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Creating effective education systems for young people is often at the forefront of discussions for nations which seek to increase their social, economic, and political stability. Positive educational outcomes at the national level contribute to higher levels of innovation, cultivation of talented individuals, and a reduction in so-called brain drain, a phenomenon in which the brightest and most skilled individuals in a community leave their area of origin for more promising educational and career prospects elsewhere. For Iraq, religious and theological educations also play an important role in the development of generations which are well-equipped to contribute to society and can engage in both local and international venues.

Discussions surrounding methods by which violent extremism can be prevented may cite religious and theological educations as factors which can simultaneously prevent and encourage such ideologies, actions, and behaviors. The UN General Assembly has acknowledged that, while theological and religious educations can help combat extremist views and instead encourage moderate religious beliefs, violent extremist groups often use the promise of education and opportunity as a means of attracting young followers[1]. Theological education, typically present at the secondary and university levels and in seminaries, refers to curriculum which rationally analyzes religious belief. It involves studying the nature of God, God’s relation to the world, and how these things are revealed or manifested in sacred texts. Students with theological education are generally equipped for advanced academic study in theology, as well as positions of religious leadership. Religious education is less analytical than theological education and is more common at the primary and secondary levels. Religious education often focuses on a particular religious tradition and includes curriculum on the history of the faith, the details of religious doctrines or tenets, and values and beliefs upheld by the religious tradition. In schools where a single religion is taught as a part of formal education, instilling a belief and knowledge of the faith tradition in the students is often the goal.

The incorporation of such education into schools has received criticism for its capacity to formalize religious or theological values into students—who may be unlikely to question authorities, teachers, or curriculum content—at a young age. This, in turn, may prevent them from being critical of such values or considering alternative views. At the extreme, religious education has been accused of leading young people to adopt violent interpretations of otherwise-peaceable religious values.

On the other hand, religious and theological educations have been lauded for their ability to increase religious literacy. Particularly in nations such as Iraq, where religious identities and beliefs have palpable impacts on the social and political fabrics of a community, the ability to evaluate one’s beliefs, understand the complexities of interpreting sacred texts, speak knowledgeably about religious histories, and engage in productive dialogue with those from other belief systems is a critical - and often undervalued - skillset.

Historically, Iraq’s education system, which is compulsory until grade six (approximately age eleven) and free at all levels, has enjoyed exceptionally high enrollment and literacy rates[2], including a remarkable 100% enrollment rate at the primary level in the 1970’s[3], and a global reputation of excellence and prestige. The country is notable for its attentiveness to educating females and includes amongst its core goals the promotion of high moral values such as respect and tolerance[4]. Students benefit from a wide variety of course offerings including languages, natural and social sciences, mathematics, history, and vocational and teacher training. Included among these courses is religious studies, which is offered for several hours per week at all grade levels.

During Saddam Hussein’s regime, religious education was a component of primary and secondary education for Muslim students and, in alignment with Saddam’s own religious leanings, presented a strong bias towards Sunni thought and theology. International commentators and Iraqi students alike acknowledge the discrimination felt by Shia students at this time, who were generally discouraged from pursuing higher religious or theological studies. Additionally, the presence of religious curriculum was generally viewed as stemming from Saddam’s political motives, rather than from religious devotion or a desire to provide students with a more holistic educational experience. Therefore, religious education and school curriculum at large is commonly regarded as portraying a more “secular” approach than the years immediately preceding or following Saddam’s regime.

Following the end of Saddam’s regime in 2003 and, more recently, the restoration of Daesh-occupied regions back into Iraqi control in 2017, the Ministry of Education has undertaken significant efforts to reform and revive Iraq’s education system. The general structure, timeline, and major examination periods of the education system have remained consistent with previous eras. However, the Ministry of Education has slowly worked to rebuild faculties at the university level which had been eliminated by Daesh on religious and philosophical grounds, including fine arts, political science, and non-Islamic religious studies, as well as strengthening the safety, curriculum, and literacy and enrollment rates at primary and secondary level schools - all of which suffered substantially under Daesh influence. Schools at all levels continue to severely lack the materials, technology, textbooks, and teaching staff necessary to allow students to thrive in the classroom to the extent that they did in the mid- to late 20th century. Further, parents are hesitant to send their children - particularly their daughters - to school in some regions where uncleared Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and generalized violence still pose a frequent threat[5].

