Vida Hanna, a director for public relations at Catholic University in Erbil, recalled the first week of her first-grade year when a classmate called her a kafir, or an infidel, upon learning that she was Christian. “He told me I would burn in hell,” said Hanna, a former member of USIP’s Iraq team, still shaken by the experience 22 years ago. Hanna’s experience is a microcosm of the ignorance and negative thinking that exist among segments of Iraqi society, which can exacerbate intercommunal tensions.
Iraq has been home to a medley of ethnoreligious groups for a millennium, including Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Ezidis (Yazidis), Christians, Zoroastrians, Kakai, Baha’i, and many more. But, throughout history up until today, foreign and local powers pitted the country’s rich diversity against itself, scapegoating some groups and propping up others. Terms such as “infidel,” “saboteur,” or “fifth column,” have been lobbed at many groups, contributing to further divisions and fueling fear of “the other.”
Today, Iraq is in tumult as it grapples with a cratering economy, anti-government protests, poor security, and COVID-19, among many other things. So, it might seem strange that out of all things the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities (AIM) has been working this year to advocate for a primary school curriculum that better represents Iraq’s diversity. A strategic partner of the Institute, AIM advocates peacefully for the rights and interests of Iraqi minority groups. While such work may not have an immediate impact on the challenges facing Iraq today, initiatives like pluralistic education are an important, if quiet, step forward in helping Iraqis to connect across differences and overcome the divisions that have plagued the country for too long.
Education Driving Discrimination
Unfortunately, education has all too often been a driver of tension in Iraq. During the country’s Baathist period, Arab nationalist leaders prioritized classroom slots and university scholarships for party members, Palestinians, and Sudanese and denied these opportunities to others, notably Iraqi Kurds.
More recently, Nadia Murad, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Iraqi human rights activist, accounted in her memoir, “State curriculum [during Saddam Hussein’s reign] was clear about who was important in Iraq and what religion they followed. Yazidis didn’t exist in the Iraqi history books I read in school.” Connecting her education to the 2014 Yazidi genocide, she reflected, “I later thought that those books must be one reason why our neighbors joined ISIS or did nothing while the terrorists attacked Yazidis. No one who had been through an Iraqi school would think that we deserved to have our religion protected.”
Marina Eilda Gorgis, a Christian university student, told AIM she was pitted between the narrow school curriculum she was learning as a girl and what her grandparents and parents taught her: “When you don’t see any of yourself or your community’s native history in the school books you read, you feel like a foreigner, a stranger, in your own country.” Akad Youhana, a school principal for displaced Iraqis from Sinjar in northern Iraq, elaborated on the negative societal effects of exclusive education: “In the north, we do not understand who the people of southern [Iraq] are.”
Hope on the Horizon?
There are some signs of a more favorable forecast on the horizon. Over the last year, there have been indications of a growing appreciation for the heritage of Iraq’s diverse ethnoreligious groups. Although controversial, the Yazidi Female Survivors draft law, currently being discussed in Iraq’s parliament, recognizes Yazidis as a distinct group, a first in Iraq’s history. In June 2020, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visited Mosul and the Nineveh Plains on the anniversary of ISIS’s 2014 takeover and heard from battered communities about their needs. Further, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will visit Iraq in March to support the country’s Christian minority and preach a message of peace and reconciliation for all Iraqis. The pope will also meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shia cleric, as part of an interfaith exchange.
Yet, competing narratives of victimhood continue to cripple perceptions of a collective Iraqi identity. This is why school curriculum needs to be reformed, so that Iraqis can learn from an early age to respect their country’s diversity. AIM has initiated two campaigns to advocate for reforms to the primary and secondary school curriculum systems in Iraq and the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region. AIM heard firsthand from those impacted by narratives of Iraqi ethnoreligious diversity. They met with hundreds from Iraq’s majority and minority religions to discuss opportunities to remove negative portrayals in the current curriculum and add positive depictions of Iraq’s diverse groups.
