Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Zuhair Jerjis and Ahmed Mohammed are both ten years old and often meet after school to play video games. Though they enjoy each other’s company, Ahmed wonders whether he will one day have to kill his friend.
The boys go to the same school and share a ride home to the same district of Baghdad, but their parents do not share the same faith. Zuhair’s family is Christian and Ahmed’s is Muslim. Recent religious lessons at school have left Ahmed questioning what end awaits his friendship.
“When I study that we have to fight the unbelievers in the name of jihad, I think, ‘Will I kill Zuhair one day?’ .... Our teacher tells us it is forbidden in Islam to make friends with unbelievers,” he said.
Being Christian, Zuhair does not attend religion classes, which focus exclusively on Islam. However, he feels the lessons have harmed his standing in school.
After the class, he said, he feels rejected by his peers. During it, he feels lonely.
“When all of my friends are in the class, I have to stand outside,” he said.
Iraq’s children returned to school this autumn amid a simmering feud over how they study faith.
Critics of a new curriculum, introduced gradually since the US-led invasion in 2003, say it has failed to tackle the causes of religious and sectarian hatred that have fuelled the violence of the last six years. Worse still, they accuse it of laying the foundations for future strife.
The main concerns about the school programme are that it favours the Shia interpretation of Islam and doesn’t offer clarity about Islamic concepts that might have violent connotations. Additionally, there’s a worry that some teachers are focusing on subjects not directly addressed in the curriculum such as the treatment of non-Muslims and jihad, or holy war.
Supporters of the new curriculum, however, say it merely rectifies past bias in religious education and accurately reflects Iraq’s identity.
The vast majority of Iraqis are Muslims and schools teach the Islamic faith from the age of six to 18. Children from minority faiths, such as Christianity, are free to skip Islamic lessons but cannot study their own religion at state-funded schools.
Until 2003, the curriculum reflected the beliefs of the Sunni sect, whose members included the former leader, Saddam Hussein. Sunni Arabs are a minority in Iraq, accounting for between a quarter and a fifth of the total population.
Ethnic Kurds, who form a similar percentage of the population, are also mostly Sunni Muslims. However, they are largely schooled under a separate system overseen by a semi-autonomous government in the north.
The current curriculum places more emphasis on Shia Islam, a sect followed by the majority of Iraq’s Arabs and by its most powerful politicians, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Muhsin al-Freji, an adviser to the education minister, told IWPR the review of the curriculum had speeded up after Maliki took office in 2006.
“We did our best to update the curriculum so it expressed the views of all Iraqis. A few changes were made, and more are on the way ... We are dropping references to Saddam Hussein’s ideas and adding other items,” he said.
The ministry was still revising the school programme, Freji said, but the process had been slowed down by objections from other parties.
Sunni Arab politicians are among the Shia-led education ministry’s most strident critics. Alaa Makki, a Sunni member of parliament and head of a parliamentary committee on education, said the new curriculum was unbalanced.
“The current changes have a huge sectarian impact,” he said. “The updating process should focus on the shared aspects [of Islam], not on a specific sect.”
Makki said his committee had received several complaints from parents who felt the new curriculum was sectarian. He said the committee wanted the education ministry to consult it before making further changes. Reforming the curriculum was a “critical issue for the whole nation”, he said.
Though he did not feel the school programme in its current form would incite violence, Makki warned that if more Shia doctrine was incorporated sectarian relations may worsen. His committee, he said, wanted textbooks to “avoid controversial issues that may stir enmity”.
Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni legislator who has adopted a secular platform, said the curriculum risked making Iraqi schools akin to the seminaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan that had fostered the hardline Islamist Taleban militia.
“Our Islamic curriculum does not even represent Islam. It is aimed at creating a fascist religious identity,” he said. “I am concerned that we will have a new Taleban in Iraq when the current generation graduates from schools.”
Freji dismissed these complaints, saying the new textbooks were neither biased nor inflammatory.
“The education ministry follows the same strategy in all Iraqi schools – we do not differentiate among our pupils and we do not discriminate against religion or sect,” he said. The ministry was “doing its best to spread forgiveness and brotherhood”, he added.
Subtle changes to the new textbooks can be traced to the centuries-old schism in Islam.
Iraq’s sectarian rift revolves around the question of whether the Prophet Mohammed should have been succeeded by a member of his family, as the Shia believe, or by one of his companions, as the Sunni argue.
Iraq’s former Sunni-accented textbooks followed all mentions of the Prophet with a traditional Sunni blessing, “Peace be upon him.” In the new textbooks, the blessing is a typically Shia one, “Peace be upon him and his family.”
Many new textbooks have additional pages on the subject of Imam Hussein, a figure revered by Shia Muslims. Some intermediate school students also find fewer mentions in their books of Khalif Ma’aoya, a Sunni figure disliked by the Shia.
