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The dilemma of religious education: freeing the mind or dictating it? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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I was disappointed when I heard about the decision of the Algerian government to stop religious education in high schools in order to put an end to religious extremism and terrorism. I was hoping that Algeria would have learnt from its neighbor Tunisia, concerning developing religious teaching rather than completely ridding the education system of it, in order to understand religion and its position in society today.

The governing elites of Algeria have clearly made an error in understanding culture. Islam as a religion is part of the Arab state of mind. Whether it is accepted or not, religion and Arab nationalism go hand in hand, therefore the cultural trend in Algeria does not match the cause of the courageous Algerian revolution to establish an independent sovereign state. To understand one, one must understand the other. Sovereignty never referred solely to political independence, but rather to a cultural independence as well. Arabisation is only crawling into Algerian schools despite the fact that the Arabic language is declared as the state”s official language in the constitution. The political elite and the Francophone cultural institute still impose the French language on the administrative bureaucracy as they believe that Arabic is unsuitable for the scientific, technological, cultural, managerial and trade aspects of our world today.

President Boutaflika settled the case of the school kids who only study foreign languages when he closed down 200 kindergartens. I sincerely hope that he is serious and reintroduces religious education in schools, despite the government”s declaration that the decision is irreversible and despite the fact that the government comprises of two religious parties. Its abolition is an escape from facing up to the intricacies of religious teaching. With the exception of Algeria, abandoning religious teaching in schools would be as unimaginable as developing religious education due to the overwhelming political attention to ministries of education rather than any other ministry. Therefore, the national system may seem semi-secular and has produced a generation of dervishes with their distinct position regarding religion. The government in cooperation with the traditional religious institute has supervised this generation which has also produced teachers of politicized religious parties who seek to dictate religion rather than visualize it.

However, are traditional religious schools really the cause behind the new generation of &#34terrorists&#34?

Frankly, it is obvious that the role of religious schools as institutions that encourage violence and suicide attacks through ”Jihad” has been exaggerated. The American university, Harvard reported that from a field study of Pakistani schools, only 1% specializes in religion. This study contradicts claims made by American media that there are 15-20 thousand religious schools in Pakistan.

The Taliban regime expanded from a small number of extremist Pakistani religious schools; however, prior to this, it came about as a result of the military and intelligence institutions. The majority of Pakistanis still vote for non-religious parties but the military in alliance with religious terrorist groups and parties against the moderate religious groups who face a major challenge and are unlikely to win a majority in any free elections. The Bush administration in its program to &#34reform&#34 Arabs has incorporated battling religious teaching. It has also accused religious schools in the Gulf of generating a large number of Al Qaeda”s suicide bombers. Surprisingly however, studies have shown that 53% of those suicide bombers who participated in attacks against the American embassies and the World Trade Center were actually graduates of American universities.

Arabs actually do not understand the contradictions of Bush”s regime. The American administration is exerting all its pressure to neutralize religious education in Arab schools, meanwhile it seeks to impose religion in American schools by forcing students to pray. This boost further expanded with the introduction of the religious theory of man”s creation, therefore contradicting Darwin”s evolution theory which has been accredited in American schools and universities.

In brief, Charles Darwin”s theory of evolution developed during the colonial and racist European ideologies. Darwin and his successive schools openly endorsed the concept of the white race”s intellectual supremacy over any other race. Currently, there is a division in the United States between the secular evolutionary theory school and supporters of the creationist theory school. This dispute has expanded into Hollywood with secular Michael Moore who is against Bush, and fundamentalist Mel Gibson, director of the film ”Passion of the Christ”. The creationist school rejects the evolutionary biological theory on a number of principles. First of which is that the age of earth has not been determined, a complicated life means a greater creator and calcified remnants from excavations prove that they were created and did not evolve. These excavations also show that humans in their current form have co-existed with extinct dinosaurs millions of years ago.

After this debate, is there really an urgent need to reform religious education in Arab schools and universities? There is no doubt that after the political neutralization of media and mosques, Arab society now receives religious messages that could endanger it. These messages create an environment that is prone to supporting terrorism even if they do not actually take part in these actions. Closed religious education is no more of a danger than the media as it invades backward societies that have been denied rational education that can free the Islamic mind.

In his book &#34The future of culture in Egypt&#34, Taha Hussein attempted to accredit education as a base for public awareness. He called for endorsing the western culture as grounds for revival and referred to the doubt ideology of Descartes. He then realized that he had ignored the distinctiveness of the Arab character that depends upon the psychological duality between Islam and Arab Nationalism, so he refined his search by looking at other aspects within the Arabic character.

Education, as Aristotle said 2500 years ago, advances the smartest rather than the fittest. The concept of European education was a racist one, maybe even an anti-Arab and anti-Islamic one just as it is in Israel. Both religious and secular education has generated animosity against Arabs. It is for this reason that some British universities boycott Israeli universities, especially the fanatic Bar Ilan University. The United States revises its education curricula every 6 years. The dilemma of religious education in our societies stems from its rigidity without change or development. In addition, the requirement for a more modern approach of teaching should be met. Calls for modernization are constantly rejected because of the possibility and fear that modernization may distort our religious principles.

Aside from the accusations made that Islamic schools encourage terrorism, new curricula should be set to present religion to youthful minds in a vibrant but holy and impervious way. Religion must be presented with a focus upon teaching numerous historical Islamic ideas in a neutral scientific manner.

Also, there needs to be a cultural and civil approach for education and religious knowledge, that does not reject the other and does not force one to associate democracy and human rights to atheism. Islam is a strong religion that does not need judicial protection and authoritative governance therefore it does not resort to persecuting its enemies with the power of the law. In politics, as in education, there is no monopoly of religion for a certain party or military and no principle that other believers are predestined.

Ghassan Al Imam

Ghassan Al Imam

Ghassan Al Imam is a Syrian writer and journalist based in Paris.

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