April 15, 2006

Rewriting Iraq's History

George Orwell would easily recognize what is going on in Iraqi classrooms. In the two-year old history textbook used in Iraqi schools, Iraq's history ends in 1968 -- no mention of Saddam Hussein's rise to power, no mention of the Iran-Iraq war, no mention of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and subsequent defeat and expulsion, and no mention of Hussein's fall to the American invasion. Perhaps this is not so much a case of "rewriting history" as it is just not telling any at all.

Regionally, however, differences are stark and will be hard to overcome. In the Kurdish areas, the history of Hussein's murder of Kurds is taught openly, while in Tikrit, Hussein's birthplace which is heavily Sunni Arab, schools teach about "how the Persians are the enemy and hate the Arabs."

The reasoning behind this complete blank in the history books is that Iraqi officials worried that the traumas of Hussein's reign were too much for the many factions within Iraq to deal with a couple of years ago. Education officials worried that telling one history might offend too many people. A principle at one high school sums it up by pointing out that if you say something good about Saddam Hussein, someone will want to kill you, and if you say something bad about Saddam Hussein, someone else will want to kill you. It's understandable why teachers, for now, have preferred to say nothing at all.

There is now an effort underway to devise a new textbook that tells one acceptable version of the events since 1968. This will be a neat trick, especially in the face of attempts to create a government that is acceptable to all parties and which is having a very hard time getting off the ground. No small challenges, but if these two things can be achieved, Iraq may have some hope. A country united by an agreed-upon government and an-agreed upon history just may have some chance of perservering.

There are, however, several other serious challenges for Iraq's educational system which the Washington Post article cited above (and which inspired this entry) does not address. First, to what extent are Iraq's public school curricula increasingly becoming more religious and less secular? Second, to what extent are girls and women being less tolerated in educational settings? And third, what effect will there be on Iraqi society of a significant increase in male-only religious schools?

When history and religion mix, it can be a volatile combination that has always tended to limit democracy and freedom. In the Middle East, it is more the rule than the exception.

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