Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Teaching Patriotism in Iraqi Classrooms ; Teachers Try to Inculcate a Love of Country, Even as Competing Groups Vie to Define the New Iraq

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Teaching Patriotism in Iraqi Classrooms ; Teachers Try to Inculcate a Love of Country, Even as Competing Groups Vie to Define the New Iraq

Article excerpt

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. …

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