This week, Beirut’s International College (IC), one of Lebanon’s most renowned private schools agreed to plaster opaque stickers over pages of a middle school textbook that has irked the opposition, in particular Hezbollah.
MP Mohammed Fneish, a Hezbollah party member and the minister of labor in the outgoing cabinet, took issue with a US textbook called Modern World History that is taught at IC as a part of the middle school curriculum and last Sunday, according to Associated Press, called for the ministry of education to remove the book from the school.
Imad al-Ashkar, head of private education for the ministry of education, believes Fneish was encouraged to take action after a recent broadcast by Hezbollah-run television station, Al-Manar.
“Manar television spoke about it and showed the part of the book that contains some information [stating] that Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad are terrorist organizations,” said Ashkar.
Ashkar said that the ministry of education responded by calling an urgent meeting on Monday with the school’s president, John Johnson, who arrived with members of the International College staff and a copy of the controversial book in hand.
Although the pages with which Al-Manar, and subsequently Fneish, took issue were not removed, as has been reported, Johnson did agree to have the section covered with stickers.
“The part [of the book] talking about what I told you is hidden totally… so no one can read anything under it. If you try to remove the sticker to read the text, it would take apart the page,” said Ashkar.
The International College administration has refused to comment further on the subject. According to the secretary to the school’s Vice President of Alumni Affairs and Public Relations, queries on this subject should instead be redirected to the ministry of education.
“The book [has been used] in IC from 2003, so why now?” asked Ashkar. This thought has been echoed by many across the country who see the move as a below-the-belt attack on Education Minister Bahia Hariri.
While there is no clear-cut answer why the book has only now become a problem for Hezbollah, controversy over history lessons is certainly not a new phenomenon in the country. As those educated in Lebanese schools know, and the international press has noted, the country’s modern history is seldom taught in classrooms. Due to deep sectarian divisions and continual disagreements between political factions over the tumultuous series of events that have characterized Lebanon’s more recent history, a unified historical narrative that goes past the beginning of the civil war has never materialized.
The country’s modern history is not taught as a part of the national curriculum and it is equally overlooked in private schools, which tend to follow other international curricula, despite the fact that government-approved textbooks with varying spins on Lebanon’s past exist for use in private schools.
As noted by BBC in an October, many such academic institutions avoid teaching the subject altogether so as to deter sectarian and political tension which, as this week’s controversy over the history book used at the International College demonstrates, are easily incited.
In place of learning the country’s history together in a classroom, school children are more than likely to learn about Lebanese history from their parents – a practice that reinforces the individual narratives of each of the divided country’s communities and in turn serves to further perpetuate sectarian divisions.
“It’s a real problem,” Ohaness Goktchian, professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, said to BBC. “We are raising another generation of children who identify themselves with their communities and not their nation… history is what unities people. Without history we can’t have unity.”
Since this article was published it has come to the attention of NOW Lebanon that this textbook may have been censored since it began being used by the International College in 2003. Recent objections to the book came after several uncensored textbooks were found in circulation this year. At the time of publication, the International College refused to speak to NOW on this issue, stating that questions should be re-directed to the Ministry of Education, which made no mention of earlier censorship of the textbook when speaking to NOW.