Egypt’s minister advocates ‘fighting terrorism through education’

Sunday 04/12/2016
Education Minister Helali al-Sherbini speaking to The Arab Weekly

Cairo - Egypt’s Education Minister Helali al-Sherbini says he has taken meas­ures to prevent the formation of Egypt’s next generation of radicals.

“We are fighting terrorism through education,” Sherbini said in an interview. “After the family, schools are the first social institu­tion to form the minds of peoples.”

Sherbini and his ministry’s plan­ners say they are working to revo­lutionise Egypt’s education system and totally change the school curricula as part of this effort.

They aim to teach young Egyp­tians to gravitate to each other, not drift apart because of diversity.

School curricula change cannot be more needed in Egypt, some education experts say, as the coun­try faces an unprecedented surge in terrorist attacks targeting state institutions, army personnel and policemen.

Over the past three years, hundreds of army officers and conscripts and policemen were killed in attacks orchestrated by an Islamic State-affiliated group that has denounced Egypt’s leaders as “infidels” and its army personnel and policemen as “apostates”.

Sherbini’s ministry supervises non-religious schools and designs their curricula. About 20 million students are enrolled in these schools.

At the beginning of this aca­demic year, students were given textbooks that emphasise impor­tant personal characteristics such as tolerance and forgiveness. The textbooks dwell on events in the history of Islam that specifically stress the tolerant nature of the re­ligion and the teachings of Prophet Mohammad.

Critics say fighting extrem­ism takes more than just minor changes in courses offered.

“You cannot reform educa­tion and fight extremism by just introducing some small changes in the curricula,” said Youssef Zeidan, a leading researcher of Islamic manuscripts and an outspoken critic of Egypt’s educational poli­cies. “Some of the curricula taught to the pupils in our schools now encourage extremism and vio­lence.”

Zeidan cited a lesson taught to primary four pupils. Called the “Eagle and the Birds”, it tells the story of a group of birds that decide to revolt against the eagle’s dominance over the sky by work­ing together and challenging his power.

The lesson, Zeidan said, calls for challenging the authority of the state and also encourages anarchy.

Sherbini pointed out, however, that this particular lesson was removed from the Arabic language curriculum for the current aca­demic year.

Other academics say that there are limits to what the minister can change in the curricula, especially when it comes to ideas taught as part of the religion courses in the schools.

“The religion courses are de­signed by both al-Azhar for Muslim pupils and the Coptic Orthodox Church for Christian pupils,” said leading educational expert Kamal Mogheith. “The minister does not have the power to interfere in these courses or even request a change in them.”

Another challenge facing Sherbi­ni is also that although his minis­try controls a sizeable number of Egypt’s schools, it does not control all the schools in the country.

Al-Azhar, the highest authority of Sunni Islam, oversees hundreds of schools in which tens of thou­sands of students are enrolled. Sherbini does not have any author­ity over those schools.

Nevertheless, he says when it comes to religious courses taught in non-religious schools controlled by his ministry, al-Azhar and the church design these courses, but in the presence of Education Min­istry representatives.

“The fact is that nobody can impose any backward or radical ideas on pupils in our schools, not al-Azhar or the church,” Sherbini said. “We all work in tandem with each other to build the personal­ity of the coming generation and assert tolerance as an important ideal.”