When considering the role of education in any circumstance, we must first acknowledge its crucial role in developing an identity, regardless of geographical location, historical tradition and ethnic diversity. The provision of knowledge, ideas and the process of learning will inevitably serve to shape ideas, beliefs and ultimately actions. When applied to Iraq however, we must withdraw ourselves from the post-invasion prejudices surrounding the Saddam regime and evaluate the role of education as an independent factor in Iraq’s contemporary identity-crisis.
When considering education in Iraq during the Saddam years, it is first necessary to distinguish between the ‘Golden years’ of Iraqi education between the period of 1970-1984 and the implications of the Iran-Iraq war, and post – 1991 which saw the Iraqi education system enter a state of continuous decay. Saddam’s rise to the Presidency in 1979 spurred an increased focus on education, pursuing both the Ba’ath Party’s historic focus on education, but also Saddam’s ambition to modernise and reform Iraqi society. With this focus, government led initiatives such as the introduction in 1978 of both compulsory, universal primary education and the “National Campaign for the Eradication of Illiteracy”( http://www.irinnews.org/report/97928/schools-try-to-play-catch-up) under Saddam’s auspices served to rejuvenate the Iraqi education sector. Bolstered further by huge levels of investment at all levels of education, totalling some 20% of the government’s budget and 6% of Iraq’s GDP(Wikipedia) during the ‘Golden Years’, immediate progress was made. By 1984, gross enrolment rates were over 100% with almost complete gender parity in enrolment, while illiteracy among the 15-45 age brackets declined to less than 10%. Most importantly of all to our discussion over the role of education in promoting an identity, the Iraqi education system was ‘forcibly secular’ in nature. Thus, during the ‘Golden Years’, there was an immediate focus towards aggrandising the state through an increased perception of an Iraqi identity harboured by the education system.
The declaration of war against Iran by Saddam Hussein in 1984 marked the beginning of the decline in the standards of Iraqi education and the increasing secularisation of the system. Inevitably due to the strains placed on government finances, spending on the education sector halved. Despite this, it was not until 1991 that education in Iraq was dealt a truly severe blow, where following the 1991 war, Iraq was placed under international sanctions which prevented the inflow of basic educational material and encouraged the mass exodus of Iraq’s intellectual elite(http://www.google.fr/books?hl=hu&lr=&id=4qRW5KpgDM4C&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=politics+in+education+in+iraq&ots=7p01XYFu4y&sig=Hlswix2z_wpJ_CIZTrGBs-FqApA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=politics%20in%20education%20in%20iraq&f=false). Into the resulting intellectual vacuum swept Saddam’s government, which faced by the challenges of increasing sectarian divides and political disequilibrium, furthered the use of education as a tool for ‘promoting the causes of the government’ resulted in the increased militarisation of the curriculum and a focus on Saddam Hussein. The role of 1991 as a catalyst for the education system’s collapse and subsequent decline was accurately recorded by UNESCO (http://globalresearch.ca/articles/HAS505B.html), which wrote that ‘The educations system in Iraq, prior to 1991, was one of the best in the region’ with educational facilities ‘of an international standard’ and ‘staffed by high quality personnel’.
However, to truly be able to observe the dramatic shift in the aims of education away from that of one promoting a cohesive, national identity to one of sectarian divide and political disequilibrium, it is necessary to note the effect and implications of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. An immediate consequence of the invasion was the destruction of Iraq’s already degraded educational infrastructure, with over 3000 schools being looted or damaged. Plunged into political instability and the policy of de-baathication, the Iraqi educational system was completely overhauled. More importantly, with a tendency to recruit from the former opposition, the appointment of Ministers such as Dr. Ala Alwan, reinforced the increasingly divided religious and ethnic attitudes towards education. Noticeable results of such a policy on Iraq’s system and style of education include both Alwan’s condemnation of USAID’s attempts to prohibit references to Islam in educational materials (http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Iraq.aspx#sthash.qsvogYiR.dpuf
http://www.freepatentsonline.com/article/Harvard-International-Review/129463338.html)and Ali al-Adeeb, a member of the pro-Shiitte Islamic Dawa Party, policy of excluding large numbers of former Baathists from university faculties and his decision to separate male and female students at primary, and in some cases, secondary schools(http://www.protectingeducation.org/country-profile/iraq). This reversal of secular attitudes towards education and the prominent role of government made educational facilities a target of the post-2003 violence, with the Iraqi Ministry of Education recording 31,598 violent attacks against universities and schools between 2003 and 2008. More importantly with regards to our issue of identity, evidence increasingly suggests that control over Iraq’s educational facilities has been devolved to political parties. For instance, it is believed that universities such as Baghdad University and Al-Mustansiriya University had been devolved to the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq and the Sadr Group respectively.
Thus we have seen that Iraq’s education system has undergone a transition from that of one focused on creating a homogenous and well educated Iraqi society, to that of division, with education increasingly becoming subject to rival interest groups and powers. Saddam’s response to increasingly internal division and discontent was to politicise and to an extent, divide, identity within the education system. Unfortunately, the 2003 invasion served only to perpetuate that trend by creating a political environment within which secular division translated into educational policy. Yet within this climate of division and distrust, the role of education in the creation and promotion of identity remains paramount. Increasingly it is not a question of whom but how a restructured system of education can be implemented within an Iraq that is perpetually challenged by both internal and external forces. Despite this, and in the face of growing challenges, we argue that the promotion of education and understanding through the creation of a set of shared values is, in cooperation with political engagement, an effective means to heal societal divides, political disequilibrium and establish a lasting peace in Iraq.