DUHOK, Iraq – No one said de-Ba'athification would be easy. Iraq's Kurds have spent 12 years trying to rebuild an educational system that had been devoted to the glory of Saddam Hussein and his political party.
But the tangible signs of progress can be seen – and not just the removal of the former dictator's portrait from classrooms, said Abdul-Aziz Taib, education minister for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
"From 1981 to 1990, the number of schools in the Irbil and Duhok governates dropped from 1,115 to a little more than 800," he said. "From the end of the Gulf War to 2003, the number climbed to more than 3,000."
Taib was citing a recent study issued by the KRG. However, the report does not cover the Sulaymani governate, because it is under the control the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the main rival to Taib's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).
In 1975, the Iraqi government began a policy of "Arabization" in the north, and in 1987-88, it crushed a Kurdish rebellion led by the KDP. The two processes resulted in the destruction of some 4,500 Kurdish villages. Refugees swelled towns and cities; school buildings were overcrowded.
"You had 70 students per classroom," Taib said, speaking at his home in Duhok, some 80 kilometers southeast of the Turkish border. "School buildings operated in two to three shifts to handle everyone," he said.
In addition, the curriculum was dictated by the Ba'ath Party.
"Patriotic Lessons" extolled the achievements of the party, while Arab history overshadowed that of the Kurds, who were given short shrift in the textbooks.
"They did not even mention that [the medieval Muslim hero] Saladin was a Kurd," said Taib. Even mathematics was politicized.
"You'd have, for example, a multiplication problem that would ask 'If a fedayeen blows himself up and kills 10 Jews, how many would five fedayeen kill?'" he said.
After the Gulf War, the Iraqi Kurds won a measure of autonomy, and UN Security Council Resolution 986 ("oil-for-food") bolstered the northern economy and the construction of new schools.
Now, Ba'athist ideology has been removed from the texts, and at least in area under the KRG, lessons in Kurdish history and literature have been added.
Taib added that the sensibilities of other non-Arab minorities have likewise been taken into consideration.
For instance, the ministry publishes texts in Syriac, a form of Aramaic spoken by the Assyrian Christian population.
Corporal punishment in schools has been banned, and in the younger grades, children learn the value of democracy by rotating in the role of study group leader. Fifty-thousand copies of the Democracy and Policy textbook have been distributed to high schools, which are still only voluntary.
The book is authored by the education minister's brother Moayyed, an ex-Peshmerga fighter who lived in Sweden from 1983 to 1996. It teaches students about the direct democracy of the ancient Greeks and modern representative democracy.
"It also challenges standard anti-democratic arguments heard throughout the Middle East like 'A multiparty system divides the nation' or 'The people lack the education for democracy,' " Moayyed Taib said.
But pupils may end up challenging the policies of their elders.
Since 1992, the KRG has not had an election, and there are effectively two Kurdish regional governments – one controlled by the KDP and the other by the PUK. Negotiations are under way for setting a new election date.
But it seems that even the belated election does happen, the two dominant parties will broker an arrangement to share power, rather than compete at the polls.
What will the KDP and PUK say to the children who ask where is the democracy about which they have been taught?
"We are working on the problem," said Education Minister Taib.
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