Religious Study Confronts U.S. in Iraq

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 11, 2003 11 min read
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The role that religion will play in postwar Iraq is a potential political powder keg for U.S. companies and nonprofit organizations charged with remaking primary and secondary schools there, as well as for the Bush administration and the government that emerges from the United States-led occupation.

People are watching to make sure those American groups, hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development, don’t use federal money for curriculum and teaching in ways that violate the U.S. principle of church-state separation. The issue is sensitive in Iraq, too, because one Islamic sect—the Sunnis—has historically dominated the leadership ranks, even though another— the Shiites—is in the majority.

For the time being, U.S. education contractors say they are preoccupied with transferring personnel to Basra, Iraq, and figuring out how to equip Iraqi schools with furniture and materials. Still, they acknowledge they’re taking stock of larger issues that may affect their longer-term work of academic reconstruction.

“The first phase is school supplies,” said Stephen Horblitt, the director of external relations for the Washington-based Creative Associates International, which in April landed a $63 million, one-year contract with the USAID to revitalize Iraqi schools. (“U.S.-Led Effort Girds to Reinvent Iraqi Schools,” April 23, 2003.)

Other tasks called for in the contract—such as training teachers, establishing accelerated-learning programs, and writing curricula—are more likely than the first phase to involve questions of religion, he said.

The principal U.S. contractor is unwilling, though, to discuss its plans for carrying out those tasks, at least at present.

Creative Associates employees are too busy to answer questions about their work from the news media, according to Mr. Horblitt. He declined a request from Education Week for staff members in Iraq to answer questions through e-mail. What’s more, some representatives of the company’s subcontractors said they’ve been told not to discuss specifics about Iraq with reporters.

Frank Method, who is directing the efforts of one of those subcontractors, RTI International, of Research Triangle Park, N.C., agreed to speak broadly about the topic of religion in public schools in Islamic countries.

“The question is how do you create a context that has respect for the various religions, but is committed to the core-curriculum objectives of the nation,” Mr. Method said.

“There are questions as to whether you simply permit religion or require it. There are questions about whether it is taught by government-paid religious instructors or religious educators who aren’t paid publicly,” he said. “In some cases, you [may] have religion [in the schools], but it’s very ecumenical. It’s kind of a values education, in which you are really teaching issues of tolerance and respect, rather than any content of any of the particular religions.”

Ellen Yount, a spokeswoman for the USAID, referred questions pertaining to its policy in Iraq on the role of religion in public schools to the U.S. Department of State.

Greg Sullivan, a spokesman for the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau of the State Department, said the U.S. government hadn’t yet addressed such issues as whether it would permit religious groups to manage public schools or use federal money to print textbooks with religious content.

“I do talk to the [U.S. government] people in Baghdad,” he said, “I get the impression that it’s really a big-picture view at this point. They haven’t worked out the nitty-gritty details.”

Experts on education in Islamic countries say that if the U.S. groups working in Iraq want to avoid a firestorm, they will steer clear of offering specific advice to Iraqis on how to handle religion in the schools. They point to Islamic countries where the experts believe religion takes up too big a chunk of the public school curriculum and culture. Yet there are other countries, they say, that have given religion an appropriate place in the schools.

Combating Extremism

Many predominantly Muslim countries require their public schools to teach about Islam, though the time devoted to the subject varies greatly.

In Pakistan, for example, public school students receive several hours of instruction on the basics of Islam each week, while Islamic instruction in Saudi Arabia’s public schools is much more intense.

About a fourth of the class time for 7th, 8th, and 9th graders in Saudi Arabia, for instance, is spent purely on Islamic studies. Those students also take an additional 10 periods—out of a total of 33 periods per week—of Arabic and social studies, which also incorporate Islamic principles, according to a study published last summer in the journal Middle East Policy by William A. Rugh, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the president of the Washington-based America-Mideast Educational and Training Services Inc.

In Iran, meanwhile, Islam is not only taught as a core subject, but also is woven into most aspects of school culture. Those include dress codes and school assemblies that mix the chanting of Koranic verses with political slogans, such as “Death to America,” according to an Iranian educator, Azar Nafisi. She moved with her husband and two school-age children to the United States in 1997.

Ms. Nafisi, who describes herself as a secular Muslim and is now a professor of literature and culture at the Johns Hopkins University campus in Washington, said she doesn’t believe an Islamic country is ever justified in requiring students—even Muslim students—to be taught the government’s version of Islam.

“The purpose of bringing in religion is never just to teach religion,” she said of such government requirements. “It is used as an element of control.”

But many Muslims and non-Muslims who have worked or lived in Islamic countries argue for religious teaching in the Iraqi schools.

“If religion is desirable, which I imagine it is by the parents [in Iraq], it is best controlled in the curriculum in the public school system than to give the freedom to the mosques and different factions,” said Mona Habib, an educational consultant for the Washington-based American Institutes for Research. She is a Lebanese-American Christian who has worked in Islamic countries.

Dr. Ali Al-Attar, an Iraqi expatriate who practices internal medicine in McLean, Va., also believes that the teaching of Islam in the Iraqi public schools would help head off extremism.

“To prevent students from getting the wrong source of information from radical people, you should give them the basics in the school, which is under supervision that is acceptable to the community,” he said. “You will avoid that private clergy type of schooling that is going to produce brainwashed children with certain ideas that are very dangerous to the society.”

