Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
I decided to write a story on Islamic classes in Iraqi schools after talking to kids in Baghdad who were confused by the messages in these courses – including a child who questioned whether he would one day need to kill his Christian friend.
After talking to several students and teachers, I learned that the problem was not just with the Islamic curricula: one of the main criticisms was that the curricula were biased toward the Shia sect of Islam.
Sectarianism and religion are very sensitive subjects to report on in Iraq as the country struggles with such divisions and violence. Many believe that reporting on sectarianism will spark tensions, and perhaps is why this issue had never been covered by the local media before. But I knew I had to report this story because it affected so many children, parents, citizens and officials in Baghdad.
Many reporters in Iraq closely identify with their sects, and those in Baghdad often refuse to do interviews in neighbourhoods where a sect or religion other than their own is dominant. Many journalists also fear talking to people on the street, largely because of the militias.
I find interviewing people is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. I make it a point to visit neighbourhoods of different sects, religions and classes to understand various perspectives. I keep different types of clothes in my car, including an abbaya (a long black cloak) so that I can blend in with different Baghdad communities and put sources at ease.
For this story, I tried to interview sources in schools in several Baghdad neighbourhoods but the headmasters refused. So I waited for teachers, parents and students outside of schools in Sunni, Shia and mixed neighbourhoods. One day, I spent six hours in front of a school in a poor Shia-majority area of Baghdad.
I faced the most resistance from officials who gave me veiled warnings to not report on such a hot topic. One official told me I was pushing too hard on this issue, and another accused me of defaming Islam.
When I asked one official why there was no curriculum on Christianity, he became nervous and angry and told me I should not focus on the curricula.
A female Muslim legislator defended the textbooks and asked me, "What is your name again? And where do you work?" Because I always identify myself in any case, these were not questions I was comfortable hearing.
The story was published as a special report in English, Arabic and Kurdish and helped to prompt reforms. The education ministry doubled their efforts to reform the curricula after the story ran. The Islamic curriculum is now being amended to serve all Iraqis, and officials have promised to develop curricula for minorities in Iraq including Christians and Sabeans.
Abeer Mohammed, IWPR’s senior local editor, is based in Baghdad.
Link to related story: Iraqi School Books Criticised for Sectarian Bias by Abeer Mohammed ICR Issue 311, 15 Feb 10.
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