A Diversity Institute Teaches Iraqi Students About Religious Minorities

/ 29 Jun 2020

A Diversity Institute Teaches Iraqi Students About Religious Minorities

A new institute in Iraq that aims to change the country’s discourse toward religious minorities through educational programs for Muslim students and clerics has published its first curricula.

The Institute for the Study of Religious Diversity, the first of its kind in Iraq and the Middle East, was established nearly a year ago by Masarat, a Baghdad-based nonprofit nongovernmental organization that focuses on minorities, collective memory studies and interfaith dialogue, in cooperation with a number of universities and civil-rights groups.

The new curricula are a series of textbooks on non-Muslim minority faiths, which include Mandaeanism, Yazidism, Judaism and Christianity, that will be used in a new course that was taught for the first time this year. All of the curricula were designed by experts, academics and leaders within the groups they describe.

Initially, the focus will be on teaching students of Islamic seminaries (both Sunni and Shia) in traditional religious institutions and students of Islamic sciences faculties at some of Iraq’s public universities. There are plans to expand the course to media and journalism students, too.

The institute hopes that better understanding of different religions in Iraq will influence the rhetoric of Muslim clergymen and the wider Islamic discourse and prejudices regarding religious diversity, and help to combat radicalism and hate speech in the country.

“The idea is to prevent the preferential treatment of one particular religion as the ʹbestʹ or the ʹdominantʹ faith over others and actively work against the introduction of religious monopolies,” said Saad Salloum, Masarat’s general coordinator for cultural and media development and a political scientist at Mustansiriyah University, in Baghdad. (See a related article, “Iraqi Champion of Diversity, in a Discouraging Time.”)

“For the first time in our contemporary history, we are offering a Yazidi curriculum authored by a Yazidi expert who spent three decades collecting and documenting his people’s oral traditions,” said Salloum. “Moreover, we started to teach the beliefs of more modern officially unrecognized religions, such as the Baha’i faith and Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion recently revived in Iraqi Kurdistan after centuries of disappearance.”

In Their Own Words

For leaders of the minority groups, the institute’s new course provides a platform to combat stereotypes and misunderstandings that have caused their believers much suffering in the Middle East.

“For the first time in our contemporary history, we are offering a Yazidi curriculum authored by a Yazidi expert who spent three decades collecting and documenting his people’s oral traditions.”

Saad Salloum   Masarat’s general coordinator for cultural and media development and a political scientist at Mustansiriyah University, in Baghdad

Qais al-Saadi, the author of the Mandaean curriculum, said most of the discrimination his religion has been subjected to “results from wrong reporting on it,” the writings of “authors who never asked us about our religion or life experience,” and Mandaeans’ “not writing about ourselves.”

“In order to reverse this,” said al-Saadi, a former education professor at Baghdad University who is now based in Germany, “I found, as a Mandaean, that I have a duty to present a textbook explaining the basic aspects that will help the reader get a clear image of this religion’s history and belief, and its followers as they are.”

Khalil Jundi, the author of the curriculum on Yazidism, was enthusiastic about the chance to teach Iraqi students about a religious group that survived the Islamic State’s attempt to eradicate it. Jundi, an expert on Yazidi affairs, is Iraq’s top diplomat in the Philippines, and taught his curriculum remotely from there.

“Teaching Muslim clerics about Yazidism will liberate the minds of new generations,” said Jundi.

His textbook, Jundi says, counters stereotypes about the Yazidi people and their religion by explaining some of their doctrinal and cultural topics. “It is an internal Yazidi narration combatting and correcting the distorted, unjust narration created by some Iraqi and Egyptian historians,” he wrote in his book’s introduction. “The old narration dominated by Arab nationalism and religious extremism created a disfigured image of the Yazidis in the Arabic and Islamic culture.”

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Iraq’s dwindling Christian community is also represented among the new curricula. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the number of Christians in Iraq dropped by 83 percent, from around 1.5 million to just 250,000. In 2014, 125,000 more Christians were displaced from their historical homelands in the Nineveh Plains and Mosul.

The textbook on Christianity “is an attempt to shed light on the Christian faith in a contemporary simple and understandable style, avoiding the complex philosophical expressions and old terminologies,” wrote Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church and the curriculum’s author. “Teaching Christianity and other religions to Muslims will contribute to the confrontation of sectarianism and ignorance of the ‘other,’” he added.

An Eagerness to Learn

With university classes suspended because of the Covid-19 lockdowns, the institute’s new course is being taught online this year. Sheikh Amer al-Bahadli, a Shia cleric and student at Baghdad’s Imam Kadhim College Islamic Sciences University, is among those who took the course.

“Most of the students are exploring totally new things and have too many questions that cannot be covered in online classes.”

Khalil Jundi   the author of the curriculum on Yazidism

“It was a good opportunity to study religions such as Christianity and Judaism from their original sources given to us by priests,” said al-Bahadli. “It is definitely better to get information from direct sources. For the first time, we studied new religions we know nothing about, like Yazidism, Mandaeanism, Baha’ism and Zoroastrianism.”