AIM saw it as essential for students to see additional sides of Iraq’s history. For example, the alliance shared one recommendation with the Ministry of Education in Erbil from a high school principal in Dohuk. The principal asked why when students in the Kurdistan Region learn about the subject of Saddam Hussein’s Anfal genocide campaign in the 1980s, the primary focus is on the plight of the Kurds? “What about the others who suffered?” he asked, including Kakai, Faily Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, Baha’is, and others.
AIM believes a more common understanding of other group’s sensitivities can create a more durable collective memory. Such an understanding could help Iraqis understand the struggles those from other ethnoreligious groups have experienced. For example, shortly after the Anfal genocide, Saddam Hussein employed scorched-earth tactics against Shia Iraqis revolting in the country’s south, displacing those living in the country’s marshlands for decades.
Building Curriculum Based on Coexistence
The Ministry of Education’s curriculum department, in both federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, invited AIM to advise in the drafting of subject material that widens the aperture on past genocides and atrocities. Greater equality of narratives in school curriculum could build wider equality among all Iraqis.
With different communities’ concerns at hand, AIM advised on revisions to subjects in history, geography, civics, languages arts, and religion—with recommendations based on engagement with a wide swath of Iraqis and the alliance’s own analysis—centered around three categories: material that needed to be removed; inaccurate material that needed to be modified; and positive examples that should be added.
For example, in the Arabic language curriculum, there was consensus to untangle the study of Arabic with the study of the Quran, and incorporate references used within grammar and reading comprehension exercises to showcase names and heritage that represent the backgrounds of all Iraqis. AIM’s discussions have also focused on including more examples of multiculturalism and conviviality in the curriculum, a balanced compromise between the need for integration and minority concerns of assimilation. For example, based on AIM’s recommendation, the Ministry of Education in Baghdad will modify second-grade Islamic religious curriculum to highlight Armah, the seventh century Christian king of Abyssinia and Axum. The king was known for providing generosity and refuge to Muslim pilgrims in what is modern-day Ethiopia, serving as an example of religious coexistence.
Within Iraq’s history curriculum, one teacher involved in the campaign from Missan in southern Iraq highlighted the need to amend school materials that mention Bet Al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, the famed repository of learning in Abbasid-period Baghdad. These materials underscore the well-known fact that this was Islam’s golden age, but neglect to mention that this was a multicultural, multireligious effort. Non-Islamic scholars also contributed to this monumental human achievement to help systematize scientific and mathematic knowledge.
So far, AIM has secured commitment from Iraqi government officials to make 17 changes to the education curriculum and Kurdistan Region officials have agreed to 25 changes—making up almost all of the AIM-recommended revisions.
After consultations with AIM, Iraq’s Ministry of Education issued a decree to form a five-member committee to follow up on making the above-mentioned changes to the curriculum. Similarly, employees in the curriculum directorate in the Kurdistan Region agreed to add the contribution of Sabean-Mandaean and other minority intellectuals to the 10th-grade curriculum. Alongside these advances, AIM will now have a mechanism beyond this campaign to engage government officials on enhancing ethno-religious references in future curriculums.
Still, Ali Bakhit, AIM’s campaign head in federal Iraq, cautioned, “Changing curriculums is not easy and it is very sensitive because it means changing the mentality of our future generations.”
USIP’s work on the nexus of education and pluralism is not solely in Iraq. For example, the Institute has worked on peace education in schools and universities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Burma. These collective efforts have shown that greater emphasis on inclusion and peace education improves students’ critical thinking skills and capacity to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence or turning to violent extremism. Peace education can also improve intercommunal relations by positively shifting stereotypical perceptions of other ethnic or religious groups and facilitating new connections across lines of division. Finally, it shows promising cascade effects for society when students are encouraged to develop projects in their universities or home communities that rely on core peacebuilding skills.
Reforms for the 2021 academic year are still being hashed out. Curriculum reforms are a necessary next step forward, but, ultimately, not enough to build a collective Iraqi identity. Complementary efforts to engage society at large, both with educators in the classroom but also with religious leaders in mosques, churches, and other places of worship will be needed to promote the values of multiculturalism. “That little boy learned such a hateful term before he ever entered school,” said Hanna. “We need to learn all of Iraq’s multilingual and multireligious history and traditions, no matter how hurtful it may be.”
Salah Abdulrahman is project assistant for Iraq programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.