11 July 2010
Teaching religion in schools
The Ministry of Education’s recent decision to modify its curriculum in both Christian and Muslim religious instruction at all levels of school education has created a good deal of controversy. The ministry announced plans to revise the religion syllabus following accusations that it included elements that incited extremism and violence. The ministry will be working in concordance with al-Azhar University—the topmost Islamic seminary in the world, the history of which goes back to the 10th century and which is based in Cairo—and the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The decision to change the religious instruction curricula has been described by some as political, but the controversy surrounding it proves the need to address it as part and parcel of the more general problem of sectarian strife which frequently involves outbreaks of violence.
Islamists blame the sectarian violence—of which Copts are invariably the victimised party—on ‘outside’ factors, implying that it is fomented by the Copts who reside abroad and who claim that Copts living in Egypt face discrimination and persecution on account of their being Christian. This, Egypt’s Islamists claim is entirely untrue; Copts, they insist, are granted more than their full share of rights, considering that they live in an Islamic country. With this notion becoming increasingly mainstream, a common opinion holds that the recent Education Ministry decision to amend the religious instruction curricula is nothing but a response to American pressure on Egypt.
A 2005 decision to introduce a course on Ethics in Egyptian schools, with the objective of stressing the values of tolerance and acceptance of the ‘other’, had also been put to the account of American pressure, and the course was subsequently discontinued. There were allegations back then that the course on Ethics would replace courses on religious instruction. Today, some doubt the motive behind the decision to amend the religious instruction syllabus, claiming there is nothing wrong with the current curriculum.
The Education Minister Ahmed Zaki Badr agreed with Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti who heads Dar al-Ifta al-Misriya, the Egyptian Islamic authority responsible for issuing fatwas (religious edicts), to implement the newly amended courses of religious instruction across all key stages in Egyptian schools starting the academic year 2011 – 2012.
Dr Badr called Islam “a compassionate religion” that did not allow incitement of violence, saying that both the Christian and Muslim religious syllabuses were currently being reviewed by the Church and al-Azhar respectively.
Dr Badr also confirmed that there would be further initiatives to review all school curricula across all stages of education. He explained that school curricula should undergo regular modifications and amendments, but that his did not necessarily mean the current system was failing, rather that times were constantly changing and that curricula and other systems needed to adapt.
Dr Gomaa said it was of utmost importance to lay stress on ethics in order to build well-structured human beings, the main element in the welfare of Egypt and all Egyptians. He stressed that while the current religious curricula were void of mistakes the new amendments took care to exclude any false interpretations of Qur’anic texts, in order to close the door to any extremist interpretation of Islam.
Dr Gomaa also announced that a new book, Al-Akhlaq (Ethics), would be taught to students across all key stages to familiarise them with values and principles common to all religions.
Mohamed Abdel-Aziz Wassel, Dr Gomaa’s deputy at al-Azhar, told Watani he believed the Islamic courses currently being taught in schools were outstanding, and denied that any texts that incite violence or hatred were being taught. He pointed out that this syllabus had been reviewed by al-Azhar before being introduced to schools, but that al-Azhar did not, since then, reassess it.
When Watani approached Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic Research Centre, for his opinion, he was sceptical. “Where were the former education ministers when these courses were being taught?” Dr Bayoumi asked. “Did the current minister suddenly discover flaws in the course? I defy the Minister of Education to find one text in the religion syllabus that incites violence.”
Even so, Dr Bayoumi agreed with the move to review the syllabus for the sake of periodic development which, he said, ought to be done every three years. “But claiming that the current syllabus incites violence is unacceptable,” he said.
Dr Bayoumi explained that al-Azhar scholars, among them the current Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayib, had already set up a project for developing the religious syllabus. This project had been presented to the former education minister Ahmed Gamaleddin, but no one knew where this project was now. “If they want to amend the religious syllabus why didn’t they consider the proposal we had already presented?” he wondered.
Yesterday’s pupils, today’s terrorists
Reverend Rifaat Fikry of the Evangelical Church criticised the manner in which religion was currently being taught. A casual glance at the Egyptian community, Rev Fikry told Watani, showed clearly that hypocrisy, fanaticism, and extremism were on the rise, in defiance of every religious notion of compassion and tolerance. For religious instruction to be constructive, he said, the syllabus should focus on equality, tolerance, and acceptance of the other. It should call for critical thinking, and should be regularly reviewed. Textbooks should include no texts that provoke hatred of the other or invalidate the other’s faith, the syllabus should connect with real life and avoid empty slogans, the common points between all Egyptians should be highlighted, and the singularity of every Egyptian should be respected.
The biggest problem with introducing the amended religion courses, according to Kamal Mugheeth of the National Centre for Educational Research, will be the teachers. Dr Mugheeth, who has been untiringly calling for a revision of school curricula since 1996, told Watani that there did not exist as yet in Egypt the unbiased teacher able to teach the principles of religion impartially. Arabic Language and Islamic Religion school books, he insisted, included parts that stimulate children to disdain other religions. Concepts of human and citizenship rights were entirely absent from Egyptian school curricula, he said. Religious courses, he said, should promote balanced thought and advocate values such as acceptance of the other. Dr Mugheeth suggested training courses for religion teachers to enable them to teach the amended syllabuses. The current syllabuses, he insisted, have been generating extremism. “Today’s terrorists were educated in Egyptian schools and universities,” he says.