Controversy over the New Curriculum

While the need for revisions was largely agreed upon by most Iraqis, certain changes to the curriculum resulted in debates that reflected the very rifts in Iraqi society that the curriculum sought to address. The fact that supervisory committees on education and Iraq’s Ministry of Education were, and continue to be, comprised of multi-ethnic members whose goals may conflict is only part of the problem. Initially, controversy surrounded the fact that the revision project, though run by Iraq’s Ministry of Education under the US-led transitional government, was overseen by the US. Many felt that the US was overstepping its boundaries with regard to Iraq’s internal affairs. Criticism intensified following reports in 2003 that USAID had demanded that religious references be limited or banned from certain texts. Some Islamic religious authorities, already wary of US interference, saw the curriculum project as an American plan to westernize Iraqi schools. Sheikh Abdul Settar Jabber, who headed a leading Sunni religious group at the time, called the curriculum project a US attempt to “break Iraqi identity.”

Another problematic issue that arose immediately after 2003 was the manner in which potentially controversial historical events were addressed. Most histories relating to Israel, the Kurds, the United States, the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf War, for example, were deleted rather than rewritten in the haste to redistribute books after the invasion. A satisfactory solution was never reached, and many modern historical events and issue simply remained out of the curriculum, a situation described by a US advisor to Iraq as going from “one-sided to no-sided.” Currently, history textbooks (printed in 2009-2010) still exclude these topics for the most part, with the exception of Israel, whose relation to Palestinian history is prominent. The country’s name, however, is never used, but referred to instead as the “Zionist entity.” Students are not taught about any region outside of the Middle East. The only history books are “Arab and Islamic History,” which begin with pre-agricultural communities and progress through the Muslim dynasties and the establishment of the modern Middle East (with the exception of the topics mentioned above). European and the Western culture are discussed solely in the context of their invasions of Arab and Muslim lands. Moreover, this partial version of world history is only taught at a limited number of grade levels; high school students do not study history.

While many accusations spanned the ethnic divide, perceptions that the US supported Shi’a interests intensified the dispute and situated it within an intra-Iraqi context. Religious components of the curriculum have proven to be most contentious of all in this regard. In an attempt to develop a more balanced religious curriculum than the purely Sunni one used under Saddam, new material on Shi’ism was introduced. The revised content was instantly criticized for sectarian bias against Sunnis and subsequently retracted. Since 2003, the curriculum has undergone continuous change and several revised versions of have been printed only to be withdrawn later due to opposition. Many claim that the changes have been politically motivated, and a significant number of politicians, along with religious authorities, have been at the center of what has become a high profile debate (See: Throwing The Old Textbooks Out). And while most opponents claim that the new texts promote Shi’a interpretations of Islam at the expense of Sunni Islam, complaints run the gamut of the political and religious spectrum: some feel that Sunnis are being discriminated against, while others assert that not enough has been done to rectify Sunni bias against Shias. Still others claim that despite years of revisions, the curriculum still closely resembles that of the Saddam-era. As of the writing of this report, the debate continues and the curriculum is not considered finalized by some.

Visual praying guides from Saddam-era textbooks

One of the most contentious points of the debate has been over the way in which prayer is taught at the primary level. Though prayers under Saddam followed Sunni doctrine, the instructional images that accompanied them were ambiguous and could not be identified with either the Sunni or Shia sects (al-Tarbiya al-islamiya lil-saff al-awal al-ibtida’I (First grade Islamic Studies), Iraqi Ministry of Education, 2001; See also: al-Tarbiya al-islamiya (Islamic Studies Grade 2-6), Iraqi Ministry of Education, 2000-2002). Elements that would distinguish the prayer as belonging to either of the two were conspicuously missing—a decision that was perhaps made with the regime’s authoritarian aims in mind.

Depiction of Shiite prayer position
in 2008 Islamic studies textbook

The new curriculum addressed the imbalance in a number of ways. A revised Islamic studies textbook that was in circulation in 2008 depicted both ways of praying. Yet another textbook depicted two brothers, Mohammad and Ahmad, praying according to Sunni and Shia guidelines alongside one another (see below right). While a more inclusive approach to Islamic studies was the stated reason for the change, the move backfired and triggered a wave accusations that the changes were politically motivated and that the Shiite-led government was deliberately “fostering injustice and sectarianism” by differentiating between the Sunnis and Shiites. Parents and teachers accustomed to instruction under the Saddam regime, especially Sunnis, expressed concern that “teaching more than one way of praying might confuse children and “lead to discrimination and sectarianism.” They said they hoped children would be taught about Islam in a more general way that “did not differentiate between sects” since Muslims were “one people with one religion and one God.” Politicians and religious authorities immediately joined the dispute, a fact that only fueled existing accusations that changes to the curriculum were politically motivated.

