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School textbook highlights Iraq's Sunni-Shiite divide

File image: Classroom in Baghdad.
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) Dec 9, 2009
As Suhair Abdul Khaaliq shelters from a rare Baghdad cloudburst, waiting for her seven-year-old daughter Rana to emerge from primary school, it's obvious she's angry about a new textbook.

Thumbing through Iraq's newly published "Islamic Education" manual, the mother of three points to photographs illustrating the differences between how the country's two biggest religious groupings, Sunnis and Shiites, pray.

"I'm shocked -- I don't think it's a good idea to be showing six or seven-year-olds these differences," says Suhair, 30, from the ethnically mixed neighbourhood of Tunis in northern Baghdad.

The fifth chapter of the officially approved book is called "Ablutions and Prayers", and pictures show a young Sunni boy wearing a dishdasha or traditional male Islamic robe and a white skullcap.

He is seen washing his arms, wetting his hair and dipping his feet ankle-deep in water before clasping his hands in front of his stomach to pray.

Also featured are photographs of a Shiite youth in a black T-shirt and black trousers, following the same ritual but with two key differences -- he sprinkles water sparingly on his feet and has his hands and arms at his side.

Though the words "Sunni" and "Shiite" are not specifically mentioned, a passage vaguely describes the two sets of photographs as illustrating "rites according to the teachings of some Muslim groups".

But to parents the implication is obvious, says Suhair, a civil servant and Shiite whose mixed neighbourhood nevertheless falls within the Sunni stronghold of Adhamiyah.

"These images plant misconceptions in children's minds," she says. "Schools should not be dividing between who is Sunni and who is Shiite, because that leads to religious discrimination."

Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites, although now largely at peace, engaged in often barbaric sectarian bloodshed in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Tens of thousands were killed in the violence, which also displaced 2.8 million people within the country and led to a further two million fleeing into exile, according to figures published by the United Nations last year.

Suhair is not alone in arguing that the textbook implants notions of division among children at a time when Iraqi society is tentatively beginning to recover.

-- 'That will lead to sectarianism ' --


"The last thing I wanted my child to see is those photos," says Taghreed Jassim, whose six-year-old boy attends the same school in Tunis.

"They will make the children wonder who is Sunni and who is Shiite among their friends. That will lead to sectarianism."

In a bid to break with 80 years of Sunni rule that ended with the 2003 invasion, when textbooks illustrated only the Sunni form of prayer, the now dominant Shiite government has torn up old reference texts.

The vast majority have been completely transformed too. Among other things, the photograph of Saddam that adorned each copy's first page has been removed, while references to the executed dictator's Baath political party have also been excised.

"Ablutions and Prayers" has caused such uproar that the education ministry has been forced to backtrack.

"As it has caused a stir, we will publish a new edition next year," says Mohsen Abid Ali, a ministry adviser. "Discussions are ongoing with all groups of society and we will take their views into account."

Shiites represent around three-fifths of the Iraqi population, while Sunnis make up around a quarter. Most of the remainder are Kurds, who live largely in the autonomous region of Kurdistan in the north.

Iraq, not including Kurdistan, has around 6.5 million schoolchildren between the ages of six and 17, and 525,000 teachers, many of whom are also uneasy with the new textbooks.

"After expressing our concerns, ministry officials told us to ignore the chapter and that is what we have done," says Nihad Sabri Najim, head teacher at another primary school in Tunis.

The book was produced by a state-owned company whose chief defends the controversial chapter.

"We asked for the opinion of specialists in the field, members of parliament's education committee and Sunni and Shiite religious authorities," Nayef Thamer says, insisting that "all of them approved its content."

However, the decision to include the controversial chapter continues to baffle parents.

"I don't know why the book included two different photos for praying at a time when we are trying to get rid of the civil war that killed millions of Iraqis," says an incredulous Layla Othman, who has a six-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl.

"In this age we must teach the children how to live with all the different sects and to respect all religions."

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