Authorities see religious schools promoting extremism
Cairo - Egypt is cracking down on thousands of private religious schools for children to eradicate what it describes as the ideological sources of extremism.
The Kuttabs, the Egyptian equivalent of madrassas exploited by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have offered religious education to tens of thousands of Egyptian children for decades.
Widespread, especially in the Egyptian countryside, they are where many of Egypt’s top religious scholars and clerics received their earliest religious education. They help children memorise the Quran, understand the sayings of Prophet Mohammad and learn how to pray.
The government said, however, these schools give students “twisted” information about Islam, contributing to the emergence of generations of extremists and the spread of terrorism.
“These schools give incorrect information about the Islamic religion to learners,” said Essam al-Adawi, an adviser to the Social Solidarity Ministry, which supervises the work of the country’s non-governmental organisations. “They teach the ideologies of their owners, making them centres for ideological deviation.”
These types of schools were in Egypt before secular schools. Education in Egypt’s countryside decades ago was mainly religious.
According to Said Abdel Azim, a leading Salafist analyst, the government decision will shut thousands of private religious schools and Quran teaching centres. He said, though, the government should encourage the work of these schools, not shut them down.
“The closure of the schools will lead to the spread of vice and religious ignorance,” Abdel Azim said. “At the time the government closes the religious schools, it keeps tens of nightclubs and bars open.”
This is the latest measure by Cairo to address religious extremism. A few months ago, authorities launched a campaign to remove books, tapes and compact discs of hard-line preachers from mosque libraries. The Education Ministry, which controls most state-run schools, changed curricula to emphasise tolerance and remove lessons that call for jihad and fighting non-Muslims.
Recently, the Endowments Ministry, which supervises tens of thousands of mosques, closed a large number of small mosques to stem the influence of radical preachers, especially in the countryside and remote sections of Egypt.
Egypt has seen a surge in terrorist activities, especially in the Sinai peninsula and Cairo, in the past three years. The government blamed the increase on the Muslim Brotherhood and a local branch of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Kamal Habib, a former jihadist turned expert on extremism, said the government decision to close religious schools was aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood, which he said runs most of the schools.
Abdel Halim Mahmoud, a religious sciences professor at al-Azhar University, said the decision to shutter the schools was an important step in the fight against extremism.
“This is particularly true while our country faces this huge terrorist campaign in the Sinai peninsula and in other areas,” he said.
Habib, however, said instead of shutting the schools, authorities should have legalised them and supervised what they teach.
“The absence of these schools will make the thousands of students who used to study religious sciences at them search for other sources of knowledge,” he said. “Most of the terrorists we see today got their knowledge about Islam from either the internet or wrong sources.”
The government said these schools are the “wrong sources”.
Parents send their children to the schools at the age of 6 to memorise the Quran and learn to pray. They prepare students to join schools supervised by al-Azhar. Some of the religious schools offer lessons to prepare men to preach at mosques in the countryside.
The government, however, says the schools pose a danger to Egypt’s national security.
“Some of these schools stand behind the extremist ideas we see in our society today,” said Khaled Sultan, the assistant social solidarity minister in charge of non-governmental organisations. “They do this by giving their learners wrong ideas and claim that these ideas are Islamic.”