Education Today and the Leaders of Tomorrow:

A brief commentary on primary education, political agendas, and sectarianism in Iraq

by Claire Harrison

Just as the political arena of the country of Iraq has been undeniably tumultuous since the late twentieth century, education of the youth population has been concurrently volatile, leading to the conclusion upon further analysis that the cycles are inextricably linked. It is easy to look at graduation rates of higher education, exoduses of professors, and government funding of universities as accurate indicators of the cerebral situation of the state; however, one must not underestimate the importance of indicators derived from primary education, typically public, on a country’s intellectual direction. Based on different blog posts and opinion columns written by Iraqis who experienced the primary education system themselves, it can be concluded that primary education and religious extremism have a strong reciprocal influence, which is highly consequential in the development of the rising generation of political leaders.

Iraq has been ripped apart from the inside outwards by sectarian conflict, with roots derived in contrasting sects of Islam, the dominant religion of the country. From the outside, it is simple and easy to view the current situation as a conflict of religious interest and to see a solution in the elimination of extremism. Full stop. Unfortunately for foreign problem-solvers, the source of this extremism is deep-seeded and multifaceted, and as with any resolution, potential for pacification is woven somewhere within these complex causes. Oversimplification in this manner is equivalent to complacency of understanding.

So it has been acknowledged that understanding the true feelings of Iraqis are impossible if one does not experience their day-to-day in person. How, then, is it possible to come to any level of understanding of possible transcendence of sectarian boundaries? In conducting this research, the logical place to begin is where all impressions and opinions bud in people across the globe: school. As such, the appropriate beginning place for an analysis of development and impact of religious extremism on political leaders is primary school.

According to Iraqi students, the national education system is chiefly based on memorization. There has always been the institution of national examinations where excellent performance is the qualifier for “admission” to the next level of education, through the stages of secondary schools and finally to university entrance. In order to obtain the desired results, students are trained to absorb and regurgitate facts they have been presented in accordance with the question they have been asked1. According to the blog of one student, Ali Rawaf, Saddam Hussein’s Faith Campaign fed into and exacerbated this process through the introduction of standardized faith classes into primary school curricula across the country. Students were presented with Quranic verses, each accompanied by a prewritten interpretation from religious leaders seated in the national government. This left no room for interpretation or discussion of the verses, and the memorization kept students from asking questions2.

Outside of schools, the Faith Campaign included the reparation of mosques and ubiquitous approved publication of religious texts3. Sunnis found more religious freedom to practice, which engendered among the community more support for the regime, while senior Ba’thist officials began to memorize Quranic verses as a standard practice4. Those living in Baghdad at the time argue that the Faith Campaign was the strengthening of Saddam Hussein’s platform through shrouding it in Islam, and began the progressive movement away from a secularist regime. This point also introduces an interesting subset of the campaign relating to women, in the implementation of political pressure and threats upon women to uphold the culture of Iraq and the honor of the regime through extreme religious piety; in effect, the regime commercialized female modesty as a tool of coercive moral authority to solidify its platform5. The translation into women’s contemporary access to education and societal status is apparent.

Taking the aforementioned implementations a step further, Iraqi students contend that the implied objectivity of religious texts introduced in school engenders religious extremist tendencies. When systematically and increasingly subjected to such views beginning with the commencement of their educational careers, it is easy for young people to follow a religious “authority” that advertises guidance along the “right” path. As no tradition of inquisition develops, there is no questioning of religious authority or development of one’s own religious beliefs and ideas. This additionally leads to the inverse in complete adherence to one ideology and absolute rejection of other views as contradictions of an absolute truth.

Now, the modern government of Iraq has taken steps to enforce secularism, and much reference to religion has been systematically eliminated as a direct result of the United States’ aggressive “de-Ba’athification” program of public institutions in the nation. However, the traditional focus on memorization has stayed a constant with teachers throughout the country, from Al-Anbar to Kurdistan, and impacts the openness of students at higher levels of education to critical thinking and thoughtful analysis of information, language structure, and expression of opinion. According to contemporary Iraqi student Mohammed Nazim, from Fallujah but currently based in Erbil, teachers have a materialistic view of education based on the goal of attaining a salary, which is mirrored in students by their tunnel vision focused on continuing to pass exams. Despite this, literacy rates have continued to tank since 2003; a joint study by the World Bank and the statistical unit of the Iraqi government in 2007 demonstrated that about 23% of the population was illiterate, which can be disaggregated to show that over 1/4 of the female population cannot read6. When the government became entrenched with sanctions and military conflict that now seems perpetual, budget allocation for and attention towards education has declined, leading to a general decline in institutional quality and attendance7. These statistics have only continued to worsen as time passes without institutional change. With an amalgamation of contributing factors and no apparent solution for the near future, the rising generation is rendered subject to an inherited predetermined fate.

Kurdistan is one facet of the sectarian conflict in Iraq that sheds an interesting light on the relationship between education and regional disputes. Illiteracy rates in Kurdistan are higher than the rest of the country, measured by the Kurdistan Regional Government at 26.3% in 20128, yet the primary school completion rates are the highest of the country at 65%9. The government is increasingly relying on the presence of public and foreign schools to compensate for underfunding from the Iraqi government, starting at the primary level10. However, while the majority of course materials are distributed to these students in Arabic, the national language of Iraq is not as widely used or even required by teachers in practice during the school day in terms of translation and response. This is indicative of a different side of the status of primary education in Iraq and how current trends contribute to the sectarian conflict. It is also potentially indicative of the fact that solutions can come from this sector, as many resolutions stem from the identification of their nascent problems.

Thus, arriving at the reconciliation of regional disparities across Iraq is a self-inclusive examination of interactions between current leaders, primary education, and the rising generation. Educational policies come from the top down, which parallels the structure of current sectarian divides in Iraq. The same mentalities applies to following the lead of political figures or, perhaps more accurately, those who claim political authority.


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"Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri." Global Security. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <>.


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1 A. Rawaf, “Iraq’s Education System: Helpful Tool for Terrorism and Religious Extremism” (New York: The Iraqi Future, 2009) 1-2

2 Ibd.

3 “Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri” (, 2015) 2-3

4 D. Blair, “Saddam Has Koran Written in His Blood” (Baghdad: The Telegraph, 2002) 1-2

5 D. E. King, Middle Eastern Belongings (Routledge, 2010) 13-39

6 “Literacy and Non-Formal Education in Iraq” (UNESCO Office for Iraq, 2009-2015) 1

7 R. Ranjan and P. Jain, “The Decline of Educational System in Iraq” (Journal of Peace Studies, 2009) 8-10

8 A. Cordoba, “Education in Kurdistan Suffers Over Oil Row With Baghdad” (Erbil: Rudaw, 2013) 1

9 “Education Overview: Kurdistan Region of Iraq” (Invest in Group) 1

10 “Education” (Kurdistan Board of Investment) 1