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Despite proud history, education suffers in Iraq

Pondering the state of educational opportunities around the globe, I can't help noticing that nowhere is the situation as bleak as in Iraq. In the U.S., we send our kindergartners through12th-graders off to school in large yellow buses, secure in...

Pondering the state of educational opportunities around the globe, I can't help noticing that nowhere is the situation as bleak as in Iraq.

In the U.S., we send our kindergartners through12th-graders off to school in large yellow buses, secure in the knowledge they'll arrive safely. But do we consider what life must be like for our counterparts in Iraq who don't know if their youngsters will make it to school, or home again, safely?

I wonder whether there are any schools of higher education left operating in Iraq. College professors routinely have been targeted for assassination by insurgents and religious fanatics. Many of those who survived fled to safer countries.

Iraq is in chaos and no institution is free from assault -- not even schools.

Insurgents, in order to win, need not successfully field an army, but rather create enough random mayhem that their opponents either become worn down or have nothing left to fight over. When Iraq and Iran were fighting in the 1980s, school-aged youngsters were sent out ahead of advancing troops to detonate land mines.

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The current battle in Iraq is complicated, as testified by the remarkably varied responses to the Iraq Study Group proposals. Iraq is divided between three groups that have been at odds since the late 600s: The Sunnis, the orthodox branch of Islam; the Shiites, the largest sect of Islam; and the Kurds. The Sunnis and Shiites occupy much of the central and southern regions of Iraq. The Kurds (non-Arabs but mostly Sunni by religion) occupy the north. None of these groups trusts the others to fairly run a government that would control the distribution of oil revenues.

To the west of Iraq is Saudi Arabia, home of the most fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, and its most famous son, Osama bin Laden. The disciples of Wahhabism would return Islam to the 600s and what they believe were the original teachings of Muhammad. Wahhabism is backed by one of the richest countries on the planet, Saudi Arabia. Obviously, the disciples of Wahhabism would like to control the curriculum of the schools and colleges.

To the east is Iran, home of the largest concentration of Islamic Shiites and emboldened with oil riches and the quest for atomic energy. The Shiites have little to do with the Sunnis, especially the fundamentalists like Wahhabists. Iran has a powerful interest in the success of the Shiites in Iraq both because of territory, and because Iran currently is a very conservative Islamic state and takes a dim view of the liberal secular stance of the United States.

To the north are the Kurds, the one bright spot in Iraq since the Kurds early on decided to bet that the country would not survive and it would be in their best interest to build a strong army for defense. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation-state, and if Iraq dissolved, the Kurds could achieve the nation-state they've long sought. The Kurds take issue with the Iraq Study Group report because it includes the city of Kirkuk, which sits atop vast oil reserves, and the Kurds currently control that territory. As best as anyone knows, the schools in the Kurd north are relatively safe and stable.

How would you possibly set up a school system that would satisfy both the Islamic fundamentalists and the Islamic modernists? How would you recruit faculty for elementary schools and colleges when most academics value academic freedom from the religious ideology promoted by the fundamentalist sects within Islam?

At one point in history, around the mid 800s, Baghdad was one of the intellectual centers of the world. The best academics and scientists were there. A great library was located there. The Abassid Dynasty of Sunni rulers managed the region with a respect for religious pluralism and openness to ideas. It could well have been the equivalent of New York City today. But the Islamic fundamentalists began to gain control of the faith. The freedom to seek and teach new ideas began to fade, and Baghdad lost its place in the academic sun. It seems apparent it will not return to its previous glory any time soon.

One would hope that those who lead those factions would go back to read carefully the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. He supported religious diversity, sought assistance for the poor and orphaned, and valued education.

TOM BOMAN is a professor of education at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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