Friday, May 23, 2014

Reconciliation through Education in Iraq

Guest contributor, Christine M. van den Toorn,  professor, AUIS, 2009-2013, addresses the important topic of how education can be used to overcome sectarian identities and promote national reconciliation in Iraq.

This week, the class of 2014 will graduate from the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), a four-year liberal arts institution in the Kurdistan Region.

In some ways, AUIS reflects its host country: ethno-sectarian divisions exist among the student body. Sectarianism and its manifestations in Iraqi society, government and the economy could be called the largest problem facing the country today.

However AUIS is also unlike any other institution of higher learning in Iraq. Courses are taught in English, leaving graduates near fluency. Regardless of their major, the curriculum requires students to take multiple courses in the humanities, in which they evaluate advanced texts in discussion based classes and conduct academic research for papers. Students participate widely in sports and theatre, journalism, debate, archaeology and photography clubs.
AUIS English language class

This university experience allows some students, though not all, to move beyond the mistrust, suspicion and lack of communication that prevents Iraqis from reconciliation and power sharing in Iraq today. In short, AUIS provides evidence that education can overcome ethno-sectarian divides.
The student body at AUIS, Iraqi Kurds, Arabs, Yezidis, Turkmen and Christians, reflects the diversity of the greater country as well as its divisions. Kurds tend to hang out with Kurds and Arabs with Arabs. They identify each other by their ethnic group. There is a “we don’t like them because they don’t like us” attitude. Among Iraqi Arab students, there is a divide between Shi’i and Sunni.

Many of these suspicions and divides are understandable: there was limited interaction between Iraqi Arab and Kurdish youth after the no-fly zone in 1991; the Iraqi education system labeled Kurds traitors and Arabs superior; and a history of violence against Kurds by Iraqi regimes created a breeding ground for misconceptions and hatred. Iraqi Kurdish and Arab youth do not have a shared language because Arabic instruction ended in the Kurdistan Region in 1991. 

While English forms a bridge, at AUIS most students say they stick to “their own” because of language. Likewise, Sunni and Shi’i students from Baghdad and al-Najaf have grown up in a violent environment of sectarian animosity and have little memory of an earlier time when Iraqis were not all driven by sect.

This is where education can make a difference.

There is a great deal missing from Iraq’s history textbooks that could help students bridge ethno-sectarian divides and have better perspective on how to rebuild their government.

Secondary school textbooks do not venture past 1963, the year of the first Ba’thist coup, and thus contain no information on Saddam Hussein's regime, preventing students from studying the shared suffering of all Iraqis. What is included about the earlier decades of the Iraqi state is a story of occupation and victimhood, rather than lessons about political parties, unions and clubs in which all Iraqis participated during the monarchy and Abd al-Karim Qasim’s brief rule from 1958-1963.

In Middle East History classes students learn about events that challenge their narrative of Iraqi history as Sunni vs. Shi’i and Kurd vs. Arab, allowing them to move beyond suspicions and mistrust. 

In one such incident, a Kurdish student from Chemchemal learned of the uprising in southern Iraqi in 1991 against Saddam. He, like many Kurds, "used to hate Arabs...because I thought they all liked Saddam” but has now “totally changed his mind” and “has many Arab friends,” a dynamic he attributes to "what I learned at AUIS." Similarly, students from Baghdad learn for the first time about the extent to which Kurds suffered under Ba’th Party rule. 

Many students are surprised to hear that Saddam's regime was far from sectarian, and that there were Shi'i in the upper echelons of the Ba'th Party. They learn, in the words of an Iraqi historian who grew up in Baghdad in the 1950s, “when a person looks for servants and slaves he will care little about their sects, ethnicity, or religion as far as they are enthusiastically advancing his personal goals.” They begin to think about "dictatorship" as a universal pathology rather than associated with an ethnicity.

Ottoman history can also teach important lessons about a time when ethnicity had little to do with identity or politics and many Kurds and Arabs were active citizens in the Empire. Learning about the Young Turks shows that ethno-nationalism was new rather than something that had always existed. Looking at pan-Arabism reveals the failures of such ethnocentric movements.

It is not just what students learn but how they learn that makes such institutions key to reconciliation.

AUIS students win Microsoft Image Cup
When students arrive at AUIS, few have ever read an academic text or written anything original – copying Wikipedia entries is acceptable in Iraqi schools – and fewer had any idea of what it means to conduct research, and provide evidence or an argument. Several students remember writing Saddam Husayn’s name in essays because it had to be preceded and followed by lines of flattering adjectives and they could not receive a low grade. Almost every student has told me over the years they "hate history...all we did was memorize!"

Classes that focus on discussion, reading and writing make a big difference. It is not simply reading about what Saddam Husayn did, but discussing his policies in class that enables students to consider different perspectives. Research is equally important: one student commented that his research paper on “How the Ba’th stayed in power” allowed him to understand the fear and paranoia Arabs experienced, and how the Party politicized ethnic and sectarian identities.

AUIS women's  basketball team
Similar to class, activities like debate society, theatre and sports teams provide opportunities to bridge ethnic and sectarian divisions. While they are the exception to the rule, some AUIS students who “didn’t like Arabs” or “didn’t like Kurds” are now friends because of shared experiences over time. The girls on the women's basketball team are from all over the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad. Yezidis from Bashiqa visit their friends in al-Najaf, and students from Baghdad go on camping trips with local students in Ranya, the "Gateway of the Revolution" where the Kurdish uprising started against Saddam in 1991. 

They are friends because “we get along and have the same interests” and “have the same personality.” Most AUIS students share the concerns of their counterparts all over the world: good grades, a good job, and spending time with their friends.                                                                                                                                              
The problem now is that individuals equipped with the tools of AUIS graduates are too few and far between to make a real impact in Iraqi society. The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Ministry of Education, in cooperation with foreign governments, should focus on two areas of reform: liberal arts institutions, such as an American University in Baghdad (as advocated by Minister of Higher Education Ali Adeeb in the Chronicle last December), and an overhaul of curricula and pedagogy in public schools.

The continuing ethno-sectarian strife in Iraq proves there are no short-term solutions to Iraq’s conflicts. Stability and reconciliation will come only through the establishment of democratic, federal institutions that are both accountable and transparent.  Only a non-sectarian, civic-minded Iraqi population can build these institutions, making education reform the key to Iraq's future.
AUIS graduating students


John Robertson said...

Both enlightening and hopeful. Also reminds, though, that reconciliation can be more easily attempted and achieved in circumstances - as in Iraqi Kurdistan - of relative political and economic security and stability. Iraq outside the KRG seems light-years away from that.

John Morrissey said...

Whether AUIS can thrive seems more important these days than ever huh? And yeah, how can someone from Ranya not identify with the "shebaab" that rose up in the south in the early 90s?
Excellent, obviously well-informed article about a microcosm of a university.