Authorities see religious schools promoting extremism

Sunday 29/05/2016
Children memorising the Quran at a private Islamic school — locally known as Kuttab – in Qalyubia province, north of the Egyptian capital Cairo.

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.”