Education minister hits at USAid over textbook policy

Ala'din Alwan, Iraq's minister of education, has criticised the US Agency for International Development (USAid) for attempting to limit or ban Islamic religious references in experimental Iraqi school teaching materials paid for by the agency.

"Decisions about education in Iraq must be Iraqi decisions," said Dr Alwan, who added he was not consulted about the move. He said he would be reviewing the programme - a $4m (?3.3m, £2.4m) accelerated learning project for 500 students - in coming days.

The controversy started a few weeks ago when a western consultant working for USAid asked Iraqi ministry of education experts to remove verses from the Koran from experimental teaching materials for Arabic grammar, and replace them with neutral content. One of the experts disclosed this to the FT on the condition he not be named.

The western consultant, who works for USAid contractor Creative Associates International Inc (CAII), confirmed the request had been made.

Shannon Meehan, head of CAII in Baghdad, explained they were under strict instructions from USAid to fund only "neutral, apolitical and areligious" materials because the US constitution prohibited proselytising with US government money.

"If there is a sentence such as 'Praise be to God' in a grammar textbook, we will have a discussion about revising or changing that to a different sentence. We do not remove the lesson from the textbook, we simply change the sentence," Ms Meehan said.

USAid officials deny they are the source of any pressure to remove religious themes from learning materials, and insist that all education decisions in Iraq are "Iraqi-led".

However, several USAid officials confirmed that guidelines exist not to fund school materials that violate the first amendment of the US constitution, which prohibits using government funds to promote religion. One senior USAid official said the guidelines are the result of a threat to sue USAid in the US, though the USAid press office knew of no such instance.

"Before we use taxpayer money to print textbooks we need to ensure that we are not infringing on separation of church and state and the first amendment," said Jessica Jordan, chief of the USAid education programme in Baghdad.

The USAid guidelines have already been applied in Afghanistan, where they generated far less controversy, mainly because they were not widely publicised. The same appears to have happened in Iraq. When approached by the FT, USAid officials appeared reluctant at first to admit there were such guidelines.

Harry Edwards of USAid press office confirmed that Afghanistan's textbooks had already been revised to bring them into line with the US constitution, before USAid funded the printing of 30m books over the past two years.

They went on to become the core of the country's national curriculum.

"We intended these textbooks to be a temporary thing for one year, but the minister of education and President [Hamid] Karzai liked them so much he said: 'This is the permanent curriculum for the country'," according to Andrew Natsios, USAid administrator, in a May 18 speech.

According to a senior USAid official, the first amendment guidelines prevented the agency from funding the printing of textbooks for Iraq's national curriculum, which were prepared instead by the United Nations (news - web sites) Children's Fund (Unicef (news - web sites)) using funds from the UN's recently dismantled Oil-for-Food Programme.

One contractor, on the condition of anonymity, obliquely criticised the use of humanitarian aid as part of "a political and military strategy" and indicated that many aid workers with knowledge of the revisions are opposed to them. "We are stuck in this bizarre environment that just is not working and do truly want to help the Iraqis move forward - but it is just all wrong and very sad," she said.

Ms Jordan insists the ministry of education is leading the development of the learning materials for the accelerated learning programme, and that USAid is not reviewing or in any way influencing the teaching materials. "The Iraqi ministry of education will determine what information children receive," she said.

But at least one ministry employee, Walid Hashem, resigned from a panel tasked with revising the history curriculum in protest against removing religious material from textbooks, according to a confidential project memo seen by the FT. Mr Hashem could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Dr Alwan, the education minister, denied that he had been consulted by USAid. He added that he has heard about the controversy and USAid's guidelines but no one has discussed it with him yet. "At a policy level we are not involved yet. We are struggling with many issues now," he said.

He added that he plans to review the matter to ensure that the process of writing the materials is led by the ministry. "USAid is an extremely important partner, but we can work with other partners on this," he said. "We are not going to contradict our principles just because they are funded by a certain agency."