Religious intolerance part of the lesson plan in Iraqi schools

Baghdad, Iraq - Zuhair Jerjis and Ahmed Mohammed are both 10. They attend the same Baghdad school and often ride home together. After school, the two get together and play video games.

But Ahmed is worried. He wonders if some day, he will have to murder his best friend.

The boys go to the same school and share a ride home to the same district of Baghdad, but their parents do not share the same faith.

Zuhair's family is Christian, and Ahmed's is Muslim. Recent religious lessons at school have left Ahmed questioning what end awaits his friendship.

"Our teacher tells us it is forbidden in Islam to make friends with unbelievers," he said. "When I study that we have to fight the unbelievers in the name of jihad, I think, 'Will I kill Zuhair one day?' "

Ahmed's family in Muslim; Zuhair's is Christian. And it turns out that in Iraq's schools today, religious tolerance is not part of the curriculum.

Religious education is a regular feature of public schools in Iraq. Because Zuhair is a Christian, he is not required to attend religious classes. But because the vast majority of his classmates are Muslims, Zuhair said he often feels alone and isolated.

"When all of my friends are in the class, I have to stand outside," he said.

As students prepare to return to classes this fall, there is growing criticism of the recently introduced curriculum, which critics say fails to tackle the causes of religious and sectarian hatred that have fueled the violence of the last six years. Worse still, they accuse it of laying the foundations for future strife.

The main concerns about the school program are that it favors the Shia interpretation of Islam. In addition, many are concerned that some teachers focus on subjects not directly addressed in the curriculum, such as the treatment of non-Muslims and jihad, or holy war.

Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, religious education reflected the beliefs of the minority Sunni population, which makes up roughly one-quarter of the current population.

The current curriculum places more emphasis on Shia Islam, a sect followed by the majority of Iraq's Arabs and by its most powerful politicians, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Muhsin al-Freji, an adviser to the education minister, insists that the curriculum — first introduced in 2006 — has attempted to represent all Iraqis.

"We did our best to update the curriculum so it expressed the views of all Iraqis," he said. "A few changes were made, and more are on the way." But Sunni Arab politicians have been vocal in their criticism of the changes.

Alaa Makki, a Sunni member of parliament and head of a parliamentary committee on education, said the new curriculum was unbalanced.

"The current changes have a huge sectarian impact," he said. "The updating process should focus on the shared aspects (of Islam), not on a specific sect." Some of the areas of dispute are subtle and reflect the centuries-old schism within Islam.

For example, Iraq's former Sunni-accented textbooks followed all mentions of the Prophet with a traditional Sunni blessing, "Peace be upon him." In the new textbooks, the blessing is a typical Shia one, "Peace be upon him and his family." In addition, anecdotal evidence from schools suggests many teachers offer their own views on such topics as the treatment of non-Muslims or the obligation to wage jihad.

Sanaa Muhsin, an Islamic studies teacher in Baghdad's Shaab district, said she regularly instructs her students that "each Muslim had a duty to carry out jihad — namely to fight unbelievers." She identified unbelievers as those who did not follow Allah or the Prophet Mohammed.

Some students appear to be learning the lessons well.

Sajjad Kiayyad, 7, of Baghdad, said he plans to become a holy warrior when he grows up. "I will fight the Americans because they are Jewish and unbelievers," he said. "I will be victorious, or I will be a martyr in heaven."

Maryam Ali, 9, also of Baghdad, said she is carrying out her own jihad by calling on "unveiled female friends to cover their heads."

Freji, the education ministry adviser, insisted that teachers had been instructed to steer clear of issues that aroused conflict. The new curriculum, he said, focused on the fraternal aspects of Islam. "The Islamic religion, and therefore the Islamic curriculum, emphasizes forgiveness and mercy."