The most recent educational reform was drafted in 2011 as a joint effort between the Federal Republic of Iraq and the UNESCO International Bureau of Education. The process of implementing this new philosophy and curriculum into the classroom and teacher training programs was initiated prior to the arrival of Daesh into the country but has been taken up once again in post-Daesh rebuilding efforts. Though schools in Daesh-controlled regions underwent religiously-charged reforms viewed by both local and international communities as generally negative, intolerant, and regressive, the new Iraqi Curriculum Framework includes religious and theological rhetoric which focuses on the merciful, inclusive, and progressive messages of Islam, as well as promoting a common, unified Iraqi identity. Its primary objectives include “forging moral persons based on high religious values and principles and by rejecting radicalism” and creating “proud and responsible citizens of Iraq and the wider world” partially through instilling “the principle of faith in God, his oneness, messengers, books and respect of religious rites” and “the behavioral concepts derived from the values of Islam and the other monotheistic religions” from the pre-primary through the secondary levels[6]. Thus, Iraq’s efforts towards educational restoration in the last two decades have incorporated both secular motives and promotion of religious - specifically, Islamic - belief.

Given the challenges of cultivating a safe and successful learning environment in the wake of such severe social, political, religious, and sectarian violence, it is unsurprising that perceptions of Iraq’s inclusion of religious education and values into the classroom have received mixed feedback. Vocalized opinions from local and international actors have ranged from labelling Iraq’s religious education and rhetoric as harmful and exclusionary to religious minorities, to refreshingly hopeful and a means by which students can learn to reject radical religious ideologies.

Today, Islamic studies courses—typically occupying about an hour per day—are optional to students, thus allowing non-religious and non-Muslim students to omit the course if they choose. Additionally, alternative religious courses, such as those on Christian theology and history, are available in a small number of schools were religious minorities make up a significant portion of the student body[7]. In these cases, students are eligible to attend the religious studies course which best aligns with their own religious identity[8].

The lived realities and observable outcomes of individual students, however, are much more complex than the simple decision to enroll in or omit themselves from an Islamic studies course. First, the content of Islamic studies courses (if a student chooses to enroll) are included in major examinations, while courses on minority religions are not. Thus, students who choose not to enroll in a religious studies course or who enroll in a course which focuses on a non-Islamic religion may be at an academic and competitive disadvantage as compared to students who enroll in Islamic studies courses throughout their educational careers. Additionally, because the overwhelming majority of students do choose to enroll in Islamic studies, social activists and scholars who are concerned about the educational experience of non-Muslim students have speculated that the presence of Islamic studies further marginalizes students who already find themselves on the social and religious margins of Iraqi society. Advocates for the removal of religious education from public schools argue that students who are from religious minorities may feel pressured to enroll in Islamic studies in order to be as academically competitive as their Muslim peers, as well as to fit in socially with the majority of the student body. This is an experience which arguably contradicts Iraq’s efforts to create a unified national identity.

Additionally, concerns have been raised regarding the ability of religious education courses to help students better understand, dialogue with, and show empathy for other faith traditions. Particularly in schools where a variety of religious courses are offered, critics argue that physically dividing students of different religious identities into different classrooms only increases sectarian divisions and conflicts, does not contribute to interfaith dialogue, and, thus, causes Iraq’s educational environment to backslide as compared to Saddam’s more “secular” educational structure.

Despite these critiques, the presence of religious education in schools has allowed Iraq to see the cultivation of a greater degree of tolerance and religious literacy. Successful examples of interfaith dialogues, rebuilding initiatives that span multiple religious identities, and the integration of students from multiple faith traditions into prestigious schools are often celebrated on the news and amongst religious and political leaders as signs of Iraq’s growth and tolerance. For example, the first officially private, multifaith school opened in Basra in 2018 where Christians, Muslims, and students from other religious communities attend. The school was opened with the aim of providing Christian students with a safer school environment while simultaneously promoting dialogue, friendship, and shared citizenship between children of differing religious identities[9]. The school’s teaching staff is equally diverse because, as stated by Archbishop Habib Jajou, “we believe we are one family and successful coexistence stems from learning from diversity[10]”.

At the university level, hawza (Shia Islam theological seminaries) have seen a positive resurgence in student enrollment and prestige since the end of Saddam’s regime[11]. The increased popularity in this area of study suggests that students with the desire to develop a thorough understanding of Qur’anic interpretation, a variety of theological perspectives, and religious history feel a greater sense of freedom to study these topics. This increase in popularity and enrollment exists in stark contrast to Saddam’s repression of religious and theological education, often discouraging Shia students from pursuing this area of study or compelling them to search for educational venues outside of Iraq. Najaf seminary, in particular, has seen a dramatic rise in student population, including the enrollment of students from religiously and politically influential families, as well as hundreds of students who have transferred from Qom seminary in Iran. One student attending the hawza in Najaf shared that, “I have more freedom in my educational activities in Najaf. Nobody forces me to adopt a specific political opinion[12].”

