The Iraqi Ministry of Education recently decided that certificates given to Shiite Muslim students completing their religious instruction would be considered equivalent to the certificates gained by students who completed the ordinary school curriculum. The decision was made last month and applies only to those students taking religious instruction at institutions run by the Shiite Muslim Endowment. It does not apply to Sunni Muslim religious studies.
The Ministry made the decision as more than 6,000 Iraqi students were taking exams in primary and secondary Islamic studies organised by the Shiite Muslim Endowment in Karbala. The Shiite Muslim Endowment operates similarly to a Western nation’s trust, tasked with running Shiite property like mosques and shrines and also undertaking other philanthropic projects, such as education and social welfare.
But even in Karbala, a centre of Shiite Muslim religious learning and practice, the Ministry’s decision has caused outrage among local teachers and academics, with some going so far as to complain that the certificates had been handed out to random “losers”.
“As teachers we are shocked,” local educator, Saleh al-Taei, told NIQASH. “Approving these certificates has an extremely negative impact on students who are actually doing the ordinary school curriculum, which is also approved by the Ministry.”
The exams organized by the religious authorities are generally seen as far easier to pass than ordinary exams.
“The Shiite Endowment conducts these exams without supervision from the Ministry of Education,” says local lawyer, Nasim Jaber. “The Endowment is not an educational body and it doesn’t really have the right to issue regular certificates like this.”
“The curriculum taught by the Shiite Endowment is different to that taught by the Ministry of Education schools,” explains local writer and journalist, Ali Lafta Saeed. “So why should the students who do the Ministry course be punished for doing difficult regular school subjects like biology, physics and science alongside their own courses on religion? The Endowment students don’t have to take those regular courses or regular exams.”
Basically a lot of the Endowment’s courses are tailored with social welfare in mind, for students who dropped out or who left the standard education system for economic or political reasons.
“Now students can drop out of school for two years, then join the Endowment schools and get the exact same certificates without having to do any of the difficult work,” Saeed argues.
“It’s planting a poisonous seed and it’s going to affect our students,” says retired Karbala teacher, Abdul Karim Mohammed. “It’s going to encourage them to leave school and sign up for these easy exams and abominably bad classes. Instead of supporting schools and teachers, and offering more modern equipment and professional development, the Ministry has made this decision instead,” Mohammed said angrily. “No wonder that, now more than ever, Iraqi teachers feel frustrated.”
“The backbone of any education comes in primary and secondary school,” Hassan Hadi, a qualified engineer, told NIQASH. “The aim of this decision is to undermine secular education. I believe there are hidden forces behind these decisions.”
Karbala lawyer, Amir al-Shammari, agrees. “There are political parties behind this decision,” he argues. “They want to achieve their political aims by increasing the number of individuals associated with their sect or their political bloc in the civil service and the military. And if those individuals don’t have to pass any difficult exams – prerequisites for these kinds of jobs - this makes it easier for the political parties to achieve that goal. In fact, I’d suspect the government jobs have already been allocated to certain individuals. Giving them a certificate now makes it look as though they got the job legitimately, as though they had the right qualifications.”
“These equivalency certificates will help those individuals who want jobs with the government to achieve their dreams. But without too much effort,” al-Shammari concludes.
The Iraqi government is very likely biggest employer in the country – a report from 2011 stated that Iraq has more public employees in proportion to its population than any other country its size, mostly due to the fact that it is a rentier economy. One of the only ways to get a job in Iraq is to work for the state in some function. Which is why, of course, not everyone is upset by the Ministry of Education’s decision.
Murtada Salem was just about to sit the Shiite Muslim Endowment exams. “Getting a secondary school certificate out of this would be my golden opportunity,” he enthused. “I’ve tried for three years and I haven’t been able to pass the Ministry of Education exams. But this certificate would allow me to apply for a job in a government department.”
Salem did agree that the Endowment secondary exams were easier – the curriculum and the exams were freely available in local markets and bookshops which made it easier for students to pass.
Hashim Aqeel owns a mobile phone store in Karbala but he said that he would apply to the Shiite Endowment to study next year. “The Ministry exams are very difficult,” he agreed. “The religious exams are much easier. And a certificate from the Endowment would allow me to get a job in a government department,” he said happily.