By Hannah Somerville
February 12, 2021
Masonic conspiracies and “satanic plans” to undermine the Islamic Republic. The sedition and scheming of Jewish people past and present. A photograph of a boy carrying a rocket launcher, described as emblematic of “a culture of sacrifice and martyrdom.”
These are not the fevered ramblings of the certified insane, nor scenes from a 1980s propaganda film. They all form part of the 2020/2021 academic syllabus for Iranian children currently in Grades 4 through to 12. Textbooks being used to teach the officially-prescribed curriculum of the Islamic Republic this year have been gathered and analyzed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an international NGO fighting hatred around the world. The findings, as ever, spell tragedy – both in the immediate present and for future generations of Iranian children.
Ideology holding sway over education in Iran is nothing new. But dispiritingly, the textbooks reveal that even in 2020/21, when truth and transparency are more important than ever, the most dangerous and fantastical self-legitimizing claims of Iran’s establishment are still finding their way into the classroom. This year, for the first time, the textbooks also include multiple instances of Covid-19 disinformation and an emphasis on the “martyrdom” of the former Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Ghasem Soleimani.
David Weinberg, the ADL’s Washington Director for International Affairs, has previously examined school textbooks in countries including Iran and has seen the contents of Iran’s 2020/21 curriculum for this report. “Extremist education materials are harmful to any nation and any people,” he tells IranWire. “Governments should be preparing their pupils for success in a globalized, international economy in partnership with diverse nationalities, societies and faiths.
“Instead, these materials are setting the youth in a conflicted direction. This radical curriculum will engender a backlash in some who see it’s not giving them an honest picture of the world. But I’m more concerned about the harm it causes for the future life prospects of these children. There are consequences [to] them being indoctrinated into a collision course with the rest of the world.”
Antisemitic, Anti-Israel and Anti-US Content
As with previous years, Iranian school textbooks continue to promote hateful and harmful narratives about Jews and the Jewish people, portraying Jews as the villains in stories about the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the Renaissance and the industrial age, as well as the modern era. Children are also taught that Zionism is fundamentally evil and that the state of Israel must be destroyed.
A Grade 11 history textbook states that, after the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, the “subterfuge” of “pact-breaking and conspiratorial Jewish tribes against Medina” was the main driving force behind people’s resistance to the fledgling Muslim community. A Grade 11 book on “Religion and Life” is riddled with allegations about Jews conniving to “misguide” Muslims.
The books also demean other vulnerable religious minorities that still have a presence in Iran today, such as the Baha’is, who are variously described as “infidels”, a “fake sect” and contriving to destroy the foundations of Islamic countries, in books for Grade 9 through to 11.
Meanwhile, a Grade 4 textbook describes the inhabitants of Israel as “the enemies of Islam” while a Grade 5 textbook features a graphic with a quote by Ayatollah Khomeini that states “Israel must be wiped out”. The books are full of claims about the importance of “completely eradicating” Israel and the role of Iran’s next generation in accomplishing this task.
Invariably, the Iranian national curriculum also demonizes the US, the European Union and the West at large as the “companions of Satan” trying to destroy Iran. “America regarded the victory of the Iranian Revolution as its greatest threat and set to plotting a conspiracy to destroy it,” a Grade 11 history book asserts. A Grade 9 book falsely claims that US sanctions prohibited the importation of medicines into Iran – an inaccuracy that continues to be pushed by Islamic Republic officials – and elsewhere accuses Western cultural influence of being a form of “soft warfare” aiming to “contaminate” the minds of young Muslims and pit Sunni and Shia Muslims against each other. “The main goal of the enemy in economic sanctions, military war, and cultural attack is nothing but the elimination of the people’s religious beliefs and to turn them away from Islam,” the book says. It then encourages pupils to form discussion groups about “ways to confront these plans”.
While most of the skewed narratives in Iranian school textbooks follow a similar, predictable theme, some of the claims they include are beyond the pale and surprised even ADL’s researchers. For instance, a Grade 11 sociology textbook devotes large sections to Freemasonry and claims Western countries deployed Freemasons and Christian missionaries to the Middle East in a bid to establish the “New World Order.”
“The first Freemasonry cells,” the book states, “most of whom were Western Jewish gold hoarders and capitalists, penetrated building guilds, which were not part of the aristocracy or clergy, to spread liberal ideas. Their slogans, in addition to opposing the aristocratic system, had an anti-religious identity.”
This same book also waxes on centuries-old conspiracy theories about Zionists controlling the world’s wealth and media outlets. These fantasies have been debunked and are inappropriate in a school environment – perhaps most especially in the Islamic Republic, where vast amounts of taxpayer cash are hoarded and spent in a non-transparent manner and where the regime has a near-monopoly on domestic media output.
This year, Iranian schoolbooks also included for the first time false claims about global management of the coronavirus pandemic. A Grade 10 textbook claimed “the Western media” was overstating the threat posed by Covid-19 to encourage people to panic-buy goods and currency, and that “foreign media” contrived “in a coordinated way” to dissuade people from attending public celebrations for the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in 2020. Last year’s public rallies took place on a date when Iranian officials were still denying the domestic outbreak in Qom and other cities, despite the fact that the first death from Covid-19 in hospital had been registered (and covered up) 20 days earlier.
One of the most astounding false claims appears on page 49 of the same textbook. The authors assert that “Zionists and the Global Arrogance” have actively created takfiri (extremist) groups in the region to undermine Islam, and that the US was responsible for creating “the terrorist and takfiri group ISIS”.
Encouraging Child Militancy
Perhaps most worryingly, the Iranian state textbooks encourage militarization, conflict and warfare as an idealized state of being, going so far as to glorify child soldiers. The imputation about ISIS comes from a Grade 10 book called “Defense Preparation,” which also describes preteens who died in the Iran-Iraq war as “martyrs” – pictured alongside such infamous figures as Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine and Ghasem Soleimani – and includes lessons on cyber warfare as well as a diagram of the components of a Kalashnikov.
Other sections of the secondary-school syllabus are given over to the ideological underpinnings of perpetual warfare and martyrdom. One section of a Grade 9 textbook offers up a secondary reading of the Arabic word jihad, which means struggle, effort and striving and has long been appropriated by terrorists and political pundits alike: “There is another meaning for this word in Islamic culture: armed battle (war) with the enemies of Islam… Whoever rises to jihad against the enemies by the command of God is always victorious; because if he defeats the enemy, in addition to honor and pride, God’s great forgiveness and reward is waiting for him. Therefore, jihad in the way of God is a battle that never fails.”
No Steps Forward; Several Steps Back
Dr Weinberg believes these books show that, regardless of which elected politicians are officially in charge, the ideology of the unelected establishment is what decides what is taught to children in Iranian classrooms, and how.
“It’s all part of a narrative pitting the ‘champions’ of ‘true Islam’ against the ‘forces of oppression and evil’,” he says. “Much of this is unsurprising, but sometimes it’s stunning how blatant, how graphic and how outrageous it can be.
“This is not a [Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif-style narrative about differences of political stance. This is hardcore, fanatical and ideological paranoia about the world that leaves no room for differences of opinion. The stuff about Freemasonry is bonkers and laughable, but also deeply harmful. It’s reflective, I think, of just how low the bar is sometimes. It’s also indicative that this is a long-running problem that can’t be fixed by whoever wins the next presidential election.”