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.'
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But, in the decade after the 1991 Gulf War, UNICEF estimates, school spending plummeted by 90 percent. Teachers' salaries dropped to $6 a month and buildings deteriorated.Skip to next paragraph
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The US says Saddam starved the schools to spend money on his palaces, but many Iraqis say United Nations sanctions are to blame for crippling the school system - one small example of a contentious issue history-textbook writers will grapple with.
By 2002, the US Agency for International Development estimated that school enrollment had fallen to 53 percent.
But long before the decline in spending began to hurt the Iraqi system, Saddam made his mark on curriculum. In 1973, Hussein says, Saddam ordered all textbooks to be rewritten from the Baath Party point of view, so lessons were intertwined with Baath Party ideology and promilitary examples.
In writing exercises, students were instructed to copy sentences like: "Jerusalem is always in Mr. Hussein's sight," and study the verb tense in sentences such as: "We do our best to serve our country and our people. As our beloved leader, President Saddam Hussein says, 'Serving the Iraqi people is a duty.' "
Now, in lifting all Baath Party references from texts, some worry that too much else is being deleted with them.
In addition to expunged references to the 1991 Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq War, and any mention of Israel (which doesn't even appear on maps in Iraqi classrooms), some domestic issues have been erased as well, such as Saddam's treatment of the Kurds and the ecological destruction of the country's marshlands.
The treatment of the most recent war is of course one of the most difficult topics to be tackled.
"The fall of Baghdad is very controversial," says Dr. Sami al-Kaisi, history professor at the Baghdad University College of Education for Women. "We will need 20 to 30 years to reflect on this before we can teach it properly."
Hussein says his team is also fighting pressure from religious groups that hope to make inroads into the school systems in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as well.
"There was talk that the Americans are trying to Westernize the curriculum and move it far from Islamic values," Hussein recalls.
Indeed, Sheikh Abdul Settar Jabber, head of the Muslim Awareness Association, a leading Sunni group, feels the entire role of schools should be changed to one that trains students in Islamic law. He opposes any US involvement in schools.
"We are an Islamic society and this is part of the attempt by Americans to break Iraqi identity," says Mr. Sheikh Jabber.
In months ahead, Hussein will begin organizing a curriculum committee that represents different religious, political, and ethnic groups from around the country. US officials say most curriculum decisions will be made after the civilian government leaves Iraq, and that they will play a limited role - unless things go in a direction they don't approve.
"We will strongly recommend concepts of tolerance, and be against anything that is anti-Semitic or anti-West - content that would only sow the seeds for future intolerance," says Gregg Sullivan, spokesman for the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau of the State Department. "We'd hope it's only an advisory role, but if something develops that's disadvantageous to the Iraqi people, we'd weigh in on a stronger level."
The best strategy for the US, say some, will be to get as little involved as possible - even if it means allowing anti-American passages in some texts.
"There's no room for George Washington and the cherry tree in the Iraq curriculum," says Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Georgetown University. "It will backfire if the US tries to overly secularize the curriculum."
Most nations - the US included - teach propaganda, says James Loewen, author of the 1995 book, "Lies My Teacher Told Me."
But the danger of biased history texts, cautions Mr. Lowen, may not be solely that students are misled - but rather that they are bored.
When it comes to Iraqi texts, Lowen suggests that rather than trying to wipe out all propaganda, the best course would be to leave some in, paired with the same events written by US and other historians - perhaps those in Turkey, Jordan, or Kuwait.
"Then supply additional information - accurate dates, facts, etc.," says Lowen, "and let students think about it for themselves."