Religious child centres in Egypt breed extremism

Young children are supposedly taught at the centres to depend on heritage as defined by Salafist teaching and to avoid critical thinking.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Parallel schools. Children recite verses from the Quran at a religious centre in Cairo.           (Reuters)
Parallel schools. Children recite verses from the Quran at a religious centre in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - There has been a great deal of anger expressed by members of the Egyptian parliament about extremist teachings in kindergartens and day-care centres belonging to Islamist movements and run by religious societies. Their outrage has shed light on how much children’s centres without government oversight have become incubators for extremist thought.

Parliament member Mahmoud Badr pointed out in a petition to Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal and Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli that the teaching children receive at the institutions uses Islamic heritage that suits Salafist, al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya and Muslim Brotherhood doctrines.

Young children are supposedly taught at the centres to depend on heritage as defined by Salafist teaching and to avoid critical thinking.

Most families that place their children at such Islamist centres and kindergartens seem to be of modest backgrounds and mostly uneducated. Managers of mosques with attached educational centres convince people that their schools are the best qualified to teach children true religion, unlike state schools where religious education has become marginal.

Ghazi Sabri, a cobbler who owns a small shoe repair shop in Ain Shams in northern Cairo, is illiterate. Sabri said he registered his son in an Islamic kindergarten but he knows nothing about the curriculum there. The important thing for him, he said, was that his son grows up having learnt the Quran by heart and knowing his religious duties.

These types of educational institutions are either part of mosques or belong to charities or religious societies. They amass hefty treasuries from donations and fees by playing on people’s religious affinities and convincing citizens of modest means that they are the only alternative for teaching children the foundations of Islam.

What is interesting is that the Egyptian government in April 2016 ordered the closure of all Quranic schools, all private training institutions for clerics and proselytisers and all Islamic cultural centres belonging to civil societies. This means that religious schools active in the country are doing so illegally and far from the watchful eye of the government.

There is a concentration of the religious education centres in popular neighbourhoods, villages and the countryside where they are assured of people’s protective silence out of a sense of religious duty.

Generally, the centres publicising their activity as mere houses for teaching the Quran to children, then expand their activities to become educational environments competing with official schools belonging to the Ministry of Education. The difference is that the curricula and educational approaches in the parallel schools are decided by those who manage them.

It is common for mosques in Egypt to have Quranic schools attached to them. It has become common also to find hospitals, Islamic wedding halls and halls for receiving condolences attached to mosques. Those operating the mosques collect donations to help the poor or those about to get married or to help cover the cost of educating children in the ways of the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah. Neither the Ministry of Endowments nor the Social Security Administration has supervision of these activities.

Mohamad Rizk, who lives in al-Matriyah neighbourhood in northern Cairo, said he removed his two daughters from an educational centre belonging to an association called Mohammad’s Sunnah because it taught that religion controls all aspect of life. “Whenever I talked with my children about something, all I hear from them is ‘It’s haram.’ Even watching TV is forbidden,” he said.

Rizk said that when he had asked the centre’s managers about the courses offered, he was told they were intended for Muslim children. Rizk mentioned that he had noticed a quick change in his daughters’ behaviour. They spoke in Classical Arabic and started looking suspiciously at the other members of the family as if they were committing a sacrilege.

Even the names of the religious schools give the impression that they are in a state governed by Islamists. There are many schools named after famous Islamic figures or bearing names such as “Muslim Bibi,” “Islam’s Light,” “Islamic Taqwa,” “Eternal Eden” and “Muslim Buds.” With names like those, one is sure courses there are based on religion.

Education expert Kamal Mughaith has pointed out the danger presented by educational institutions attached to mosques. Children attending the schools grow up believing that religion is everything in life and any other idea or aspect is haram.