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Islam Becomes Mandatory Study in Secular Tajik Schools

  • Farangis Najibullah

Are Tajik students ready for reading, writing -- and religion?

Are Tajik students ready for reading, writing -- and religion?

Students in Tajikistan will soon encounter something never before seen in their schools -- religion.

The Education Ministry's introduction of "Knowledge of Islam" as compulsory coursework can be seen as a baby step; eighth graders will be schooled in the subject just one hour a week.

But it marks a first for Central Asia, a region made up of Muslim-majority states that have maintained secular education since the fall of the Soviet Union. The change in Tajikistan has led some observers to speculate whether others in the region might break with tradition.

And inside Tajikistan itself, opinions are sharply divided between officials and Islamic clerics over who should teach the new subject and what, exactly, should be taught.

The new textbook consists primarily of four parts: the history of Islam, Islamic principles, Islam's stance on science and knowledge, and Islam's role in Tajik society since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Qualified Teachers?

Some 400 Tajik literature and history teachers have undergone special training since April to prepare them to teach the new course. This, the Education Ministry says, is in keeping with rules that only qualified teachers work in schools.

But some religious leaders are suggesting that these instructors are not capable of appropriately teaching "Knowledge of Islam," and say that this should be reserved for Islamic clerics and Tajik Islamic University graduates.

Said Ahmadov, the former head of Tajikistan's Committee of Religious Affairs and one of the authors of the new textbook, says the ministry will eventually find a solution acceptable for both sides.

"It has to be a combination of the two. Secular scholars who specialize in religion and Islam are involved in this program. And alongside them, moderate Islamic clerics who distance themselves from fanaticism, have the right to be hired as teachers," Ahmadov says.

"However, this job should not be exploited for promoting extremist and fanatical ideas among students that would lead to new conflicts and fighting."

Authorized Islam


Stemming the influence of radical Islam is among the reasons given for the effort, spearheaded by a government that keeps tight control over religious matters and is keen to oversee the religious education of the country's younger generation.

Authorities have acknowledged the program was partially aimed at preventing the nation's young from seeking information about their religion "elsewhere."

By that, they mean the numerous unregistered religious schools or madrasahs that have emerged and hundreds of mosques that have sprouted up all over the country since independence in 1991.

In recent years, Tajik authorities have taken a tougher stance toward religious institutions.

Dozens of underground madrasahs have been raided by police and security officers amid allegations that they were promoting extremist ideas.

As Islamic head scarves became popular among many young Tajik women, the Education Ministry outlawed the hijab in schools as an "element of foreign culture."

Hundreds of unlicensed mosques have been closed down, prompting angry reactions by clerics.

...Or Still More Needed?

And while "Knowledge of Islam" is being introduced in part to address longstanding criticism from religious figures, some are calling for an even greater role for religion in schools.

In the past, education officials came under fire for what clerics called the "misinterpretation of Islam and distorting Islamic facts" in Tajik history textbooks.

Last year, Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, a prominent cleric and politician, publicly said Tajik history textbooks had taken an irrational and sometimes "insulting and offensive stance" toward Islam.

Hoji Qalandar Sadriddinzoda, the head of the Islamic Revival Party in southern Khatlon province, has said that the introduction of "Knowledge of Islam" reveals government hypocrisy.

The authorities "pretend they are doing us Muslims a favor, saying, 'Look, we're teaching our religion in schools.' There is no need for a special textbook to teach Islam," Sadriddinzoda says.

"If they really want to teach Islam, they should include the Koran or Hadith in the school program. It's as simple as that."

Nazira Tashtemirova, a Bishkek-based expert on social affairs, says that other Central Asian countries could also find themselves tweaking their secular education systems to address religion.

But Tashtemirova does not see the introduction of Islam into school curriculums as a threat.

"It's just a part of our culture, our history," she says. "The younger generation would seek information and knowledge about their Islamic heritage, and we simply cannot ignore it."

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

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