Iraqi youth are calling for secularism in the government and educational systems, a more liberal-arts focus in their high schools and the encouragement of more vocational/recreational programs run by secular organisations to reduce religious extremists recruiting vulnerable youth.
These statements all came from discussions held at the first American-Iraqi Youth Conference held recently in Amman, Jordan. The 16 Iraqi and 16 American students discussed topics such as education, infrastructure, reconciliation and security, and came to a consensus that bridged all the social, economic, religious and cultural backgrounds. During these discussions education featured heavily, and it was evidently clear that education is one area that we can drastically improve upon.
Iraqi education has been one of the many forgotten issues after the invasion in 2003, and corruption, a lack of teacher training and old fashioned attitudes have meant that an increasing number of Iraqi youth are becoming disillusioned with the present system. Disillusionment that often leads to being recruited by extremists.
It is a problem that Australia cannot ignore, for political as well as economic reasons. More Iraqi youth want to go abroad to study: to gain a greater sense of international understanding and to learn in a more liberal atmosphere. First, however, they need to have a grounding at home. They need a primary and secondary education system that is focused on teaching students how to learn: not just a list of numbers or facts to memorise. They need a system that values learning about the great Arab writers as much as the laws of Pythagoras.
One of our greatest mistakes in Iraq is that we have failed to understand that the educational philosophy is completely different to that in Western countries. Iraq is in dire, immediate, need of doctors and engineers, and so when people see smart, intelligent youth studying the works of Abdel Wahad al-Bayati (one of the great Iraqi poets) all they see is a “wasted opportunity” (to quote an Iraqi teacher).
The common Bachelor of Arts degree, studying a bit of this and a bit of that, is virtually unheard of. One Iraqi student explained it perfectly: “You go to university to become a profession[al]. My teachers ask me ‘What sort of respected occupation can you become if you study history or literature?’”
It is hard for Westerners to comprehend but Iraqi society fails to recognise that having good teachers and historians is as important to building a strong, robust, democratic society as having good doctors, engineers and architects.
Australia has a lot it can do to promote these values. Many Iraqi schools have never had extra-curricular programs and activities like sports teams or art clubs, and therein lies a huge problem. We are losing the battle of ideas as students are coaxed away from schools into radical groups, which give them a purpose and motivation not found in the education system. It is time we extended the “warrior, builder, diplomat” spirit to become “warrior, builder, diplomat, sports coach and teacher”. It is important to recognise that Iraqi youth need someone to coach their football team as much as someone to teach the chemical equation of photosynthesis.
This is one of the reasons why Australian troops are regarded in relatively high esteem by many youth in Iraq. Due to an unofficial policy of “football diplomacy”, soldiers have been out on the street playing football with the Iraqi youth. There is little better way to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi youth than showing your commonality with them over oranges (or Arabic coffee) at half time!
Activities, which can easily be run through the school system, break down barriers that exist between people, and pre-established groups. If you are on the same soccer, debating, or basketball team, then the differences that exist between ideology and religion seem to not matter any more. In fact, for the youth present at the conference, whether you were Sunni, Shiite, or Christian never really did matter that much: a stark contrast to the portrayal we see in the media each day.
No matter how much hardship they have been through, the youth of Iraq have almost always exuded a sense of optimism about their society. Over the past five years we have failed to recognise this powerful force that could help to bring unity to the Iraqi community.
In just under two weeks, using the brain power of 32 intelligent, pragmatic and rational Iraqi and American teenagers, the participants were able to do what we have failed to do for five years, they managed to cut across geographic, cultural and religious differences to produce strong, post partisan solutions for the future of one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Youth and educational reform are two of the greatest weapons we possess in this conflict, and we cannot claim to be successful in Iraq without embracing both of these.