Islamists challenge attempts at educational reforms in Algeria

Sunday 02/10/2016
A 2015 file picture shows Algerian Education Minister Nouria Benghebrit speaking in Algiers.

Tunis - Several Algerian former Ed­ucation ministers, includ­ing intellectual Mostefa Lachraf, quickly gave up their attempts at reform­ing the country’s education system after hitting roadblocks erected by Islamists and other conservatives well-entrenched in the country’s institutions.

Current Education Minister Nouria Benghabrit, however, has taken a different course. She has stood up to the Islamists since she took office in May 2014, try­ing to help the country’s 8.6 mil­lion schoolchildren succeed in a redesigned system that encourages creative thinking instead of rote learning.

Her performance is widely seen by reform-minded politicians and intellectuals, as well as trade un­ions and parent groups, as a test for the country’s ability to introduce meaningful change.

Former prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche stressed the interests of Algeria’s elites in reforming the education system by telling a Sep­tember 24th gathering of young people in Algiers: “We must stop the process of degradation of our education and learning system. In­telligence is the key to success.”

Islamists assailed Benghabrit as a “Jew” bent on dismembering Al­geria by encouraging the use of the country’s seven main dialects — Chawi, a mix of Arabic and Berber; three Amazigh-Berber languages in the south and Mozabite areas; and two Targui native tongues in south­ern Tuareg-inhabited regions — in schools instead of the Arabic lan­guage, which they see, along with Islam, as a cornerstone of the coun­try’s national unity.

Benghabrit’s critics, mainly Is­lamists, point out her struggle to speak Arabic fluently in official meetings and interviews.

She is not the first top Algerian government official to stumble on the use of Arabic at public events. Others, including Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, have done so as well. Algerian law obliges officials to communicate in Arabic, the offi­cial state language, even if they are not proficient in the language.

Benghabrit’s political back­ground as a sympathiser of the former Algerian Communist Party, in which her husband, historian Hassan Remaoun, had a leading position, shields her against Islam­ist accusations that she could be a member of Hizb França (the Party of France) — a damning label with which anti-Islamist liberals are tar­nished.

Under a bold but gradual plan, the Education Ministry is expand­ing the place of scientific subjects and foreign languages in the curric­ulum. Islamists see the move as un­dermining the Arabic language and Islamic religion, which they see as the pillars of the country’s identity.

Islamist critics have accused Benghabrit’s reforms as spreading apostasy. They insisted that ex­panding the learning of chemistry, physics and mathematics was “an­ti-Islamic”.

Benghabrit has had to deal with leaks of the university entrance exam and “Israel” being printed instead of “Palestine” in primary school textbooks. The latter inci­dent would have been a serious po­litical blow for any Algerian official as support for the Palestinian cause is sacrosanct to a majority of Alge­rians.

A worker in a government print­ing office made the “Palestine” mis­take but backers of the minister say her opponents are out to get her.

“Her detractors are always out attacking her. All subjects are good pretexts in dirty campaigns against the minister,” said Khaoula Taleb Ibrahimi, a former university col­league of the minister.

Algerian writer Kamel Moulfi said: “The Islamists, with their lies and misleading propaganda, want to make people believe that the minister and the political and social forces backing her do not want a way out of the mediocrity but want to abandon the national identity, which for them means Arabism and Islamism.”