In line with Najaf seminary’s allowance of freedom of political and theological views for its students, Qaim College of Education in al-Obeidi, Anbar states that “better education and knowledge of Islam are needed to reduce extremism” and aims to provide a quality education for their students in order to help them combat the radical Daesh ideologies that once dominated the region[13]. Similar motives are echoed by a large number of higher education facilities. Included among them is the College of Islamic Sciences at the University of Anbar, which states among its goals: “To create persons who are effective in different fields, encouraging values of attachment to faith and… away from extremism in order to develop a positive, balanced, and academic [personality] capable of interacting with the change of [a] contemporary environment[14].”

However, formal educational institutes are not the only groups involved in the cultivation of positive and productive religious education and dialogue. A variety of international NGOs have engaged local actors - including professionals and youth - for the purpose of providing venues for discussions on religious literacy and opportunities for interfaith initiatives. Included among these NGOs is United Religions Initiative - Middle East and North Africa (URI MENA), which establishes cooperation circles on the intersection of faith and critical topics such as education, youth leadership, and conflict resolution[15]. URI MENA facilitates several cooperation circles in Iraq, including Iraq Youth for Dialogue and Coexistence. This circle provides venues and workshops for Iraqi youth to develop their communication skills with peers from other religious identities, improve their own religious literacy, and collaborate on creative solutions to religious and cultural conflicts[16].

The recognition by NGOs of the importance of promoting religious literacy and religious education that is beneficial towards conflict transformation efforts - and their willingness to engage local students and community members whenever possible - is a valuable step towards a hopeful future for Iraq. The combined knowledge and skills of trained professionals with talented Iraqi students who are eager to be involved in positive changes in Iraq can be expected to contribute to thriving school systems and educational outcomes, both in and out of the classroom.

While formidable efforts, movements, and policies must still be put into place in order to fully restore Iraq’s prestigious education system, recent developments in religious education and theological rhetoric in the classroom suggest a hopeful future for Iraq’s next generation. At the primary and secondary levels, the gradual increase in number of courses which educate students on other religions suggest an increase in the value of cultivating religious literacy and coexistence. The Ministry of Education’s verbal and written commitments to creating morally upright, innovative, lifelong learners meaningfully contributes to efforts which focus on incorporating religious tolerance and a unified national identity into the classroom. At the university level, the resurgence in popularity of theological education and religious studies will allow a greater number of young people to educate themselves (and others) on a variety of informed interpretations of religious texts, as well as how to incorporate moderate religious views and values healthfully into a healing community. With these goals and values, Iraq has confidently set itself on an upward trajectory which understands education as a means by which violent extremism can be prevented and the diversity of its national community seen as an asset.

 


[1] UN General Assembly, “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism,” United Nations (24 December 2015).

[2] UNESCO Office for Iraq, “Literacy and Non-Formal Education in Iraq,” UNESCO (2017).

[3] Lazgin Barany, “Teaching of Religious Education in Iraqi State Schools and the Status of Minorities in Iraq: A Critical Review,” International Journal of Arts & Sciences (2013), 454.

[4] Margaret Wenger, “The Educational System in Iraq: An Overview,” NAFSA (August 2016).

[5] Shelly Kittleson, “Education and Religion to Fight IS Mentality in Anbar,” Al-Monitor (17 April 2019).

[6] UNESCO International Bureau of Education, “Iraq,” World Data on Education (2010-2011), 7th ed, 7-9, 11-12, 14-17.

[7] Barany, 457.

[8] The presence of religious studies courses other than Islamic studies exists primarily in Iraqi-Kurdistan, which is generally known for having more religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse student bodies. (Barany, 462.)

[9] Saad Salloum, “Christian School in Basra Welcomes Muslim Students,” Al-Monitor (30 November 2017).

[10] Salloum.

[11] Dorsa Jabbari, “Iraq’s Islamic Seminaries Revive since Saddam Hussein’s Death,” Al Jazeera (9 May 2019).

[12] Ali Mamouri, “Students at Qom Seminary are Leaving for Najaf,” Al-Monitor (10 October 2018).

[13] Kittleson.

[14] College of Islamic Studies, “College Vision and Mission,” University of Anbar.

[15] United Religions Initiative, “URI MENA.”

[16] United Religions Initiative, “Iraq Youth for Dialogue and Coexistence CC,” URI MENA.