4 Lessons Learned From a ‘Saddam Education’

Jan 20, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Winston Churchill once said: “History will treat me kindly, for I intend to write it.” My recent study of Iraqi school childrens’ textbooks finds that that Saddam Hussein (“our great and heroic leader”) had a similar plan in mind.

Christina Asquith

Saddam ordered all the school texts to be rewritten from the Ba’ath Party perspective in the early 1970s. Now, with the Americans in power, history is in the process of being rewritten again. In the months after the war, a team of Iraqi teachers under U.S. supervision went line by line through all textbooks deleting any mention of Saddam and anything anti-American. New books are rolling off the presses at the moment.

But before the old texts are thrown away, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that three decades of Iraqi school children have imbibed the purest of propaganda. Call it Saddam’s history of the world. Many of Iraq’s problems today stem from how Saddam’s worldview has infected perception by twisting historical events.

Along those lines, I had my Iraqi friend Jenan translate the soon-to-be obsolete ‘Modern History’ text book that millions of Iraqi secondary schoolers have used. Here are some excerpts and lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson 1. Iraqis are taught a history that is Arab-centered, and it’s not the version Americans were taught.

For example, this is from the introduction of the Modern History Text:

“This text includes critical events in Arab history after World War II, including the Egyptian revolution in 1952, Algerian Revolution in 1954, and the 17th and 30th of July Revolution 1968 [in Iraq], and the victory against the racist Iranian regime of 1988, (it took 8 years of war to defend the Islamic values and principals and the Arab land, all of which are embodied by the Baath party;) the Intifada against the Zionist Jews and announcing the state of Palestine in 1988.”

There’s no mention of the corresponding modern history American school children are taught: the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War.

Every country puts itself on center stage in its portrayal of Modern History, of course. It’s valuable to remember that Iraqis don’t share the key historical events that shaped the ideas we’re now trying to force on to them, such as democracy, free press, tolerance. The Iraqis were taught to value Islam and the Baath Party; that change comes through military revolution (not voting); and that the enemy is Zionism, (not Communism.)

Lesson 2. Textbooks indoctrinated children, subtly, to think that Saddam was more than a president, but an icon.

For example, here is a textbook excerpt on the Iran-Iraq war:

“It is the heroic mythology of the Iraqi people to defend Iraq and the Arab nation. The Iraqi people resisted the Persian occupation for 8 years. They wanted to occupy Iraq. Saddam anticipated this war (God protects Him) he led the Iraqis to victory. . . : “They call this war Saddam’s war after the name of the leader Saddam Hussein (God protects Him) who fought in these wonderful heroic wars and created peace and victory.”

Nearby, there are photos of a young looking Saddam dressed as a soldier atop a horse, brandishing a sword. His name was always written like this: Saddam Hussein (God protects Him.) Although Iraqis know Saddam has lied to them; it is not easy at 30 or 40 years old to undo a lifetime of propaganda. This goes a long way in understanding the shock of seeing Saddam captured in a hole and being examined like an animal. And towards sympathizing with Iraqis who cannot quite let go of Saddam, even as they hate him (and particularly when the alternative is a foreign invader.)

Lesson 3. Saddam told Iraqis they were the best.

Iraqis were made to believe that they were tops in all fields: they had the strongest military, the richest oil fields, the best schools, and the top scientists. The Saddam-controlled media and police did their best to hide any evidence to the contrary. It’s not been easy to suddenly turn on the new satellite TV or talk to an American and realize that, actually, Iraq is one of the poorest nations in the world; or that they did not, for example, win the Gulf War 1. In part, this might help in understanding Iraqis resistance to America and modernization; when it means realizing how far behind they’ve fallen.

Take a look at this textbook excerpt on the 1991 Gulf War:

“On the 16th and 17th of January, American and its alliance gathered armies from 30 states in its aggression against Iraq. The war started– “the mother of wars” as his Excellency Saddam Hussein (God protect Him) called it. All Iraqi people and army faced this war strongly, bravely and uniquely. The brave Iraqis faced the situation for 43 days despite its ugliness, until they finally forced the Americans to stop firing.

At the beginning of the war Iraq achieved the hopes of the Arab masses when it fired missiles against the military installations of the Zionists. Then the Arab country regained its self-confidence through trusting the historical leadership of its Excellency Saddam Hussein, (God protect Him), the symbol of dignity and heroism.

America and its allies continue practicing their inhuman crimes against the Iraqi people, including sanctions and freezing Iraq funds in the foreign banks and interfering in its affairs.”

Lesson 4. Iraqis believe Israel is the root of all the world’s problems, and defeating Israel is a worthy life’s devotion. They do not understand and cannot accept American’s support of Israel.

The Modern History text included anti-Semitism anywhere it could. Here’s an excerpt explaining the Iran-Iraq war.

On September 4th 1980, the Khomeini regime started their aggression by bombing the Iraq border cities by heavy canons. Then, Iranians bombed airports and innocent villages. Saddam’s war saved Iraq and the Arab nation and the entire Islamic world against the Iranian regime wanting to expand Khomeini’s thoughts that disturbed the principals of Islam, and wanted to make the Persians dominate Iraq and the Arab countries. This war is the way to liberate Palestine because the same fighters were paving the way to Jerusalem. Those Iraqi fighters saved the Arab nation from the Persians and Zionists who wanted to divide the Arab nations between them. This war is a new revelation for Arabs. They regained their heroic allegiance of their ancestors who carried the banner of the Islamic message. This war revealed the deep relation between the Khomeini regime and the Zionist entity that feeds to Arab and Muslims lies and claims of Iran to liberate Palestine. This reveals the lie that the Iranian army is stronger. This war revealed the humanitarian role of Iraq and the Baath party.

Iraqis aren’t alone in school propaganda. U.S. author James Loewen, who wrote the 1995 book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, said American history textbooks are notorious for massaging events to make themselves look good, from hero-ifying Christopher Columbus to whitewashing the U.S.’s role in overthrowing the government of Iran in 1953.

Loewen said he found much more accurate facts on U.S. history in an old Soviet Union world history textbook. However, when it came to dealing with their own history, the Soviets were no better-leaving out large swaths of history during 1939 and 1940, and saying nothing about the Hitler-Stalin pact.

It will soon be up to a team of Iraqi teachers and historians to rewrite the texts. Loewen’s idea for best teaching tactics? Since students receive information from a variety of sources, like parents, media and the Internet, they know when they’re being misled. It’s best to be honest with students-even if that includes painful truths.

They’ll have to wrestle not only with basic historical events, but also with teaching how Saddam rose to power, the mass graves, the tortures and assassinations and all of Saddam’s lies. It is a history that will bring about both humiliation and self-criticism. In the meantime, the teachers are faced with interpreting history for themselves.

Loewen suggests: “Rather than trying to remove all ‘ideology and propaganda”, a better approach would be to leave some in, paired with the same events as written about by US historians, and perhaps by historians in, say, Turkey, Jordan or Kuwait. Then, supply additional information-accurate dates, facts etc. – and let students think about it for themselves.”

That’s a positive strategy for teachers all over the world.

Christina Asquith has written about education for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Sports Illustrated and The UK Guardian. She recently finished her first book, The Paper School, about her first year as an emergency certified teacher in a tough school in North Philadelphia. She can be contacted in Baghdad at christinaasquith@hotmail.com


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