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Religion and Society

Reforming Teaching to Combat Fundamentalism

Morocco considers changing religious text books: the place of Islam in politics and society is at stake

King Muhammad VI

In a series of articles written in the aftermath of September 11th, the famous columnist for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman suggested that education was the most powerful weapon against Islamic fundamentalism: “Bin Laden is a sideshow, but one we must deal with. The real war for peace in this region, though,” affirmed Friedman regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan, “is in the schools. Which is why we must do our military operation against bin Laden quickly and then get out of here. When we return, and we must, we have to be armed with modern books and schools — not tanks.” Friedman’s editorials, which would later earn him a Pulitzer prize, insisted on this issue for months and the American journalist ended up also targeting the Saudi education system, envisaging an open letter in which American president George W. Bush wrote to the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia: “We can’t tell you how to teach your children, but we can tell you that several thousand American children are without a parent today because they were hit by radical Islamists educated in your schools.”

 

 

Once “the September 11th effect” faded, these questions were no longer much discussed outside of academic circles, until the rise of the Islamic State once again put the spotlight on the link between religious radicalism and school programs. In Egypt, for example, between 2014 and 2015, some intellectuals criticized the teaching given in the teaching institutes of the Al-Azhar Mosque, accused of preserving and transmitting a religious patrimony not unlike that which is championed by ISIS’ ideologists and militants.

 

 

Today the question recurs in Morocco, following the signing in Marrakesh of the “Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities” in January, a document that among other things, invites institutions and Muslim education authorities to carry out “a bold examination of curricula to remove any content that incites extremism in an honest and effective way.” Ten days after the signing of the declaration, King Mohammed VI of Morocco asked the government to undertake a reform of curricula and Islamic religious instruction manuals, mandatory subjects from primary school through the end of high school.

 

 

The King’s words sparked a lively exchange of opinions and accusations between favorable and skeptical figures. On February 16, Khaled al-Jam’i published an article titled “He who sows Wahhabism harvests Isis” on the al-Aoual website. The article does no actually comment on Wahhabism or ISIS, instead it describes the “thousand hours” of religious teaching to which every Moroccan student is subjected as a “veritable indoctrination,” in which “there is no room for discussion, for thought and for doubts.” To put an end to this state of affairs, al-Jam’i calls upon a radical rethinking of religious instruction proposing as a model the reform carried out in the early 90s in Tunisia by Muhammad Charfi, the Minister of Education at the time, an intellectual who dabbled in politics and staunch advocate of the reconciliation between Islam and modernity.

 

 

In an article appearing on al-Aoual, came the reply of Ahmad al-Raissouni, an influential Islamist ideologue close to the Movement for Unity and Reform and the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) now in government. Raissouni disputes some inaccurate references to the Islamic tradition made by al-Jam’i, criticizing him for not substantiating his attacks on current religious teachings with concrete examples. Above all he rejects the reform proposal along the Charfi model with a reversal of perspective: “Why are – Raissouni writes – the generations which, from kindergarten to university, have developed by absorbing the political, cultural and educational project of Charfi, the most receptive towards ISIS today, and why are they the most aggressive and extremist in Iraq and Syria and Tunisia? […] And why do young people who were born in Europe and educated in European schools […] suddenly become ISIS or al-Qaeda militants?”

 

 

Along the same lines are the arguments used in two other articles published on the popular online Moroccan newspaper Hespress. In the first article, preacher and scholar of Islamic sciences Muhammad Buluz claims that the risks of radicalization do not come from the teaching of Islam, but from its abandonment. The author of the second Hespress article, Muhammad Awam, accuses al-Jam’i of providing a caricatured representation of “Sharia” and a biased vision of the “reason”, effectively reduced to the “enlightened reason.” But he also adds that any religious teaching reform would exclusively concern the ulama and teachers competent on the subject.

 

 

In this manner, the terms of the debate that in the early 2000s led to the reform of the family code (the so-called Moudawana) ‒ an important step towards equal rights for men and women ‒ are being repeated. At the time, the dispute did not only concern the definition of the role of women, but also the competition between the various actors claiming exclusive competence on the issue.

 

 

Again, it is not so much the content of textbooks that is at stake, but the place of Islam in Moroccan politics and society.

 

 

This article was translated from the original Italian

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