Egypt’s textbooks still awaiting reform

Sunday 09/10/2016
An Egyptian girl reads in the library of the Farah elementary school, in Khosoos, a poor town just outside of Cairo.

Cairo - Egypt is unable to coun­ter extremist thinking because religious educa­tion textbooks used in its schools nurture intoler­ance and hate towards “the other”, educators said.
The problem exists in both reli­gious and secular schools.
Textbooks include stories in tra­ditional language and often portray non-Muslims as kafir or infidels. Experts say that such a description, found in a fourth-grade textbook, could teach children to hate non- Muslims.
Some textbooks encourage “jihad against the enemies of Islam” and support that interpretation with Quranic verses and hadiths.
Some textbooks justify slavery, the levy of a special tax on non- Muslims and capital punishment for apostasy. Researchers say the texts were probably used to justify attacks on Coptic Christians and ur­gently need to be revised.
Amna Nasir, a member of the Egyptian parliament and professor of Islamic philosophy at al-Azhar University, said it would not be possible to modernise religious dis­course without modernising school syllabuses.
Educational institutions have dis­missed the criticism and calls for change as unwarranted attacks.
But Hana Salah, whose son is at junior high school in Cairo, said she was deeply concerned. Her son, she said, “has become reluctant to open his religious education textbook” because the text is so formal and “removed from modern reality”.
She said she worries that young Egyptians may turn away from re­ligion altogether because the edu­cation system is failing to foster a spirit of enlightenment and empa­thy consistent with faith values.
Mohamed Kamel, who teaches Arabic and Islamic education, said it was not the teachers were overly rigid, but the textbooks. They are “out of sync” with the times, he said, and teachers have no choice but to teach that content.
A textbook meant for secondary-level religious students offers an example of the “out-of-sync” na­ture of the educational system. It quotes Abdullah Ibn Mahmud al- Mawsili, a seventh-century jurist, on pursuing war and peace. “When an imam conquers by force a city, he may wish to divide it as spoils of war among the conquerors, or to leave it under the rule of its original inhabitants provided they pay the occupation tax (jizya) and crop tax (kharaj), or to kill the prisoners or enslave them or offer them as slaves to Muslims,” the textbook reads.
Educators said it was inappropri­ate to teach such a code of conduct to young people in the 21st century.
Nasir said it was important to re­move “all texts (that are) likely to spread extremism and intolerance among youth and cause discord and conflicts in the society”.
“When a student is taught that his Christian classmate is an unbeliever and finds in other sources that un­believers are the enemies of Islam and must be confronted, he or she will make the link between both ideas and internalise them,” she said.
Kamel agreed that students were being implicitly taught that intoler­ance and force are acceptable and some textbooks indirectly defend the idea that “Islam was spread by the sword”.