Teaching patriotism in Iraqi classrooms

Teachers try to inculcate a love of country, even as competing groups vie to define the new Iraq.

As a sixth-grade teacher in a Baghdad elementary school, Taha Majeed had to teach a course before the war called "patriotic education." She still teaches it today.

But the textbook for the class has been scrubbed of Saddam Hussein, and in his place are lessons on "loving our country" and community involvement to promote the cleanliness of neighborhood and city. "It's not a history book; it doesn't mention the former regime or the changes we've undergone," says Mrs. Majeed (not her real name).

Still, Iraq's classrooms are not sheltered from the struggles unfolding outside, particularly sectarian tensions. The task of educating children here about being citizens is made more difficult by conflicting visions over what form the new Iraq should take and exactly how united it should be.

That debate has reached a critical juncture as tough postelection negotiations for a coalition government are likely to determine whether Iraq finds the political unity to extinguish the insurgency or deteriorates into civil war.

Vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi, a leading contender to become the next prime minister, says Iraq should be a country of semi-autonomous regions - including a powerful Shiite region in the south - as envisioned in the new constitution. But many Sunnis have been drawn into the political process on the promise that entering the next national assembly could afford them the clout to forestall a weak central state.

Despite such political centrifugal forces, many educators in Iraq are trying to keep a vision of a coherent nation alive.

"We have hope that the children will learn to love their country, and that this will last," says Majeed, "but I only say I have hope. The more I live our situation," she adds, "I am not so confident."

Ask Iraqis, and anecdotal evidence of Iraq's divides playing out in the classroom is easy to come by: Shiite teachers extolling their prophets and present-day religious leaders in the exuberance of the Shiite majority's liberation from 30 years of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated rule; Kurdish teachers promoting the dream of an independent Kurdistan; or the Sunni boy who returned home crying because a teacher equated Sunnis with terrorists.

Education officials insist such overt expressions of prejudice are rare. But they acknowledge that the new demands placed on civics education are arduous in a country shedding decades of harsh minority rule and rediscovering - for good and for ill - its religious and ethnic diversity.

"We are coming out of a culture of authority over people," says Karim Al Waali, director of primary and secondary education in Iraq's education ministry. "Our goal now is to employ education to build a culture of the people, even as we recognize that this is a time to appeal for union."

An intellectual who weaves references to philosophers and education theorists into his conversation, Dr. Waali says it was to be anticipated that a country with a diverse population would witness a certain rise in sectarianism as it emerged from an authoritative dictatorship. "We have a problem, we admit it," he says.

But he says a strategy is being implemented to nip divisive tendencies, including rewriting textbooks and teacher training. "The [weak] training and qualification of teachers is something that debilitates us and we acknowledge it," he says.

Iraq is working with UNESCO and neighboring Jordan to develop textbooks and introduce modernized teaching methods. In the meantime, however, teachers are proceeding with "patriotic education" without textbooks and with little guidance.

At the Mutamezine boys secondary school in Baghdad, principal Ali Hussein Nahi says the new freedom of the post-Saddam period encourages teachers to express their own views - but that can lead to trouble.

"The strength of the Iraqi culture meant that teachers and even many students knew the truth of what was going on even under Saddam, and they felt their real priority was Iraq and not one man, so that is what is coming out now," he says. "But it's true that without textbooks as a guide, some teachers can go off in personal directions."

Mr. Nahi says a textbook is being developed for the older boys in his school - he has boys 12 to 18 years old - that will focus on respect for human rights. And he says he has held meetings with his faculty to review the new priorities for patriotic education of inculcating love for one united Iraq.

But with no specific civics class for older boys, he says, the primary means of passing on these principles is through the Thursday flag-raising ceremony, a ritual in Iraqi schools where faculty and students gather at the flagpole to raise the flag and hear a short talk. "The theme is usually something about helping to build our country or what makes this Iraq," he says.

As principal, Nahi says he does have to keep an eye out for prejudicial behavior among teachers. He recalls when the father of a Christian student recently called to complain that his son was being required to remain in a class on Islamic studies that Christians had always had the right to sit out. Nahi questioned the teacher - who said she had acted because she didn't think leaving the classroom was safe any more - but the child's right to leave was restored.

Nahi says another difficulty arises because Sunni families, who felt protected under the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam, now feel less secure and question the new power of Shiite educators.

But demonstrating the sensitivity of the issue, the minder that the district school office sent along for the interview with Nahi interjects: "You are not supposed to discuss such things. The letter [granting permission for a reporter to interview the principal] doesn't say anything about discussing sectarianism. You are supposed to talk about how we educate for Iraq's unity!"

Nahi says the question should be discussed openly, but he agrees that the priority for students must be to develop an understanding of a united Iraq.

At the nearby Mutamizat girls' secondary school, one teacher asks her pupils, "Are we Sunni and Shiite, all different one from the other?" The girls respond "NO!"

What do they mean, the teacher asks?

Fatima Ahmed Sabri stands. "We are one country, one people despite all the attempts to separate us. We will be one people with one future," she says. "Christians, Sunnis, Shiites. Democracy will push us to be one and give us a better future."

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