Turning the page on Iraq's history
As revised history books roll off Iraq's presses this month, some critics charge that they have moved from one-sided to 'no-sided.'
For 15 years, high school history teacher Abtsam Jassom has dutifully taught 20th-century history according to the Baath Party. In it, America was the greedy invader, every Iraqi war was justified and victorious, and Zionists were the cause of world suffering.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, however, with the ouster of former President Saddam Hussein, US officials say teachers will finally be free to teach a more factual account of historical events. But the question is: Whose account will that be?
The first indicator of what a Saddam-free education will look like is arriving this month, as millions of newly revised textbooks roll off the printing presses to be distributed to Iraq's 5.5 million schoolchildren in 16,000 schools. All 563 texts were heavily edited and revised over the summer by a team of US-appointed Iraqi educators. Every image of Saddam and the Baath Party has been removed.
But so has much more - including most of modern history. Pressured for time, and hoping to avoid political controversy, the Ministry of Education under the US-led coalition government removed any content considered "controversial," including the 1991 Gulf War; the Iran-Iraq war; and all references to Israelis, Americans, or Kurds.
"Entire swaths of 20th-century history have been deleted," says Bill Evers, a US Defense Department employee, and one of three American advisers to the Ministry of Education.
The new downsized versions of textbooks underscore the political challenge facing the primarily US-backed government, and the private, and nonprofit groups charged with everything from rebuilding schools to retraining teachers to rewriting text. While US advisers don't want to be seen as heavy-handed in influencing the way Iraqis interpret history, neither do they want to be in the position of endorsing texts that could be anti-American, anti-Israeli, or radically religious.
As a result, some charge, in a matter of months Iraqi education has gone from one-sided to 'no-sided.'
"We considered anything anti-American to be propaganda and we took it out," says Fuad Hussein, the Iraqi in charge of curriculum for the Ministry of Education. "In some cases, we had to remove entire chapters."
So until curricula can be properly revised - which could take years - it will largely be up to individual teachers to decide either to ignore many historical events or to make their own judgments about what and how students will learn about their past.
Sitting in the teachers' lounge in Al Huda High School in the wealthy Al Jadriya district of Baghdad, Ms. Jassom first says she will teach that "Americans are occupiers. They only want our oil."
A few minutes later, however, she changes her mind. "We have seen what the old regime did - the mass graves, for example. The Americans have freed us."
However, a mile away at Baghdad University's College of Education for Women, Entedher al-Bable, who is studying to be a history teacher, says she will instruct students that Iraq has a long history of being invaded by the US.
"I will teach my students what I see: that Americans are the terrorists. This is what I know and this is definitely what I will teach." The circle of classmates surrounding Ms. al-Bable nod in agreement.
In the months immediately following the war, the bulk of the attention to Iraqi education went to the physical reconstruction of thousands of school buildings that had been destroyed in battle or in postwar vandalism.
Curriculum revision ended up in the hands of Mr. Hussein, a college lecturer who fled Iraq for the Netherlands in 1975. The US Defense Department hired him to be part of the new Iraqi Ministry of Education.
In May, Hussein visited dozens of Baghdad schools and selected 67 teachers with anti-Baath Party views. They met twice a week at UNESCO and UNICEF offices, pencils in hand, deleting all Baath Party ideology from Iraq's 563 K-12 texts.
Hussein was returning to a very different school system from the one he left in 1975. Early in his rule, Saddam was credited with creating one of the strongest school systems in the Middle East. Iraq won a UNESCO prize for eradicating illiteracy in 1982. Literacy rates for women were among the highest of all Islamic nations, and unlike most Middle East school systems, Iraqi education was largely secular.