The role of education is decisive for the development of relations between Muslims and Christians and in combating fundamentalist tendencies that seek to separate the two communities. Many countries accept the presence of Christian schools, others do not. The special situation of North Africa.

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:42:51

If we turn our attention to the future of Islamic-Christian relations, it is evident that the role of the field of education is of primary importance. The fundamentalist current, which tends to separate the two communities, is at the present time dominant in many Muslim countries. It exercises a particular influence on young people who adhere to it often without a critical spirit and with the radical approach that is specific to adolescence or youth. From this comes the importance of the task of education in relation to them in order to achieve a future of peace between these religious traditions. But at the very time that we affirm the centrality of the role of education we must also acknowledge that the responsibility for education in every society is the task, essentially, if not exclusively, of the members of the community to which children and young people belong, that is to say their parents, first of all, but also the national community and religious authorities. As long as young people remain minors, it is upon their (family or community) tutors that there falls the responsibility for their education. And yet in most Muslim countries it frequently happens that parents entrust their children to schools run by Christian educators. Such initiatives can take place only on the basis of a respectful dialogue with the society to which these children and these young people naturally belong. This is what in fact takes place in many Muslim countries in which, with the consent of parents and the authorisation of the Ministries for National Education, some Catholic religious congregations run school institutes in which young Muslim people, entrusted to these schools by their parents, are many in number and at times constitute a majority. Obviously enough, these children or these young people are enrolled in schools run by Christians because of the standard of education that these schools assure. But most of the time these Muslim parents choose Christian schools for their children for the further reason that they appreciate their educational dimension even though they know that it is animated and directed along Christian lines for children and young people who will, anyway, remain Muslims. The parents ask the Christian educators to respect the beliefs of the children or young people and their families but at the same time understand that the Christian educators do not assure only instruction but also offer a human and spiritual education. We thus find ourselves on a terrain that is important for Islamic-Christian relations. The decisions of these Muslim parents attests to their trust in Christian educators who, for that matter, are often men or women religious, at least at the level of the management of these schools. The situation that has just been described is to be found in all those Muslim countries which accept the existence – side by side with the state educational structures – of schools that are not state schools and thus of Catholic schools as well. This is the prevalent state of affairs as regards Catholic educational institutions in the Middle East or in many countries in Asia and Africa. In these realities, when a Christian minority exists, the young people of the two communities come to attend Christian schools together. This is a fact that is relevant for the future of Islamic-Christian relations. Indeed, it often happens that the former Christian and Muslim pupils of these schools keep up contact after the end of their studies in associations of former pupils which are often active in society. But in North Africa a special feature is added to this. In the Middle East, in fact, the institutes that have Muslim pupils are today managed by Christians of the country who, although they profess a different religion, adhere to the same national values. In the Maghreb, instead, where these schools have been able to survive, as the case in Morocco or Tunisia, the management of Catholic schools is entrusted to foreign Christian managers who operate in structures where the majority of the pupils and teachers are Muslims. It is in this context that is to be seen the educational commitment of Christian managers to Muslim young people and to dialogue with their parents and the Muslim teachers. And at the present time in these two countries (Morocco and Tunisia) all the pupils are of the Muslim confession because it is practically the case that indigenous Christians do not exist. It would, therefore, be very interesting for the analysis being engaged in here to have testimony on the educational dialogue that has been established between the Christians responsible for these schools, on the one hand, and the Muslim teachers and parents, on the other, about the education project that has been implemented in these Christian schools whose pupils are all Muslims. This was our experience in Algeria before the independence of the country and until the nationalisation of all schools in 1976. Up to that moment we had over forty thousand children and young people, from nursery school until secondary school. And our principal problem was the inability to take in all the pupils that Muslim parents would have liked to entrust to us because of a lack of space. Today in the Maghreb these institutes no longer exist in Algeria, in Libya or Mauritania. Outside the School Circuit The closure of our Catholic schools did not mean the end of the educational dialogue in which we were engaged in Algerian society. First of all, at the outset, Algerian public instruction accepted Christians within its schools, priests or men and women religious who, equipped with the necessary diplomas, wanted to make their contribution. In this way, the paradoxical situation arose whereby there were Christian priests who had the right to teach in Muslim state schools in Algeria, whereas in the French state school system this was forbidden in the name of the secularity of the state. However this situation was only to last as long as was needed for the training of an Algerian teaching body. When this objective was reached, only Christian teachers with Algerian nationality were authorised to remain in state schools. But despite the nationalisation of their schools, in Algeria the educational work of Christians remained possible in other kinds of structures which were often managed by sisters, in particular in the poor neighbourhoods of cities or in rural areas, where, indeed, they still exist. These are: centres for female education; reviews on the education of women produced by editorial staff made up equally of Christians and Muslims who work side by side; institutes for disabled children