Shia and Sunni prayer rituals in former
revised version of Islamic studies text

The intentionally diverse ethnic-composition of education supervisors, intended to help develop a balanced curriculum agreed upon by all, proved problematic to the project’s progress. Following the 2005 elections, a Sunni parliament member in the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front (Tawafuq), Alaa Makki, was appointed as the Chairman of the Committee on Education. The president of the Higher Education Committee, Abed al-Ujaili, was also a member of the Accord Front. Meanwhile, the two worked on the curriculum with Islamic Dawa Party member Khudayr al-Khuzai, the Minister of Education at the time (Khuzai currently holds the controversial position of the country’s third vice-president under Prime Minister al-Maliki). The partnership between the party-members would prove as problematic as it did in other ministries, and while parties themselves did not announce an official stance on the controversial study material, their members did. Sunni politicians criticized the Shiite-led Ministry of Education of fomenting sectarianism, and Shi’a leaders responded in kind. To make matters worse, the different groups lacked coordination amongst themselves. Shortly after the controversy erupted over the revised prayer lessons, Makki accused the Education Ministry of distributed the books without his knowledge (a charge that was denied by Khuzai).  He stated publicly that the new curriculum could worsen sectarian relations, and that it should focus instead on “the shared aspects (of Islam).” The debate fueled other accusations of sectarianism against Khuzai, who was alleged by internet commentators to have facilitated undue Iranian influence in the revision process by having the new textbooks published in Iran rather than Iraq.

Revised images from lessons on prayer in 2010-2011 curriculum

The lessons were eventually retracted. Those that replaced them were redistributed for the first time in 2010-2011, and, ironically, relied on images nearly identical to those used during the Saddam regime that could not be identified with either sect. In addition, parents were instructed to teach their children how to pray. In some revised lessons, however, both Shi’a and Sunni prayers accompanied the ambiguous images. Still other books included Shi’a, rather than Sunni versions, with notes to students that only “some Muslims” follow the specific tradition depicted (Islamic Studies Accelerated Learning Track, Level 3, p. 81). The impasse clearly remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, criticism has not been limited to lessons on prayer. Nor has all controversial material been retracted from the current 2010-2011 curriculum. One issue that has resulted in ongoing condemnation is the replacement in many textbooks of the traditional Sunni blessing “May Allah honor Him and grant Him peace” (صلى الله عليع وسلام) (after invoking the name of Mohammad) with its corresponding Shiite blessing, “May Allah grant peace and honor to Him and His family,” (صلى الله عليع واله). Shiites, who hold particular reverence for Mohammad’s family, use the latter blessing; most Sunnis consider doing so sacrilegious.

Yet another point of contention that remains unaddressed is the inclusion of Shiite historical figures in Islamic studies textbooks. At the intermediate levels (grades 7, 8, and 9), the textbooks are nearly identical to those they replace save for chapters on Imam Hassan, Imam Zein al-‘abidein, Imam Hussein, and Sayyida Zeinab, all of whom are central to Shiite Islam. Shi’a inclusions in the new curriculum also appear in lessons on Islamic economy, taught in twelfth grade. The source for these lessons, which explain the characteristics of Islamic economic systems and the government’s role managing them, is the Shi’a scholar Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. A biography of the Grand Ayatollah is also provided (Twelfth grade Islamic Studies, p. 33). Another example is a lesson added to the curriculum on Shia leader Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed in by a car bomb in 2003. The criticism that arose was not over the inclusion of the new lesson, but rather, the fact that it was added to Islamic studies books rather than those on political history (See: Throwing The Old Textbooks Out).

Not surprisingly, religious authorities have also entered the debate—both in support and opposition to the curriculum. Four years after the revision process began, top Shi’a cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani stated publicly that he supported changes, and that a single curriculum should reflect “all the beautiful colors of Iraqi society” rather than being separate for Shi’as or Sunnis. Statements by internet commentators followed that Sistani was “colluding the (US) occupiers” to develop the curriculum, since they “sought sectarian strife” in Iraq. And though most complaints were lodged by Sunnis who felt they were discriminated against by Shias, the new books were also denounced by one of Iraq’s leading Shi’a clerics, the Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, who said that they fostered sectarianism by “imposing one sect’s control over another.” Some secular leaders have since criticized the involvement of religious figures, Mithal al-Alusi, a former independent Sunni legislator argued against what he claimed was undue Shi’a influence, saying that “the curriculum should not be decided by clerics and politicians, but by education experts.” He added that the new books “did not even represent Islam,” but instead “aimed at creating a fascist religious identity (See: Iraqi Schoolbooks Criticized for Sectarian Bias).

Yet another component of the controversy over the new curriculum lay in its presentation of jihad. Though lessons on jihad in the new books are nearly identical to those they replaced, Al-Alusi argued that that the term jihad should be removed from textbooks altogether,” and that “there would be a new Taliban in Iraq when current generation of students graduate.” He explained that there was no need for jihad in the presence of a lawful government. Makki expressed related concerns. And while he stressed that jihad did have a place in textbooks because of its centrality in Islam, he felt that the lessons on jihad were unclear and needed to be clarified for students who might misinterpret them, leading to violence (See: Iraqi Schoolbooks Criticized for Sectarian Bias).

Next: Conclusion