Al-Azhar’s education move a blow to extremism

Egyptian and foreign experts collaborated in developing the new curricula and class materials, creating up-to-date content that includes Egypt’s cultural heritage.
Sunday 30/09/2018
A general view of al-Azhar University in Cairo.  (Reuters)
Winds of change. A general view of al-Azhar University in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Al-Azhar has approved new school curricula that reflects provisions stated in the constitution regarding education, Egyptian Education Minister Tarek Shawki said.

The constitution recommends that education curricula focus on national identity and recognises that there should be a balance between modernising educational materials and upholding cultural heritage. Schools should offer activities that deepen notions and cultures of citizenship and tolerance.

Egyptian and foreign experts collaborated in developing the new curricula and class materials, creating up-to-date content that includes Egypt’s cultural heritage. It was designed so learners become rooted in their cultural heritage, aware of the challenges of modernity and can distinguish between tolerance and hatred.

Al-Azhar’s action reflects a further aspect of the changes in the ideological atmosphere at the institution. In the face of great pressure from the authorities and public outcry and accusations of encouraging extremism, al-Azhar leaders have accepted the need to change and moved towards adopting attitudes and ideas in line with modern times.

The move might also reflect a more comprehensive strategy inside al-Azhar to update its leadership and departments after a long period of stagnation. During that period, al-Azhar at best kept silent regarding key events and issues in Egypt and that silence was seen as encouraging extremist thought. Al-Azhar’s silence reflected poorly on the spread of tolerance in Egyptian society.

The removal of Abbas Shuman as al-Azhar vice-president tasked with reforming curricula indicates a link between al-Ahzar’s approval of the modernised standards and the firing of important figures inside al-Azhar who had opposed revising the traditional curricula and materials, even though some of those books were based on traditional reference works that encourage intolerance and hatred.

Not only have curricula been reformed but the new standards are to be used in both public schools and al-Azhar’s religious schools. For many, this step is an acceptable alternative to stripping al-Azhar from its status as an independent educational institution and placing its schools and educational programmes under the oversight of the Ministry of Education. Al-Azhar had opposed such a move because it would be tantamount to stripping it of its religious authority and power.

In the new educational reform, religion is considered as a subject of study rather than the basis of studies. Study of religion has become a separate subject to teach religious concepts, the advantages of compassion and tolerance between faiths and the necessity of respecting the ideas and beliefs held by others without discrimination.

Education specialist Tarek Noureddine said modern curricula are the gates to social tolerance because they teach students to base interactions on mutual respect and goodwill, rather than on exclusion because of differences in beliefs, ideologies and cultures. When educational institutions refuse to let go of unproductive and outdated curricula, social peace is at risk.

Noureddine said fighting intellectual narrow-mindedness begins with adopting a modern educational system that refuses to be backward-looking and combats extremists. Graduates of that system would believe in freedom of thought, creativity and peaceful coexistence.

Among the concepts included in the educational reforms were religious tolerance, globalisation, citizenship, intercultural learning and communication and family education based on respecting society and the environment. The new curricula promote the idea of treating the other as a human being irrespective of his or her religious background and encourage basing social relations on goodwill, fraternity and solidarity rather than on religious affiliations.

Until recently, curricula and textbooks in Egypt contained lessons encouraging hatred and punishment by beheading or burning. As public outrage grew, those lessons were removed but educational curricula were basically untouched. Efforts to reform educational programmes and remove religion as the foundation of all education had been met with heavy resistance by al-Azhar scholars who saw the changes as an attempt to bring down the religious institution.

Some elements inside al-Azhar had attacked the traditional curricula as extremist. A group calling itself “Pro-civil State Azharites” said “the reference books and curricula inside al-Azhar are the source of religious extremism.” It pointed out lessons in secondary-education textbooks used in al-Azhar schools that contained notions including executing religious offenders such as fornicators and those who do not pray.

Observers noted that al-Azhar’s compliance with the educational reforms was the result of government pressure. Government institutions had concluded that wiping out intolerance and extremism must start with education and educational institutions regardless of their leanings. The observers said the official adoption of modern curricula that value treating all members of society with respect and kindness represents a painful blow to extremist ideologies.

Nadia Mohammed, the mother of two children attending al-Azhar schools in Cairo, said: “The fact that al-Azhar implemented the new curricula in its schools is a revolution against hatred.” She said she had felt that al-Azhar’s educational programmes were exclusively addressed to Muslims and that everyone else was considered second-class citizens. She said she considered moving her children to state schools.

Mohammed said: “Modernising curricula at al-Azhar and state schools was a defeat for extremists since teaching children the values of tolerance will make them moderate in their thinking and they will refuse to support the actions of those religious currents that demean the Copts and all enemies, for example.”