Students in the class were eager to know more about other religions, al-Bahadli said. “There were enriching, fruitful discussions. The teaching method leaves it open for us to do our own research.”

For experts like Jundi, it was their first teaching experience.

“Most of the students are exploring totally new things and have too many questions that cannot be covered in online classes,” he said. “So, the curriculum will help them better understand.”

Jundi thinks the online format might have hindered students from engaging in vigorous debates regarding the stereotypes they have. “However, the lecture itself will reverse many of them,” he said. “The teaching method is not to defy others, but rather than to introduce the religion to others.”

A Key Minister’s Support 

Hassan Nadhem, Iraq’s new Minister of Culture and Antiquities, is one of the institute’s founders and has promised to support the institute’s work.

“Establishing an institute to teach religious diversity in Iraq is an important step,” said Nadhem, who also holds the Unesco Chair for Interreligious Dialogue Studies in the Islamic World at the University of Kufa. “Addressing this issue is quite essential as Iraq is a country of many ethnicities, religions and sects. I contributed to the establishment of this institute to tackle Iraqi diversity and transform it from a problem to a constructive factor.”

Nadhem has invited other relevant ministries to cooperate with the institute. “We, in the Ministry of Culture, will support it. We call on the Ministry of Education to cooperate in developing curricula teaching about Iraq’s diversity. Their participation is essential.”

Salloum thinks that ignorance of other faiths and cultures contributes to the spread of stereotypes about minority religious groups and helps create an environment in which religious discrimination and, ultimately, extremism, violence and genocide can occur.

“There is definitely a radical change. There was a total ignorance of some religions and untrue images of others.”

Sheikh Amer al-Bahadli,   a Shia cleric and student at Baghdad’s Imam Kadhim College Islamic Sciences University

This motivated him to work with others to provide students with knowledge related to diversity in a manner that promotes understanding, coexistence, and religious tolerance, and to find a hub where students, academics, and clergy meet regularly with members of other religions.

Al-Bahadli thinks religious discussion is a sensitive issue. “Of course, any religious person thinks his opinion is the correct one,” he said. “However, students were eager to learn. Most of them were looking for common things and understanding the other.”

Defying Official Institutions 

By teaching Baha’ism, the institute defies the Arab world political stance of not recognizing this faith.  Baha’is cannot receive identity cards showing their faith throughout the Middle East. Iraqi law No. 105 of 1970 prohibited all Baha’i activities. The 2005 constitution and the post-2003 government did nothing to eliminate such injustice.

Judaism is also a sensitive topic. Ephraim Gabbai, a New York-based rabbi of Iraqi descent, wrote the Jewish curriculum, but it was not taught this year. Jews once formed one-third of Baghdad’s population, but are all but nonexistent in the city today.

Joseph Braude, president of the U.S.-based Center for Peace Communications and one of the founding members of the institute, said, “What makes our organization rare is that beyond merely diagnosing the problem of a lost diversity, we actually intend to do something about it.”

“After generations of stigma and disinformation, a group of young, courageous Iraqi reformers have developed a world-class methodology for instilling awareness and appreciation for their country’s indigenous religious traditions,” added Braude, whose mother is an Iraqi Jew. “Arab and non-Arab countries alike can and should draw inspiration from this example.”

Knowledge Is the Change 

Al-Bahadli thinks change has already been achieved.

“There is definitely a radical change. There was a total ignorance of some religions and untrue images of others,” he said. “Now ignorance is replaced by knowledge and the image is much clearer.”

Despite the focus on teaching Muslim students about religious minorities, some of the institute’s founding members from minority groups said they also need to better understand religions other than their own, and Islam too.

“I attended the institute’s first course on religions, as a member of a religious minority myself. I found that I do not know about the beliefs of the rest of the minorities,” said Nadia Fadhel Maghamiss, the institute’s gender officer and the former director of the Divan for Endowment of Mandaeans in Iraq.

“Ignorance is not limited to the members of the Muslim majority,” she said. “I later discovered a desire shared by many members of the non-Muslim minorities to know more about Islam as well. We sometimes ask embarrassing questions on whether the religion supports terrorism and violence. I think changing this stereotype of Islam would also support peaceful coexistence.”

Accordingly, the institute’s scientific committee approved Maghamiss’s suggestion to include a new textbook on Islam for non-Muslim minorities.

Sheikh al-Bahadli thinks the institute will leave an impact on clergymen and religious students, as well as the wider public in the coming years.

“Personally, it had a great spiritual impact on me,” he said. “It is a valuable experience and should be supported to reach a wider audience and help get rid of certain deep-rooted prejudices.”

Jundi, the Yazidi expert, believes the institute will have a global impact as well. “This is a way to preserve ancient religions forming part of the world’s intangible human heritage,” he said.




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