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.

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.

A system with a brighter past

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.

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.

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."

Islamic law vs. Western values

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."

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