Blogs > Cliopatria > The Struggle over Education in Iraq, and its Historic Parallels

May 13, 2004 1:53 am

The Struggle over Education in Iraq, and its Historic Parallels

In March of this year, I went on a leisurely jaunt on Mutanabbi street, the street of the booksellers in Baghdad. I went there at the tail end of Muharram, the month in which Shi’i mourning ceremonies for the Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, are held throughout the country. The black, green, white and red flags of the various Shi’a Imams were flying all over Baghdad, and large black cloth posters enumerated the Imam Hussein’s virtues in gold lettering. On the morning that I was there, black-turbaned shaykhs were ladling harissa, a form of porridge, from large soup tureens to the bookshop clientele in the middle of Mutanabbi street, in memory of the fallen Imam.

At the very end of the street, very close to the Shahbander café, there was an alleyway leading down to the river. I walked down there, intrigued by the look of the Ottoman-era buildings in the vicinity. And there I was struck by a great irony: the building of the Ottoman i’dadiyya or military high school, one of the most interesting structures of its kind in the city, had been taken over by the Shi’i followers of shaykh Muqtada al-Sadr. A large black banner announced that the building was now the site of jami’at al-Sadrayn, the University of the two Sadrs, which commemorated two important thinkers of the Sadr family that had been assassinated by the Baath regime.

That an Ottoman school would become the site for a Shi’i university was paradoxical indeed, if only because the Ottoman Sultans had kept that particular community at bay for most of their four hundred year rule. Now the Shi’a were back in force, and appropriating symbols of a once mighty Sunni state to boot. The incongruity was obviously more than a historical anomaly, it was all too evidently political. But weren’t most of the goals of secondary education in late Ottoman Iraq (nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) of a political nature, in the first place? Benjamin Fortna’s first-rate study of Ottoman education, Imperial Classroom (Oxford, 2002), makes an excellent case for the thesis that the Ottoman pursuit of a modernizing curriculum in the provinces of Iraq came as a by-result of the growing strength of Shiite schools and preachers within the country. Furthermore, he adds that: “ Education provided by the Ottoman state was one of the chief countermeasures proposed to combat the influence of Shiite propaganda coming across the border from another neighbor, Iran” (p.62). As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. In Iraq, there is no end to the historic parallels between the Ottoman period and the present.

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Hala Fattah - 5/13/2004

Thank you so much, Daniel. I really appreciate the kind words.
This is exactly what I wanted to do for this blog : provide some insight into Iraq's internal history, and how it fits within the context of the region first, and then the world. The world is far too much with us. Especially where Iraq is concerned, not too many people seem to know a lot about the inner manifestations and developments that occur as a result of the external influences on Iraq's history. And neither do people know how Iraq impacted the region, and the world.
Thanks again,

Daniel B. Larison - 5/13/2004

Thank you for a very interesting insight on Ottoman education reforms. My exposure to Ottoman history, while admittedly limited, has usually consisted of narratives that define almost all Ottoman reformism in terms of competition with European states. Other motivations, if they are even noted, receive very little attention. This internal competition over education and the government's motivation to keep up with Shi'i schools are entirely new aspects of the subject for me. The Ottoman competition with Iran is also one of the elements of Ottoman history that I think many Westerners ignore far too often. Thanks for reminding us.

I should add that your blog has provided more substantive, new and specifically historical information in the last few days than this site usually offers in a week. Please keep up the good work.