TEACHERS VEERING OFF SCRIPT
Anecdotal evidence from schools suggests many teachers exercise their own judgement in the classroom, placing less emphasis on parts of the curriculum that may conflict with their own views or those of most of their students.
Classroom discussions have dwelled on violent topics not directly referred to in the curriculum, such as the treatment of non-Muslims or the obligation to wage jihad – concepts which have gained currency in Iraq’s recent conflict.
Sanaa Muhsin, an Islamic studies teacher in her early forties from a school in Baghdad’s Shaab district, said “each Muslim had a duty to carry out jihad – namely to fight unbelievers”. She described as unbelievers those who did not follow Allah or the Prophet Mohammed.
Khalid Ibrahim, a Baghdad primary school teacher, said his students often questioned if the killing of Americans or Jews could truly be sinful. They also questioned why religious fighters were called terrorists, he said, given the rewards said to be awaiting them in heaven.
Ibrahim said he wondered whether many of today’s terrorists were driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam. “They would not be criminals if they had been educated correctly,” he said.
Sajjad Kiayyad, a seven-year-old schoolboy in eastern Baghdad, said he planned to become a holy warrior when he grew up.
“I will fight the Americans because they are Jewish and unbelievers,” he said. “I will be victorious, or I will be a martyr in heaven.”
Maryam Ali, a nine-year-old girl wearing a pink headscarf with her school uniform, said she was carrying out her own jihad by calling on “unveiled female friends to cover their heads”.
Freji told IWPR the education ministry had instructed teachers to steer clear of issues that aroused conflict. The new curriculum, he said, focused on the fraternal aspects of Islam, “The Islamic religion, and therefore the Islamic curriculum, emphasises forgiveness and mercy.”
Makki, the Sunni legislator, said textbooks should offer clarity about Islamic concepts that could have violent connotations. “We have to avoid incorrect interpretations by writing the curriculum in a straightforward, simple manner,” he said.
Jihad must be taught as it was a central concept in Islam, he said, with textbooks presenting it as the duty to “rectify wrongs and establish a civilised community”.
However, Alusi, the independent member of parliament, felt terms such as jihad ought to be eliminated from textbooks.
“There is no need for jihad as long as there is a lawful government and parliament in Iraq,” he said. “The curriculum should be decided by experts – not by clerics or politicians.”
Alusi said he was in favour of Islamic education in school as long as it excluded “destructive terrorist ideas”.
Though Freji, the adviser to the education minister, has insisted the school programme is still under review, some question whether the government will ever accommodate its critics. They argue that it has already accomplished its objective: introducing a Shia slant to the teaching of Islam.
“The updating [of the curriculum] is over,” an official from the ministry told IWPR. The official, who was not authorised to speak to the press and asked not to be named, said talk of updating the curriculum was “a long-term promise”.
“The ministry keeps on saying the process is still underway in order to allay [the concerns of] the Sunnis,” the official said.
Freji insists the ministry is sincere and says the updating process is slow. “It is not a one-day task and we cannot promise to accomplish it this month or this year,” he said.
Some Shia politicians argue that the new curriculum’s focus on Islam is entirely practical – and does not discriminate against minorities.
Muna Zalzala, a legislator from a major Shia party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI, cited the post-2003 constitution in support of the curriculum.
“An item in the constitution said no laws should contradict Islam,” she said. “Therefore our Iraqi sons who are not Muslim have to know the basics of Islam in order to avoid unconstitutional and illegal matters.”
Many parents remain troubled. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, they had hoped a new, democratic constitution would make education more inclusive.
“I wish my daughter could learn our religion at school,” said Um Suhad, the mother of teenage girl and a member of the Sabean-Mandean community, which has been severely persecuted for its ancient faith.
Alaa Ali, a father of two children who refused to disclose whether he was Shia or Sunni, said the new curriculum had “simply switched Saddam’s Sunni bias with Shia influence”.
Given Iraq’s diversity and instability, some question whether faith should be taught at all in school.
Hussein Alaa, a 30-year-old maths teacher brought up in a Shia family in the days of Saddam Hussein, recalled trying to reconcile the form of Islam he was taught at school to the one he learnt at home.
“It was difficult as a six-year-old kid to learn a Sunni version of a prayer at school and a Shia one at home,” he said.
The experience convinced him faith ought to be a private matter.
“Religion is not a profession; it is a personal belief,” he said. “I would rather drop its teaching from schools.”
Abeer Mohammed, IWPR’s senior local editor, is based in Baghdad.
Also see Story Behind the Story: Iraqi School Books Criticised for Sectarian Bias by Abeer Mohammed, ICR Issue 350, 17 Aug 10.
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