Over the past few years, we have read statistic-after-statistic about Iraq: number of war casualties; number of embargo casualties; number of fictitious weapons of mass destruction; amount of oil revenues; how many U.N. resolutions (according to the U.S.) Iraq has violated; and many more. The list is endless.

Today, I read what may be the most disastrous statistic of all. Arab News ran a story called "Education for All: For Arabs the Task is Arduous." The article used statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to describe the uphill battle in the Arab world to make literacy universal among its citizens. Many statistics were cited and in 2002, Mauritania was considered the bottom of the league for literacy in the Arab world with a literacy rate of 59.8%.

What a difference a couple of years makes. According to the article:

Sadly, the bottom spot of the literacy rate, according to the Education for All (EFA) report 2003/2004 was reserved for no other than Iraq, a country that was once recognized for being a Third World model of development. Along with Cuba, Iraq once offered universal education and health coverage. Now, following 15 years of crippling sanctions, unjustified and bloody war, and a self-consumed and brutal occupation, only 39.3% of Iraqis can read.

This incredibly quick demise in Iraqi literacy has received little publicity, however, articles have been written, but mostly ignored. A year-and-a-half ago, the Christian Science Monitor delved into the future of Iraq education and inferred that it was going downhill at a rapid pace. On November 4, 2003, Charles Asquith wrote a piece called "Turning the Page on Iraq’s History" that dealt with the subject. Under a subheading titled, "A System with a Brighter Past," he stated:

Early in his rule, Saddam was credited with creating one of the strongest school systems in the Middle East. Iraq won a UNESCO prize for eradicating illiteracy in 1982. Literacy rates for women were among the highest of all Islamic nations, and unlike most Middle East school systems, Iraqi education was largely secular.

In addition to waging war on illiteracy at home, Iraq exported teachers to Arab countries to help them in upgrading their educational systems. The program was similar to the one Cuba has used for decades, and is now resurrecting on an international level.

In the early 1960s, U.S. singer Ray Stevens scored with a hit record called "Ahab the Arab" (pronounced "Ay-hab the Ay-rab). The song extolled the virtues of and enhanced the Western view of the Arab as a desert-dwelling nomad who could neither read nor write. Ahab had his obligatory harem of women and his trusted camel named Clyde.

From the 1970s, with Iraq at the forefront, the Arab world experienced an incredible rise in literacy. Even on Western TV, one could occasionally see an eloquent Arab speaking. It appeared that the days of Ahab the Arab were thrust into the dustbin of discredited history.

However, those racist views are now making a comeback on a monumental scale. Today’s U.S. citizens routinely call Arabs "rag heads," "camel jockeys," "sand niggers," and many other such niceties. And, the term "dirty Arab" is totally contradictory to reality. I have asked many a U.S. citizen who uses that term if he/she ever met an Arab. The answers are identical: no. I then tell them that Arabs are consumed with cleanliness and are constantly washing their hands after the most mundane of tasks. Their attitudes toward cleanliness border on being a phobia, yet the mainstream American thinks they are dirty.

When one sees a figure of diminishing literacy in Iraq, it only reinforces the negative stereotypes already prevalent in the U.S. The U.S. has already destroyed the country of Iraq and tried every way to humiliate its inhabitants. Possibly, this taking away of literacy may yet be the U.S.’ most powerful weapon.

Let’s take a look back and see the gradual ascent of literacy in Iraq. I will use statistics from various sources. In 1980, a few years after the beginning of the war against illiteracy, according to PBS, 49% of those in Iraq under the age of 15 were literate. By 2002, that figure had risen to 75%. There may have been a possible decline in the 1990s because of the embargo, but the figures are impressive.

By the end of the 1980s, shortly before the U.S. aggression against Iraq began, 87% of the Iraqi public was literate. In other words, about twice as many people could read and write than could 15 years earlier.

The embargo was disastrous on the Iraqi educational system. For instance, even pencils were not allowed to be imported. The U.S. placed these in the "dual-use" category of imports. Since there are few trees for wood in Iraq, pencils became rare. Anti-embargo human rights groups brought pencils to Iraq during the sanctions, but it was only a drop in the bucket for the actual needs.

Despite the hardships, Iraqis were still learning to read and write. At the height of the embargo in 1995, 89.7% of Iraqi males were literate and 45% of the female population could read and write. The sanctions took their highest toll on Iraqi women.

Even in March 2003, most figures from international organizations stated that Iraq still had a literacy rate of over 60%. Two years later, and the rate is under 40%. To make it simple, about two of every three Iraqis today can not read or write.

This decrease in literacy fits U.S. imperialistic aims. If the people can not read or write, they can not understand all the diabolical effects of the occupation. To them, they worry about eating and having electricity. Reading is secondary. With an enslaved population like this, there is little hope that a "normal" life will return to Iraqis for decades.

Most educators in Iraq today fight to have text books or pencils. If they get table scraps, they are happy because that is better than nothing. However, table scraps will be the only offerings coming for a long time.

The U.S. is currently building 14 permanent bases in Iraq. U.S. firms have bilked the Iraqis out of untold billions of dollars. Every day that passes is another day when the illiteracy rate in Iraq rises. The public has no time to worry about literacy. This enslavement is powerful and lasting.

Iraq, like Cuba and now Venezuela, placed a high priority on literacy. All these countries have or are exporting literacy programs worldwide. Cuba’s program is offered in several languages and is given with no strings attached. It is not looking for rights to build a military base or for a percentage of a country’s raw materials. It just wants people to be able to read and write.

Iraq was once like that, but those days are sadly behind us. I guess it’s un-American for people of the world to have programs that offer them the ability to be literate.

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