Religious studies are often a cause of conflict inside schools. But in Iraq, where sectarian issues split the country, they’re particularly inflammatory. And while the government tries to overhaul the curriculum, pupils are dropping out in protest.
His grey trousers are dusty, his cheeks red and his eyes well with tears. But Muwafaq, an 11-year-old living in Baghdad, was determined. “I will never go back to school,” he told his mother.
The reason for the child’s distress? Muwafaq is a Sunni Muslim and recently at school, he ended up having a physical fight with a classmate, a Shiite Muslim.
And rather than an argument about toys or candy or popular culture, the argument began with religion. And it was a religious argument that mirrors the conflict many adult Muslims in Iraq also have.
One 11-year-old student is happy to tell NIQASH that his classmates clearly worship the devil.
Basically the two major branches of Islam disagree about how the religious leaders of their community should be selected, with the Shiites believing that religious leadership is passed on through the family of the Prophet Mohammed and Sunnis believing that religious leaders can be chosen by their community. The split occurred centuries ago when exactly that issue arose between descendants of the family of Mohammed and community leaders of the time.
And, although it may seem like a strange topic for children to be fighting about that is exactly what Muwafaq and his schoolmate were scrapping for. “You’re an infidel,” Muwafaq’s classmate, Mahdi, yelled at him.
Apparently the whole argument broke out after a history lesson at the two boys’ school. One of the books the pupils were using represented the Shiite Muslim point of view. “The book had the wrong information,” the little boy insisted to NIQASH. “The teacher is giving us false information and this doesn’t please God.”
After the fight, the headmaster of Muwafaq’s school, Munir Jaber, told NIQASH, one of the fathers went to the other family’s house and told them his son would no longer be able to play with their child. He told them that their beliefs were confusing his child, Jaber explained.
“It’s actually normal to see students fight over controversial issues they find in the school’s textbooks,” Jaber noted. “And actually it’s even worse than that because we know that some students have been dropping out of school because of these issues. Many families won’t allow their children to attend school, just so that they don’t learn what they consider to be the wrong thing about their religion.”
The Ministry of Education said that it had no statistics about students dropping out of school due to religious differences but that it was investigating the matter.
Other students and their families find different ways of coping with contentious issues at school. One Shiite child, Nizar, explained that his father had taken up religious studies at a special seminary because “at school we are taught things that contradict our interpretation of Islam”.
Another pupil, Hamid Ramzi, a Sunni, explained that he was studying hard in order to pass the exams at school but that he actually studied religion at home “so that we don’t deviate from the right path”.
During the previous regime, led by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, religious studies were described as being biased toward the Sunni view of Islam. Hussein was a Sunni Muslim, as were many in his regime, and the Shiite Muslims of Iraq tended to be oppressed. Hussein was deposed after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. But in 2004, after the first amendments were made to school textbooks, Sunni Muslims began to complain that their view was being ignored.
In 2006 Iraq’s federal Ministry of Education and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is active in many areas of Iraq’s education system, agreed to review the national curriculum.
Work on the amendments began in 2008 and finished in 2010. The revised textbooks are now being used and are undergoing a practical evaluation, while in use in Iraqi schools. “We have now started with the evaluation and development plan which will be finalized by the end of 2013, or early 2014,” Ghazi al-Mutlaq, head of curriculum at the Ministry of Education, told NIQASH.
NIQASH was able to look through new copies of textbooks and it appeared that much of the material in them had been significantly altered. As al-Mutlaq said, “the new curriculum is in line with what currently exists in other countries in the region. And some of it is even compatible with curriculums in developed countries.”
Then again, despite the quite significant changes made to history and religious studies texts – controversial sections on how prayers should be conducted as well as information on some significant figures in Islam have been deleted – a perusal of the new texts indicated that there were still sections that could cause conflict. This includes texts on the issue that originally caused the fight between the two young boys.
“When the text books were amended, there was an effort to stress the commonalities between the two sects [Shiite and Sunni] and to avoid the points on which there is disagreement,” al-Mutlaq explained. “If we find there are still some controversial issues, we will amend them as the assessment and review period proceeds.”
On the other hand, observers say it’s difficult to resolve these problems because of internal rifts in the Ministry itself. Once again, these rifts often run along sectarian lines.
For example, Nihad al-Rawi, undersecretary at the Ministry, who is a Sunni Muslim, said that he felt that, “the amendments of religious studies and history books favoured the Shiite doctrine”. And he questioned the bias.
“This is a very complicated issue and cannot be easily resolved,” al-Rawi argued.
Looking into this issue, it very quickly becomes clear that there are no easy answers. The conflict between the two sects of Islam is intractable, not to mention centuries old. And nor is the problem limited to the two major sects of Islam. The educational curriculum is also causing problems between Muslims and the followers of other religions in Iraq such as the minority Christians, Yazidis and the Sabian Mandaeans.
Followers of these religions are not included in religious studies classes; they don’t join their fellow Muslim students nor do they get their own religious studies classes. As a result, Muslim students often have no idea about any other religions. Asking around there are all kinds of misconceptions, with pupils thinking their peers worship several deities, some water gods and even Satan.
Khudair, another 11-year-old student, was happy to tell NIQASH that one of his classmates didn’t attend religious studies because he was a Yazidi and therefore, worshipped the devil.
Solutions to the educational impasse have been suggested but most of them would be difficult to implement, given the current political state of affairs in Iraq.
Al-Rawi has suggested a separatist approach, saying that each region could possibly develop its own curriculum. This plan might take into account the prevailing sectarian and religious influences in the different parts of Iraq, as well as take into account other minorities present.
Meanwhile the Iraqi Parliament’s committee on education believes that the various disagreements can only be resolved when schools introduce a more general course of religious studies that covers all doctrines, sects and styles of religion in a balanced way.
“The only solution is to teach all religions within the curriculum and to avoid any interpretation of history - particularly the history of Islam - from a religious or sectarian perspective,” MP Burhan Shawi, a member of the committee, told NIQASH.
However, as Shawi readily admits, this plan, while reasonable, is virtually impossible right now due to the current political situation in Iraq. Parliament is currently dominated by religious parties, which also have major social influence. Changing religious studies to be more inclusive and balanced has proven difficult in the West; it would doubtless be even more difficult in a political landscape such as this one. “We may have to wait until the political map changes to do this,” Shawi concludes.
Meanwhile one consultant for the Ministry of Education remained optimistic. Muhsin al-Abed told NIQASH that they were well aware of the issues in this area. But, as he said, “changing the curriculum is a dynamic and evolutionary process. And we will be able to overcome these problems in the future.”
This story was prepared as part of the Media academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq. The mentor for this story was regular NIQASH contributor Khaled Waleed.