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Religion in Moroccan Schools

The role of Islam, language of instruction, social justice: the education system still trying to find its balance sixty years after national independence

Omar Brouksy | 02 March 2017
Moroccan girls walking to school in Marrakesh. © Julia Maudin

After viewing the new versions of the textbooks destined for Islamic education (tarbiya islāmiyya), observers were left aghast. The long-awaited reform relating to this very controversial subject, in which the sacred maintains a place of privilege, never took place: the presence of religious dogma confirms once again the central role, steadily more problematic than before, of Islam within the Moroccan education system.

One chapter from an Islamic education textbook of the first year of High School reads “he who says things contrary to the faith and to the precepts of Islam is excluded from the community of Muslims”. Another textbook of the same subject openly attacks Philosophy considering it a “production of human thought in contrast with Islam”. Thus said, issues needing to be addressed within the Moroccan education are not only linked to religious education.

An unstable evolution

Inherited by the French (1912-1956), the Moroccan education system was dominated by the French language and by almost only French personnel. A large part of subjects relating to Science (Maths, the natural and physical sciences) were taught in Molière’s tongue and followed the metropolis’ programs very closely.

A great rift overturned this system some time after the launch of the Green March in 1975 for the “rescue” of the Western Sahara. In an attempt to satisfy a previous demand of the nationalist parties of the Istiqlal and of the National Union of the Popular Forces (UNFP?), King Hassan (1929-1999) in 1975 decided to undertake a progressive Arabisation of public schooling. This project answered to political and ideological concerns: as for the political, the king in 1975 needed to widen consensus surrounding the monarchy, after being weakened by two failed coups d’États (1971 e 1972). The ideological concerns were linked to the Pan-Arabist fever which, straight after decolonization, dominated the Arab-Muslim world.

“Important” Arabic-speaking teachers

At the end of the 80s, the process of Arabisation is concluded: in 1990 the Ministry of Education announces that French is the first foreign language in all public schools in the kingdom. Hundreds of Elementary and High school teachers became “imported” from the Near and Middle-East to supply the lack of Arabic-speaking teachers.

This choice would soon reveal itself a disaster. According to the majority of observers, the process of Arabisation was not well prepared and its failure was more due to the way in which the use of Arabic was effectively introduced rather than the introduction of Arabic per se. The project, which was drawn up according to purely ideological concerns, was not even brought to conclusion: if it is true that Arabisation was imposed in elementary and high schools, the university departments of Science and Medicine “have continued to offer courses in French, creating difficulties for diplomats attending these programs, who had previously pursued their study programs in Arabic”1.
This situation led many Moroccan families to opt for non-public education: the “French mission” for the well-off and private education for middle-class and functionaries.

Encouraged by the State, private education was availed of to the greatest of extents. In a few years the number of private institutions grew very steeply. This entailed a transformation which accentuated social inequality and was at the expense of the quality of teaching.

In an incontrovertible document published in March 2015, the UN Committee for economic, social and cultural rights expressed its worries surrounding “discrimination in education created by extended privatisation within the Moroccan education system”.

A disaster lasting thirty years

Thirty years had passed since the introduction of Arabic when King Mohammed VI finally recognised the failure of the project: “We must show seriousness and realism and ask Moroccans in all frankness why so many of them are sending their children to foreign institutions and private schools, despite the exorbitant fees. The answer is clear: they are looking for an open and good education, founded on critical thinking and language learning, an education which will offer their children possibilities in the labour market and the chance to build solid careers. […] Even if I studied in a Moroccan school2, which pursued state-education programs and courses, I have a good grasp over foreign languages […]. The educational reform must abandon egotism and political calculations, which mortgage the future of generations, in the name of identity protection”. (Speech on Throne Day, 30th July 2015).
In November 2015, despite hostility of the government directed since January 2012 by the Islamist Abdelilah Benkirane, the king orders the National Minister of Education, Rachid Belmokhtar, to prepare a program destined to restore “the French way” of teaching scientific subjects.

“This ‘backward-step’ should have been taken long ago”, says the intellectual and political activist Ahmad Assid. “We have wasted thirty years because of petty ideological calculations. Before Arabisation, the Moroccan state should have undertaken a reform of Arabic, whose lexical aspects and structure have remained unvaried since the pre-Islamic period.”

Will these new measures prove sufficient in order to remove Moroccan education from the dead-end in which it finds itself today? Specialists insist that the problem is less linked to language than to political will, far off from ideological and religious concerns.

1 Ruth Grosrichard, L’école au Maroc : réintroduire le français ne suffira pas à sortir de la spirale de l’échec, “Le Monde”, 25th March, 2016.
2 The “Moroccan school” mentioned by Mohammed VI is the Royal College where foreign languages, especially French and English, are taught and in which courses are offered by the best Moroccan and foreign teachers.

[Translated from the original in Italian]

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