Transforming curricula for coexistence in Kurdistan: Progress and challenges

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Jul 11, 2023

The dramatic rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2014 attracted hundreds of young people in the region and across the world, including young Kurds from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). In response to this threat, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) began to introduce many countering and preventive measures, with a great emphasis on curriculum reform in schools and higher education institutes.

In this blog, EPP researcher Kamaran Palani examines the key changes in educational programmes as well as key policy challenges and shortcomings. The data and analyses of this blog are based on the author’s observation and previous research on the role of education in preventing violent extremism in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.

KRG’s curricula reform

Three governmental institutions have played a central role in post-2014 curriculum changes: the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs.

Just a year after the rise of ISIL, the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research formed a committee consisting of members of different universities and higher education institutions to adopt the following measures:

  1. Critical thinking, and contemporary thoughts.
  2. Added English language subject in religious institutions, with the aim that that this will introduce students with different thoughts, cultures, and publications.

After 2014, the KRG’s Ministry of Education also began to reform the religious curriculum, especially in primary schools, with the aim of promoting diversity and coexistence. In addition, the Ministry of Education commenced reforming school curricula and added a new one (Life Skills) in 2019 for primary schools focusing on tolerance, respect, and coexistence of ethno-religious identities. The latter programme was piloted to 200 primary schools across the Kurdistan Region.

Moreover, among the initiatives implemented by the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs was establishing an educational institute to provide training to imams, along the principles of coexistence, tolerance, respecting minorities and defending the Kurdistan national interests. In addition, to counter the ideology of ISIL, the Ministry introduced a series of restrictive measures, including a ban on books of certain Islamist and religious scholars in all libraries in Kurdistan.  

Challenges and shortcomings

Based on my observations and previous research, I have highlighted the following challenges or shortcomings to the KRG’s curriculum change initiatives.

Firstly, based on my interviews and focus group discussions with hundreds of teachers across the KRI, one of the main grievances of many teachers is that the curriculum changes are not done by experts. For example, civic education programme, which was taught in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades in primary schools, included many concepts such as democracy, human rights, justice, and liberty. The committee members who wrote these contents were not specialized in these fields.

Secondly, the sentiment that “the government is against Islam” is shared by a significant number of teachers who I interviewed. A possible explanation is that changing religious curriculum lacked a comprehensive consultation with the teachers and educators. Many teachers feel that the process was top-down, centralized, and exclusive. What this means in everyday practice is that teachers do not endorse and promote the changes happened in the curriculum.

Thirdly, the changes in educational contents are not complemented by capacity building training to teachers who are required to teach these new materials. For example, the history of different religions has been added to new religious programmes, but most teachers have limited knowledge about the newly added contents and have not received training and education about these contents.

Finally, the challenge lies in the idea that the excessive centralisation and regulation of religious educational institutions will engender a legitimacy problem for these centres, as trust in the government institutions is low.

Addressing the challenges, perceptions and shortcomings highlighted above require a comprehensive strategy. Nevertheless, in the short term, the educational authorities have to make sure that the process of curriculum change is transparent and participatory. In addition, they need to adopt a robust capacity building program to teachers and educators so they can deliver these programmes.

*Any opinions expressed in this, or any other blog post on this website, are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Education, Peace and Politics organisation.

  • Kamaran Palani

    Dr. Kamaran Palani is currently a Lecturer in International Relations at Salahaddin University-Erbil and a Research Fellow on the British Academy funded Bilateral Chair project.