Quranic schools are Egypt’s newest weapon against radicals

Sunday 16/07/2017
One step on a long road. Students study for a Quran recital exam in one of al-Azhar institutes in Cairo. (Reuters)

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.”