Education Advisors or Imperialists?

Dec 9, 2003 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

They’re four simple words: “Praise be to God.” But they could have led to a lawsuit, and a serious rift in relations between the Iraqi and U.S. educators charged to overcome cultural differences and build a better school system.

Christina Asquith

Several weeks ago, a U.S. education contractor in Iraq tried to remove Koran quotations from incoming teachers’ texts. Iraqi teachers complained and a controversy brewed. Like most Muslim nations, the Iraqis have long incorporated religious phrases into the school curriculum. However, providing U.S. funding for such a project would be in violation of the Constitution’s 1st amendment and possibly lead to a lawsuit back in the States.

Iraqi Education minister Dr. Al ‘din Alwan stepped in and met with the education contractor, Washington D.C.-based Creative Associates Inc. They agreed to have the Iraqi Education Ministry pay for the texts, so the Koran quotations could remain. Problem solved, for now.

The issue of religion in the schools underscores the fine line between meddling and advising that the Americans charged with rebuilding the Iraqi schools must walk. The issue of Koranic quotes in the textbooks is an example of American caution, in contrast to the early days of occupation, when fears reigned that they would be too heavy handed.

Ever mindful of the charges of Western imperialism, my review of U.S. education policy decisions here shows, in fact, the Americans have used a light touch in the schools so far. So much so, ironically, that it now seems the opposite concerns are being raised: They’re not getting involved enough. And too little contact could lead to a unwanted school system developing-in particular a radical fundamentalist one-which will be impossible to change once its set in place.

In terms of intrusiveness, U.S. administrators in Baghdad took a firm and drastic stand in May with DeBaathification-the firing from government jobs of all former high-ranking Baath Party members– a process that was viewed as necessary to purge Iraq of the past. Thousands of teachers and principals lost their jobs.

Accusations of heavy handedness don’t hold much water, though. It’s true the Debaathication has created much unhappiness, but many victims of Saddam’s Baath Party were calling for much stiffer retribution than job-loss; and some say it was a preemptive measure to stop Iraqis taking the law into their own hands in a more drastic way.

In contrast, the rewriting of the textbooks, arguably the most important single task faced by educators in Iraq, has been done with little U.S. supervision. The Americans hired one Iraqi professor to oversee the process of revising 563 different textbooks. He spent weeks putting together a team of 67 Baghdad teachers. They blackened out all references to Saddam-as well as anything anti-American -however did not put anything content in its place. They won’t for several years, until Iraqi curriculum committees are formed to debate the controversial parts of history. The price of not interfering means children will get textbooks with giant gaps in history — but any other way would have surely been vilified as Western propagandizing. (The superficial curriculum revision was applauded by Iraqis, but disparaged by at least one conservative European publications as missing an opportunity to ‘set history straight.’)

Indeed, over at the Baghdad offices of Creative Associates Inc, teacher trainers said negative comments made by Iraqi teachers about the Americans would be seen as a positive sign that they are succeeding in their efforts. But the soft touch at the grass roots level has lead to some undesirable trends.

In the South, an Iranian-trained shia cleric has muscled his way into the formerly-secular Basra school system. Neither teachers nor parents particularly support him-and many fear he will impose a radical interpretation of Islam into the schools and force female teachers to wear headscarves. But he’s taken the position by force.

In nearby schools, Shia clerics are pushing their members into teaching positions, intimidating staff and organizing security forces to patrol the schools. The response to among the British who are running civil affairs in Basra, is “wait and see” – a response that has won little respect among either pro or anti American campaigners. This has led many Iraqis to support greater protection from radical elements; particularly as it was the power vacuum created by the U.S. invasion that allowed religious elements into the schools in the first place. And, just last month, at the Baghdad University College of Education for Women, one group of soon-to-be history teachers told me: “We don’t care what the texts say, we’re going to teach that Americans are invaders who are stealing our oil.”

A serious concern? Or a shining example of Iraqi freedom?

Back in April, when the U.S. took over, the headquarters of the Ministry of Education had been looted and burned in the war (supposedly by Baath Party members covering their tracks). 2,500 schools were damaged during the war and looted afterwards. Superintendents and principals who were Baath Party members were being killed and religious clerics were stepping into the power vacuum. The former education minister was AWOL.

For five months, U.S. civilian administrators ran the Ministry of Education, and had complete authority over all 15,500 schools, 330,000 teachers and staff, and all education decisions.

In September, an Iraqi minister of education was appointed by Iraq’s Governing Council. Dr. Al ‘din Alwan, a former dean of Baghdad University Medical School and he former head of the World Health Organization’s Chronic Disease Center in Switzerland, now runs the day-to-day operations of the school system.

He has two U.S. ‘senior advisors’: Leslye Arsht, a former aid to U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, former Ronald Reagan Deputy Press secretary, and founder of her own educational consulting firm; and Bill Evers, former education policy advisor to George Bush during his election campaign. Evers is on leave from the Hoover Institute, where he specializes in educational policy.

According to Alwan, the U.S. advisors are striking the right balance. “They are supportive of us and provide advice, but they work for the minister and for the benefit of the ministry of education.”

I asked the U.S. State Department to explain the nature of America’s benevolent-dictator role in the schools. How involved should they be? “We believe this is a process that the Iraqi people need to have control over,” says Gregg Sullivan, the U.S. State Department’s Near Eastern affairs spokesman. “We’d hope it’s an advisory role, but if something develops that is disadvantageous to the Iraqi people we’d weigh in on a stronger level.” Whether or not that will be necessary has yet to be seen.

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


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