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A critical lesson for Iraqi youth

Omar Atatfa has made it his mission to teach critical thinking to a new generation of Iraqi students and fill a dangerous gap in the country’s curriculum

Omar Atatfa’s ambition to spread critical thinking skills in Iraq is reinforced daily – by the disinformation he encounters, the motives that drive it, and the damage it does. “People don’t know how to examine their ideas or accept that others don’t share the same basic thoughts, that’s why we get into conflict,” says Atatfa, a lecturer at Wasit University in Al-Kut, Iraq.

The failure to question common narratives and challenge prescribed views was written into the learning he received under Saddam Hussein’s regime in the nineties, when “education was a form of dictatorship.” Spending six years of his schooling under the former dictator’s rule shaped Atatfa’s outlook, and those of his classmates, who were taught to support the regime and not ask questions.

“Our opinions were given to us and we had to reiterate them again and again, there was no space for criticism or creativity,” he recalls.

After the US-led invasion toppled Hussein in 2003, there was an expectation that education would improve in Iraq, but the same pattern persisted with no space for students to ask questions or form personal opinions. “Lack of critical thinking skills is one of the main reasons that people in Iraq struggle to accept alternative viewpoints, so we have more fights and arguments than rational discussions,” says Atatfa, who is currently completing PhD research in Critical Discourse Studies at the University of Babylon.

Atatfa, 29, is among the first to receive funds from the Ideas Beyond Borders Innovation Hub, which was launched in March 2021 to help young change-makers implement their ideas for a better Middle East. “The new program focuses on innovators whose goal is aligned with our mission of making knowledge accessible for all and empowering youth in the region to think for themselves,” says Faisal Al Mutar, Founder and President of Ideas Beyond Borders.

It was while attending a six-week Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program in the US in 2012 that Atatfa’s thinking started to shift. “That was where I first encountered critical thinking – I was fascinated by this idea and wanted to spread it among my classmates back in Iraq.” But he was disappointed by the response from fellow students when he got home.

“They didn’t feel any need to apply their own ideas… they just wanted information to be delivered to them.”

– Omar Atatfa

The problem permeates all sections of Iraqi society, including the most educated. Atatfa has seen disinformation about Iraqi elections creep into the comments of friends with Masters degrees and doctorates, reinforcing the scale and urgency of the problem. “Officials can spread whatever ideas they want – it’s easy for them to pass their message on – regardless of whether it’s true or not.”

In his workshops, Atatfa invites students to unpack their thinking, walking them through different ways of approaching information and the way it’s presented. He steers clear of inflammatory subjects, including religion and Iraqi politics, and draws instead on global examples when inviting students to self-reflect.

In one slide designed to illustrate the influence of Iraqi media on perceptions, students are asked to compare a picture of an Iraqi man dressed in hipster clothing with a Western man sporting a similar style. Most students respond negatively to the Iraqi man, whose look is considered subversive in Iraqi culture, but are more positive about the man from the West, where they see this look as the norm.

So far, Atatfa has noted particular interest among young women in the sessions, especially in Najaf. “Given that it’s a very conservative area, I find this really interesting,” he says. Other workshops have taken place in Babel, Basra, and Al-Kut, with plans to hold more elsewhere in Iraq if further funds can be raised.

The work is not without risks – there are numerous groups in Iraq that would attack his association with a US-based organization and accuse him of spreading subversive ideas. Nor is he likely to get any support from official channels. “Politicians don’t want people with the thinking skills to question corruption because it would challenge their position,” says Atatfa.

But it’s precisely because Iraq’s ruling regimes seek to discourage inquiring minds that work like Atatfa’s is so important. “It’s not in their interest to equip new generations with a powerful tool for change like critical thinking; it would force them to be more democratic,” he says.

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