peace and conflict, in the manner of an academic discipline, dates back to the time of the First World War. Currently, the study of peace and conflict is one of the most developed disciplines in the social sciences. Reassessments of the field have led to the development of sub-branches, including peace and human security, the chief focus of the Center for Peace and Human Security at AUK. ‘Human security’ refers to the security of individuals and communities, as opposed to the security of states. Human security recognizes that there are several dimensions related to feeling safe, such as freedom from fear, freedom from want, and freedom from indignity. A people-centered approach to security has implications for how we carry out conflict assessment, program planning, program implementation, and the evaluation of peacebuilding initiatives.”
The best teachers keep on learning themselves. What are you most interested in learning about these days? Why?
Dr. Jiyar Aghapouri:
“We as teachers always remind students that education is the key to personal development and the future of societies. I call myself a learner and facilitator, as I believe there is no teaching without learning. This learning comes as you teach in class; you learn from your students and the classroom experience itself. Another aspect of learning is developing skills and knowledge. At AUK, I am researching and teaching in International Studies, which is an interdisciplinary subject requiring that the teacher have the most up-to-date information about the socio-political and economic developments throughout the world. So, I must read many sources on migration, Kurdistan, Middle Eastern politics and history, research methodology, and other aspects of peace and human security. I generally do this reading for three to four hours every day, embracing it as part of my job. I also read recreationally, beyond my research and teaching requirements, for one to two hours daily. I like reading novels, which are great sources of learning and pleasure. Because I need to keep abreast of the world’s latest events, I read newspapers and listen to several media channels every day. In each of these activities, I learn new things that I share with students. Students like knowing about things beyond the syllabus, and I usually discuss the daily or weekly developments for the first 10 minutes of my classes. To summarize, I should say education is a never-ending process, not stopping with getting a PhD or even post-doctoral certificates. Thus, I, as a teacher, am a learner, a reader, and a student among students. By intentionally viewing myself as a student still, I, as a teacher, can look at the education process through another lens.”