Exclusive: Interview with Iraq’s new Minister of Education, Dr. Sami Al Mudhaffar to talk about education reform, terrorism and teaching democracy.

Jul 6, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

I recently sat down with Iraq’s new Minister of Education, Dr. Sami Al Mudhaffar to talk about education reform, terrorism and teaching democracy.

Christina Asquith

Dr. Mudhaffar, 64, is the former democratically-elected president of Baghdad University.  He received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Virginia Tech. We met in his heavily guarded ministry in downtown Baghdad.

So, tell me about your plans for education in Iraq?

Ed Min: “We have short, medium and strategic plans for the future. In the next 6 months we are trying to build schools, improve the infrastructure of the ministry building (which was destroyed during the war.) The military adventures and irrational policies of the previous regime have resulted in the steady decline in all human services with education being the most affected. Enrollment declined. Attendance decreased and the physical infrastructure has deteriorated. Many schools have triple shifts of students. We need 4,000 to 5,000 more schools.”

What do you think of the work already done by US contractors?

Ed Min: “The American army has done a good job, but not coordinated with the ministry so some schools have been reconstructed twice. We asked them to coordinate with the ministry but even Paul Bremer told me ‘it’s the military’. It’s hard to have coordination with them. In the next 6 months we will build 500 schools.”

In the last year many teachers have been targeted by terrorists and school have been threatened. Last week, a ministry of education building was hit by a missile. Who is doing this, and why?

Ed Min: “If you know, you tell me.” (He laughs.)

What role is the US playing now in education reform in Iraq?

Ed Min: “Why do you concentrate on the US role? I don’t mind. But, why?”

Well, because I write for a US audience and the US was overseeing Iraq’s ministry of education for more than a year.

Ed Min: “The answer is no role. The army reformed some schools but regular coordination between us? No. There’s no CPA now. I don’t know who I’ll coordinate with. We’ll have to re-establish ties.”

Are you interested in coordinating with the US?

Ed Min: “I’m a very open person. I’d like to coordinate with the US, Europe, NGOs, Unesco.”

What can the US do to help?

Ed Min: “They can help us in getting new technology in our schools, new laboratories and building the future.”

Religion didn’t play a big role in schools under Saddam, however now there are reports of religious groups trying to teach daily lessons and install their followers as headmasters. What do you think of this?

Ed Min: “Nobody has come to me and said: ‘I want this man from this party.’ Is this going on? Indirectly, yes. But directly through me? No. I appoint the headmasters and the directorate generals. I’ve heard some talk about this.”

Can you do anything about it?

Ed Min: “Of course. I don’t want anything to interfere with schools. They should be independent and nonpolitical. I can do a lot. This happens everywhere, in the US too. If any new president comes in power he brings all his followers. It’s the same thing. ”

Can schools play a role in helping Iraq become a democratic nation

Ed Min:   “I hope it will play a great role because that’s where you teach students democracy, human rights. That’s the idea.”

Any plans afoot to teach democracy?

Ed Min: “Teaching democracy is a very difficult job and practicing democracy is not easy. I tell you something, in Iraq after 35 years of Baath Party rule and still everyone has a little Saddam in himself. Getting Saddam out of people is not easy and now you see 160 newspapers. That’s democracy. But applying and practicing it requires time.”

When you teach students repeatedly new things they haven’t seen before the student has different ideas. If a teacher brings a new book to class and tells the student to read this book and then asks”  ‘what do you think?’ The students will all have different ideas. I’ll give you another example, Let’s say we are going to celebrate Saddam’s birthday in school, and the teacher says, ‘what do students think?’ and some students say ‘yes’ and some students say ‘no’. In the past, everyone had to say yes, it was a job. Now, you can say no. They can say yes or no.”

So. . . it’s getting teachers trained in democratic practices?

Ed Min: “That’s how to build a democracy in the hearts of students. When you go up to high school, you could say, what do you think of this book, and they have different opinions of it. You can teach democracy. But you can’t teach it to a 6 year old. At the grammar schools, you have to be more simple. We have a program for teacher trainers. It’s not just to teach democracy but to get teachers to learn new knowledge.”

Girls in Iraq have traditionally received an education equal to boys. Will that still be the case?

Ed Min: “Of course. We believe, in our religion, that women should share and important role. Islam believes in that and so do most Iraqis.”

Are teachers being told how to teach about Saddam?

Ed Min: “No, the regime has gone and we shouldn’t’ bother ourselves. We should skip all subjects related to him. We don’t want to bother the students with him.”

But, he is history.

Ed Min: “We have to mention him, but not give him more than he requires. We could say we have been ruled 35 years by a man who was not normal. He was the most dangerous individual. You have to teach these thoughts. You could do it in one lecture.”

What will you do about the teachers who still support Saddam?

Ed Min: “After 35 years you will of course have some supporters. That’s logical. We can’t do anything about that. Time is the only thing.”

Nowadays, many teachers I talk to are anti-American. How do you think students should be taught about America?

Ed Min: “They are not anti-American. They are anti-American policy. These are two different things. I’ll tell you something very important. Most Iraqis expected from the American president many things. They were shocked when they saw nothing has changed. So they became surprised. They suffer terrorism daily. There’s no security. That’s why they are anti-American policy. Not anti-American people. Iraq people are practical, modest, and pragmatic. He wants to live calmly, quietly and have friends. He loves to live, really. That’s Iraq.

What is your life like as education minister? What security measures must you take?

Ed Min: “I’m always surrounded and guarded by so many people. I sit down and hear bombs and explosions daily. It’s not the proper way of work but you get used to it. It’s very strange that I don’t know what will happen to me even this afternoon or tomorrow.  Why don’t know ask me ‘why?’  Why I do it.”


Ed Min:   “I have lived here for years and I’ve been a professor for 37 years and I got used to the daily problems and since we love our country we have to live in it. We can’t change countries. Education is important. We have to put students in our class. Eliminate dropouts. Increase the needs to the labor market. Separate education from politics. Involve the community. Promote human rights and freedom of expression and national unity. All of this goes through education.

Democracy is not an easy job. You can’t say: ‘Be democratic.” Ok? They have elections coming and they have to know how to deal with it. The candidate will have to face another opponent. How will they do this? Time is the drug of choice. It’s very early right now and we hope for help from the outside.

Thank you very much Dr. Al Mudhaffer.

For more articles on Iraq education, visit www.ChristinaReporting.com

Christina Asquith is a freelance journalist who’s written for The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and The Economist. She recently finished a book about her year as a teacher in a tough Philadelphia school. It is due out next year. Contact her at ChristinaAsquith@hotmail.com

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