Accessibility links

Breaking News

World: Education -- The Role Of Religion In Classrooms (Part 1)

A madrasah in Islamabad By Gulnoza Saidazimova and Golnaz Esfandiari

Prague, 25 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Education and religion have often gone hand-in-hand in history.

In the West, early schools were often attached to monasteries. In the East, pupils went to madrasahs.

But in modern history, and particularly with the rise of nation states, governments have often separated religion from education.

One argument many governments make is that the state school system has only one task: to prepare children for professional life. They say it is up to religious establishments to nurture spirituality.

Still, debate rages in many societies over whether separation is the proper solution.

In the East, few state school systems provide a more vivid contrast in their approaches to religion than those of Uzbekistan and Iran.

"Fatima" is 36 years old and lives in Tashkent. She will not use her real name because she is talking about engaging in an illegal activity.

“Yes, I do teach [Islam] to my friends’ daughters and some boys who haven’t reached puberty and are under the age of 12. I’m not afraid of this, because I don’t teach them to do drugs or other haram things or disobey their parents. I teach them to respect their parents, be afraid of Allah and other sinful activities,” Fatima says.

Under Uzbek law, anyone teaching Islam must have special permission from the state-approved religious authorities. Fatima has not sought permission because the religious establishment does not teach the conservative form of Islam she espouses. So she risks punishment -- including imprisonment -- to operate outside the system.

Tashkent tightly controls the teaching of religion because it fears some forms of Islam could pose a political threat to the government of President Islam Karimov.

Karimov, a former top Communist official under the Soviet Union, maintains a secular government which recognizes that Uzbeks are overwhelmingly Muslim. But the government regards itself as being at war with Islamist militants working to create an Islamic state in Central Asia.

In Uzbekistan, the state school system remains secular and offers no religious teaching. However, parents can send their children to state-approved madrassahs or, ultimately, to the Islamic University in Tashkent, where there are both secular and religious departments.

By contrast, Iran -- officially an Islamic Republic -- teaches children religion from the time they enter the earliest levels of the state school-system.

Nine-year-old Keyvan has completed his third year of primary school. He says that he already knows some parts of the Koran by heart.

The Islamization of the school system in Iran was one of the first measures adopted by the Islamic establishment after the 1979 Revolution. At the same time, Islamic dress code was introduced for girls and schools were segregated.

Saeed Paivandi is a professor of sociology in Paris and author of a book about the post revolutionary Islamization of Iran’s education system. He says Iran’s revolutionary leaders aimed to change the culture of the society by training young people to be devoted to the values of the Islamic revolution.

“First they wanted the children to be educated based on Islamic principles and culture so that they would be committed Muslims of the future [Islamic] society. Secondly, the influence of the Western culture would be countered and, thirdly, the Islamic culture would be developed through the education system and blossom,” Paivandi said.

Today, Iran’s state school system officially devotes 14 percent of teaching time to religious education. Some analysts say the real figure could be as high as 35 percent if one includes religious content found in textbooks ranging from history to economy.

But should governments control how much or how little religion children receive in schools?

It is a question that societies continue to wrestle with around the world.

In Europe, religion is a widely taught subject in schools, but the way it is taught varies considerably.

In Austria, Germany, and Finland, as well as parts of Eastern and Southern Europe, children attend separate religion classes according to their denomination.

Elsewhere, for instance in Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Portugal, there are alternative classes for those not wishing to take religion, dealing with general ethics and philosophy.

But France, which zealously guards the separation of church and state, does not even allow religious symbols to be displayed in schools. And it has aroused the anger of many Muslims by banning schoolgirls from wearing the Islamic headscarf.

So far, the debate over the proper place of religion in the classroom shows no signs of being answered anywhere to everybody’s satisfaction.

And that means parents in most countries must decide the question for themselves as best they can.

If they are satisfied with their government’s view, they are likely to send their children to the state-school system. If not, they may seek an alternative school outside the system -- if one is available -- where the values they want are taught.

See also:

In East, Poverty And Women’s Status Keep Drop-Out Rate High

Bologna Process Opens Opportunities To Study Abroad