where Christians work together with Muslims; groups involved in education animation during people’s free time, such as summer camps or similar activities; libraries for young people or students or specialised libraries for educators; and places for thinking about education and in particular the education of children and women. These structures first of all transmit knowledge of a technical kind but they also disseminate a specific idea of the human person and of women and their role in the family and society. To give a concrete example of this kind of educational action, it may be useful to refer to the review Hayat which is published in both Arabic and French and which has been widespread in Algeria for a little less than a quarter of a century amongst Muslim women and girls, thanks to the joint effort of the Algerian Red Cross and Caritas. The editorial board is made up equally of Christian and Muslim women who together decide upon the direction it should take. At New Year (2010) the editorial of this review declared: ‘The year 2010 has just begun…Let us make ready to welcome the new...Our positive approach will help us to appreciate the efforts and the good intentions of those who surround us, to put us in their shoes and to try to understand their actions. Small gestures are sufficient to demonstrate to other people that we understand them, that they matter to us’ (185, February 2010). And at the time of the beginning of the new school year we find in an editorial the following reflections: ‘With what expectations do we face up to this new school year? Will I have the courage to draw near to that mother than I see every day accompany my children to school?...That girl student in the first year who takes the same bus as me every day seems so lost. Perhaps I could reassure her by giving her some basic information about university life...We can turn to all these people and very many others and make new acquaintances. We should take the time to draw near to them with sensitivity’ (183, October 2009). Let us observe, to end here, some phrases taken from an editorial on the world day of women: ‘What does this world day for women represent for we Algerian women? Let us make our own the challenge and the struggle to guarantee that throughout our national territory every girl has the right to go to school, that every women is happy to be a women and becomes aware of her role in society’ (174, April 2008). Another area for the educational role of Christian men and Christian women in Muslim Algerian society is that of initiatives at the service of children with mental disabilities. The difficulties that families who have a disabled child have to face are known about. Very often, in those contexts which are most linked to tradition, these families do not dare to allow their child to go out of the home because they are ashamed about his or her handicap. There are Christians who work with Muslim families interested in this problem and they have acted to obtain from the authorities the financial help that is needed to open educational centres. In these centres the development of the capacities of such children is at the same time an opportunity to increase the respect of families and the social context for all children, whether they are handicapped or not, and thus for all handicapped people, in the name of the full recognition of the dignity of every human person. A Muslim journalist wrote the following about a Christian woman involved on this front in a poor area on the outskirts of a city: ‘This woman educator is always acting to obtain a building where she can attend to the most disadvantaged amongst the disadvantaged – the mentally handicapped. She is such an authentic woman, so incredibly just that...everyone is grateful that they have met her on her journey...That woman is pure gold...Everyone knows that she will never stop being our teacher.’ Other Christian Structures It is not possible to describe all the educational structures managed by Christians in Algeria for Muslim young people: youth associations, courses to provide school support, specialised libraries for educators and psychologists, meetings for family mothers, and summer camps etc. for young people. In each of these structures which are responsible for these initiatives, the animators are both Christians and Muslims so that between them an educational dialogue is established at the concrete level of their joint action. Especially exemplary it seems to me the school for women child educators which in Algeria provides sixth-monthly training courses for over 120 women educators who already work. It is clear that a structure of this kind, beyond transmitting technical knowledge, also develops a joint Islamic-Christian reflection about respect for children and the development of their faculties, including openness to the meaning of God. In general, the dogmatic differences impede this dialogue from taking place on the basis of declaredly confessional references. The educational values, instead, pass by way of shared human values: honesty, truth, justice, sincerity, a civic sense, altruism, attention paid to the common good, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation, the sacredness of human life and more recently the integrity of the creation. The shared reference to God also allows these values to be referred to their source, which is God’s project in relation to man, but without specific confessional connotations. Indeed, in an Islamic-Christian context it is difficult to proceed beyond the religious references given that the sources of morality are inscribed in texts that are seen as revealed by each of the two communities and it is not possible for a Christian to explicitly cite Biblical sources in the company of Muslims and even less to refer to the Koranic sources of Muslim ethics. This difficulty increases where the Muslim mentality is directed towards an analysis of behaviour solely on the basis of categories of the ‘licit’ and the ‘prohibited’ rather than on the basis of a reflection that begins with the dignity of the human person and human communities. But, with these reservations, we should take into account the importance of a concrete sharing by Christian and Muslim educators at various levels of instruction. A Muslim Algerian woman biologist specialised in cytology, for example, has recently published a book with a preface by an Algerian Muslim woman historian in which she illustrates what she and her colleagues received from a Christian educational association that they belonged to when they were young – La ruche (the beehive) –, which was created by the White Sisters. Recently, a group of Algerian adults described a similar experience in another educational situation created for young people by a leader of the Hearth Movement who is now dead. Testimonies of this kind can offer a more concrete and often more positive vision of Islamic-Christian relations than the one to be evinced from abstract debates.