To Get Rid of Extremism in Egyptian Education, Understand Its Roots

The roots of extremism in Egyptian education are long and heavily intertwined with both the curriculum and extracurricular activities. Recent efforts to try to clean out extremism will go nowhere unless the history of religious involvement in Egyptian education is understood.

A few months ago, the Egyptian Ministry of Education announced a set of curriculum changes to “purify” textbooks from material that feeds extremism and violence. This included the removal of a number of short texts, but no broad changes were made in the kinds of novels and topics students must study. A high-profile national curriculum reform committee was then set up for this purpose, but it seems to be largely overseeing the same mechanisms and expertise that have led to the current situation in the first place. It was not surprising therefore to see a bitter critique of this year’s new religious-education textbooks, describing them as reflecting “ISIS views”.

But does extremism stem from textbooks, or is it a more general feature that pervades education curricula, activities, community associations and private schools? And is it only linked to the activities of individuals and groups, or is it a direct result of policies adopted by the state?

Various Islamist groups have certainly been working systematically to control Egyptian education. This was vividly revealed when the details of the latest such plot by the Muslim Brotherhood were uncovered last month. According to the plot, special importance was given to school radio programs and students and Brotherhood teachers were trained to take part in them. Constant reminders of the importance of performing the noon prayer at school were instrumental in recruiting students who come to pray. Students were provided with high-quality summaries and study guides and free private tutoring assistance. Brotherhood teachers volunteered to take up substitute classes to use them to influence students. But perhaps the most important element was the emphasis on controlling private and NGO-run kindergartens.

While these details closely reflect decades of Islamist outreach in Egyptian schools, such influence was only possible in light of particular policies adopted by the state since the 1970s. Presidents Sadat and Mubarak believed that giving political Islam greater influence would strengthen their regimes as well as relieve some of the burden of public expenditures. Instead, it failed to immunize either of them from assassination or revolution and led to a complete collapse in state institutions and the quality of education in Egypt.

With the policies of economic liberalization (Infitah) in the 1970s, “science and faith” were articulated as the basis of Egypt’s progress and renaissance. This represented a clear break with the discourse of the preceding era, which centered on social justice and articulated progress in terms of alleviating poverty and providing work and educational opportunities to all. This discourse had enjoyed widespread popularity in light of heavy investments in education, health, transport and infrastructure. To compete with this popularity and to establish a new legitimacy, Sadat resorted to promoting Islamist groups and positioning himself as the “Believing President” who amends the constitution to declare sharia as “the” primary source of legislation. At the same time, members of Islamist organizations were released from prison and empowered to influence education and dominate community associations. This included control of university campuses, especially in Upper Egypt, and greater enrollment in faculties of education.

Because Sadat’s reign was very short, on account of his assassination by these extremist groups, the implications of this policy direction only became clear under Mubarak. The education system witnessed severe declines in quality and equity and widespread influence from Islamist groups. Reduced investment in public education resulted in the growth of private schools and the pervasive phenomenon of private tutoring. Tutoring not only takes up large portions of household spending; it also opens the door to religious associations to provide education or assist parents with education costs. This is in addition to the rapid growth of private Islamic schools providing additional Islamic curricula and activities. The state also left early-childhood education to community associations, which in most parts of the country are run by religious associations, and it has little real control over the ideas they spread to very young children. As mentioned above, educational assistance and control over kindergartens were important elements in the Brotherhood’s education strategy.

One of the most blatant manifestations of the control of public schools by extremist forces under Mubarak was the replacement of the national anthem with religious chants in many schools. In fact, a recent report indicated that students in a school in the heart of Cairo only repeated one phrase in the morning assembly: “There is no God but God” and neither saluted the flag nor sang the national anthem.  More generally, school activities now revolve mainly around Islamic themes, such as Quran recitation and memorization contests. School radio programs have also become saturated with a particular religious orientation. Pressure was placed on female students and teachers to wear the hijab and girls were increasingly excluded from sports. Cultural, artistic and music activities also began to disappear from schools. Overall, the vibrant, high-quality public schools that earlier generations recount became a distant memory.

This coincided with a clear change in textbook discourse, which increasingly revolved around a particular vision of Islam as a key political frame of reference. Even love of the nation was presented as a value promoted by Islam. Democracy was good because Islam had pioneered it. Discussions of human values and the values of work and family as well as lessons on science, medicine and industry were framed in Islamic terms. Justice was also not based on the law, the constitution or individual rights but stemmed from Islam and “governing by what God has decreed.” Based on the aforementioned Brotherhood plot, such affirmations of Islamist frames of reference are an essential entry point to exert influence and recruit students.

This content is not only found in Islamic studies textbooks, but dominates Arabic language curricula especially, as well as history and civics. One example of this is the novel Wa-Islamah, taught in general secondary education throughout the Mubarak era and until the present. The novel was written by Ali Ahmad BaKatheer, who is reportedly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. It highlights the central idea of political Islam that “abandoning Islam” (with Islam being defined primarily as personal ritual observance) leads to foreign occupation and the misery caused by it, while “returning to Islam” reverses this national decline.

While Egyptian decision-makers might consider novels like Uqba bin Nafi and Wa-Islamah to be worthy of teaching to youth over tens of years, Egyptian and Arab literature remains full of creative works that could be used to renew curricula in a more balanced manner, so that they do not revolve around one frame of reference or center on conquests and jihad. The real danger, however, is when any of this educational material is taught by extremist teachers.

It should be noted that after the wave of terrorist attacks in the early 1990s, the regime did take measures to loosen the hold of extremists on educational institutions. Thousands of teachers accused of extremism were transferred to non-teaching positions and remote parts of the country. Unfortunately, these security measures were not accompanied by real changes in textbook orientations or school activities, and the solution cannot be to transfer extremists to already marginalized areas where they can exert their influence.

In the 2000s, however, the regime again encouraged a different type of religious discourse.  This new trend argued that a Muslim renaissance would be achieved through personal morality, chastity, charity, ritual observance and business entrepreneurship. It abandoned any emphasis on the role of the state, whether in “applying sharia” or in guaranteeing social, economic or political rights. The regime used this as a cover for abandoning its responsibilities, especially in relation to social justice. This can be seen, for example, in a 2009 national education textbook that echoed the rhetoric of the dissolved National Democratic Party as well, declaring that it is futile to rely on the state to solve the country’s problems and that the “hope in bringing about a real renaissance” rests on reviving charitable service provision associations. The same textbook had identified the characteristics of the “Good Citizen” as, first, “Faith in God Almighty and adherence to the correct teachings of religion,” as well as “Commanding virtue and forbidding vice.” It can be argued however that Egyptians indeed increased their levels of charity and religious observance under Mubarak, but conditions in the country only worsened.

Now that Egyptians have revolted against these conditions, the hope for achieving any improvement rests on adopting sound economic and social policies. This must include working towards real reform of public education to raise its quality, modernize curricula, reinvigorate school activities and reduce students’ dependence on extremist religious associations.

*Hania Sobhy is a a researcher and consultant on issues of educational reform and a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World (IREMAM) in Aix-en-Provence, France.
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