Quranic schools are Egypt’s newest weapon against radicals
Cairo- The traditional single-class schools teaching children to read, write and memorise the Quran have been transformed into Egypt’s latest weapon in the fight against extremism.
Known as “kotab,” from the Arabic word to “write,” these small schools had often been the only source of education for Egypt’s rural poor at a time when there were no government-run schools nearby.
Cairo warned that many schools had fallen under the sway of extremist groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, prompting a decision to regulate the industry.
“This was why we had to act to end control over this important teaching tool by radical groups,” said Sheikh Gaber Taye, a senior official of the Religious Endowments Ministry, which supervises Egypt’s mosques.
With the emergence of political Islam, Islamist movements sought to control the classes to spread their ideology. Western analysts have compared Egypt’s kotab to Pakistan’s madrassas, which have been criticised as jihadist breeding grounds.
“Kotab produced tens of thousands of children who were not taught the moderate teachings of the Quran but the radical views of the groups that established them,” said Nabil Na’eem, an expert on Islamist movements. “In a way, they were a breeding ground for extremism.”
Egypt’s Religious Endowments Ministry moved to crack down on hundreds of kotab that operate across Egypt with little ministerial oversight. The move includes closing classes run by Brotherhood-affiliated charities and Salafist groups.
To provide an alternative, the ministry established Quranic classes with a vetted curriculum at many mosques and appointed al-Azhar-trained sheikhs to teach a more moderate interpretation of Islam. Taye said the new schools teach manners and tolerance.
“They aim to create a new generation of enlightened and moderate Muslims,” Taye said of the new classes. “So, they take the children away from venomous radical groups that give them incorrect knowledge about religion.”
The new classes are among measures to revolutionise Egyptian education, renew religious discourse and keep radicals out of the mosques. The measures included a change in Egypt’s academic curriculum and tightening regulations on mosques, including rules ensuring that only graduates of Egypt’s al-Azhar University can become imams.
The drive comes amid a worsening fight against terrorism. The Egyptian Army continues to confront a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula. The Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of orchestrating domestic terrorist attacks and seeking to spread chaos domestically and beyond.
In a move to make the classes more attractive, the Religious Endowments Ministry struck a deal with the Ministry of Social Solidarity to give a monthly allowance to cover transportation fees for children attending the schools.
Analysts praised the new measures but many also warned that more needs to be done. “You cannot teach moderation in these [schools] and leave mosques in the hands of radicals,” said Fatma al-Maadoul, the head of the children’s section at the Ministry of Culture. “Some of our mosques are still controlled by extremists and the authorities need to take action.”
The Religious Endowments Ministry controls more than 100,000 mosques in Egypt but many small unauthorised mosques in poor districts and rural areas operate outside of ministry control. In a country where Friday prayers often spread from inside the mosques and onto the streets, it is hard to control every mosque.
Taye acknowledged that the new schools were one step on a long road to fight Islamist extremism and promote a moderate understanding of Islam.
“We are working day and night to ensure that extremists will not shape the thinking of the new generation,” Taye said. “It took extremist ideologies decades to prevail here and we do not expect to replace them with a moderate interpretation of Islam in a matter of days or even months.”