Dr. Al- Attar, who is half Sunni Muslim and half Shiite Muslim by birth, believes that every Muslim student in Iraqi schools should take a regular class in Islam similar to what the internist was exposed to before he left Iraq as a teenager in 1980. “It was a balanced curriculum, avoiding all extremism, focusing on ethics,” he said.

Raya Barazanji, an Iraqi-American and the chief operating officer of the Iraq Foundation, a Creative Associates subcontractor, says that the role religion will play in public schools in Iraq will depend in part on what shape a new government takes.

While the nascent political parties in Iraq are all calling for a “democratic and multicultural government,” she said, it’s difficult to predict how that rhetoric may play out should certain groups gain power.

“Let’s say you have national elections, and the Islamic groups win the primaries,” said Ms. Barazanji, a self-described secular Muslim. “They will want to work with the schools to have religion play a greater role.”

Revising the Content

Under ousted President Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party regime, Middle Eastern experts say, the Iraqi school system was one of the most secular in the Islamic world, though Muslim students in every grade studied Islam and Koranic interpretation for two hours a week.

“My understanding is that Saddam Hussein had done a very good job of not Islamicizing his schools,” said Uzma Anzar, a Pakistani- American education specialist for the Academy for Educational Development, an international-development organization based in Washington.

Ms. Anzar, who is a Sunni Muslim, believes the USAID contractors would be wise to support a similar allotment of time to Islamic studies in the school system in the postwar period as was true under the Baathist government. “I think they should keep the education policy as it was then and not try to dismantle it altogether, or that will infuriate people,” she said.

Zainab Al-Suwaij, the executive director of the Boston-based American Islamic Congress, another Creative Associates subcontractor, agreed that a similar mix of secular and religious classes might be appropriate in the postwar period. But she hopes that the Iraqi people will want to change the content of the Islamic-studies classes.

“If they want to teach religion, they should teach about other religions that exist in Iraq, not just Islam,” she said.

Shiite Muslims make up 62.5 percent of the people in Iraq, while the Sunni Muslims constitute 34.5 percent of the population. The remaining 3 percent includes Jews and Chaldean and Assyrian Christians.

The content for what schools teach about Islam must change as well, argued Ms. Al-Suwaij, a 32-year-old Shiite Muslim who graduated from high school in Iraq in 1990. During the Hussein regime, she said, Islamic studies were used to promote government propaganda—such as using a verse from the Koran to justify a war—and the Sunni tenets of Islam were favored over the Shiite ones.

Religious Textbooks

The USAID has encountered the issue of what role religion should play in schooling in other countries—most recently Afghanistan, after the U.S.-led military campaign dislodged the Taliban regime there in late 2001.

The federal agency paid for the printing of textbooks in Koranic interpretation and Islamic law, as well as textbooks for secular subjects, according to Ms. Anzar of the Academy of Educational Development, who was an education consultant in Afghanistan last year.

The Bush administration has defended the legality of printing religious content for Afghan schoolchildren, according to a March 23, 2002, article in TheWashington Post.

But some legal observers, such as Herman Schwartz, a law professor at American University, in Washington, charge that the USAID’s financing of religious content in textbooks overseas violates the U.S. Constitution.

More than a decade ago, Mr. Schwartz litigated a case for the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the financing of religious schools overseas by the USAID. A 1991 ruling by a federal appeals court in New York held that U.S. taxpayers’ money could not be used to pay for religious education abroad.

Mr. Schwartz contends that a lawsuit against the USAID for printing religious textbooks for Afghan schools would have been a “slam dunk” win, but said that both he and the ACLU were so busy with other cases last year that they didn’t pursue the issue.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Arlington, Va.-based First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum, agreed with Mr. Schwartz that the use of federal money to pay for the printing of religious textbooks in Afghanistan was a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on a government establishment of religion.

“It really would not matter where it was in the world because it is a violation of conscience for the United States government to use tax dollars to support religion,” he said.

Ms. Yount of the USAID declined last week to comment on whether the agency would pay for the printing of religious textbooks in Iraq. She said that the USAID has so far made plans only for math and science textbooks by signing a contract with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization to provide textbooks in those subjects to Iraqi schools by this coming fall.

Open Dialogue

Through a contract with Creative Associates, the USAID underwrote a five-day curriculum forum for about 150 educators in Afghanistan last December that included some discussion about the role of religion in schools there, according to MaryFaith Mount- Cors, a program associate for Creative Associates who helped organize the forum and wrote a report about it.

Participants agreed, she said, that one goal of education was “to bring up a generation of Afghans who will be good Muslims, patriotic and unified across ethnic and religious lines, progressive and respectful of human rights, and cooperative members of the world community.”

Educators at the forum raised the issues of how many hours of class time should be devoted to religious studies and how non-Muslim students should be taken into consideration, though such matters weren’t resolved, Ms. Mount-Cors said in a recent interview.

Sponsoring such activities that promote open dialogue is an appropriate function for U.S. groups in Islamic countries, education experts say.

In Iraq, said Ms. Habib, the AIR consultant, U.S. contractors should help Iraqis draft a curriculum framework that includes spelling out how much time will be committed to various subjects, including religion. Then, she said, those organizations should help Iraqis form committees to look at different academic subjects.

An important step in the process could be for Americans to present examples of how other Islamic countries have dealt with religion in the curriculum and textbooks, Ms. Habib said.

Even so, tensions over how religion should be handled in the curriculum are not likely to be allayed easily—if the subject is to be taught in Iraqi public schools at all.

“There is going to be a struggle between the Shiites and the Sunnis,” Ms. Habib predicted. “The writing is on the wall.”

Coverage of cultural under-standing and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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