The religionization of teaching and the proliferation of conservative Islamic discourse in schools is a leading criticism directed toward Egypt’s education system. Indeed, Islamic-oriented curriculums continue to be an integral part of educational policies, as Islam is purported to be at the basis of public education. These teachings can be found in religious education, Arabic language classes, and social studies, which promote conservative Islamic values at the expense of religious pluralism and other faiths. This analysis piece seeks to present a snapshot of religious teachings in school curricula and their impact on creating a climate of discrimination and intellectual extremism. This will be done by looking more closely at some of the lessons in several curricula, as well as reading the policies behind the development of religious curricula as espoused by official institutions. The Egyptian Ministry of Education stated it would introduce reforms on the matter after 2013, but as 10 years have passed, a pertinent question must be asked: Do these courses and programs now promote religious diversity and the respect of human rights, or are the issues still the same?
With the increase of terrorist attacks after 2013, Egypt’s education system had become the object of criticism by some for encouraging and fostering intellectual extremism. The government seems to have implicitly acknowledged this issue since 2014 by repeatedly discussing introducing reforms in the fields of education and scientific research and by eliminating programs and courses that are perceived to incite religious violence, in an attempt to combat religious extremism.
The education system in Egypt is characterized by pluralism. Al-Azhar’s religious education offers Islamic studies in addition to regular courses in grade-school institutes spread across the country. Graduates can then either enroll in regular universities or pursue their studies at the Al-Azhar University. In addition, the education system encompasses public, private, and international schools under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. Under this system, religious courses are compulsory in schools. However, they are pass/fail classes with no grade added to students’ transcript and total grades.
While Islamic studies are restricted to Muslim students, Christian students have their own religious classes, while no other religions are taught. Some school subjects like Arabic language and social studies also include Islamic religious lessons on Quranic texts, hadiths, as well as Islamic history and heritage.
Article 19 of the 2014 constitution stipulates that education is a right for every Egyptian citizen, aimed at building character, preserving national identity, instilling scientific thinking, developing talents and encouraging innovation, consolidating cultural and spiritual values, and establishing concepts of citizenship, tolerance and non-discrimination. It is necessary to have these values and principles integrated in the vision and routine of the three pillars of the educational process: the curriculum, the teachers, and the learning environment.
School curricula and textbooks are the central components of the learning process. They are the source of knowledge and values that the Ministry of Education seeks to instill in students. And Islam is present in different forms in those textbooks and curricula.
First, all programs—regardless of the classes and grades—include some Quranic verses and hadiths, and students of different religions are made to study and memorize them and sit for exams using these lessons. Some of the textbooks have passages that conflict with the beliefs of non-Muslims. One such instance can be found in an Arabic language lesson for the third preparatory level, as this Quranic verse is taught: “And who is better in speech than one who invites to Allah and does righteousness and says, ‘Indeed, I am of the Muslims.’”
The education program is devoid of any lesson, text, or mention of other faiths or religions, with a total omission of Egyptian Christian or Jewish historical figures, or major non-Muslim religious holidays
Meanwhile, the education program is devoid of any lesson, text, or mention of other faiths or religions, with a total omission of Egyptian Christian or Jewish historical figures, or major non-Muslim religious holidays. The same goes for Coptic history, despite the fact that the Coptic Church played a prominent role locally or abroad in facing the Roman and Byzantine empires at the time. There is also a complete disregard for non-monotheistic beliefs such as the Baha’is.
Moreover, some courses deal with relations between Christians and Muslims from an Islamic perspective. One example is a short story in the Arabic language class for the third secondary level titled “The Church was enlightened” about how Christians fast with Muslims to celebrate Ramadan, and how they are keen on extending their best wishes to their Muslim brothers on the advent of the holy month. The context of the story is based on the general premise of school textbooks that Islam and the tolerance of Muslims are the foundation of coexistence, which is shown by how Christians are welcoming of Islamic religious holidays. There is no mention, however, of Muslims wishing or participating with Christians in any of their religious rituals or social events.
The second characteristic of the educational content is the emphasis that Islam is the only source of virtues and positive values in such a way that depicts other faiths as inciting wrongdoing, or at least not upholding the same values. In the Arabic language curriculum for the third preparatory level, there is a lesson titled “I seek the help of God,” which mentions a hadith on human dignity and standing tall in difficult times. Another lesson on prose in the Arabic language program for the third preparatory grade discusses social solidarity in Islam. This approach links values and issues with Islam only, such as integrity, solidarity, and caring about environmental issues, among other issues, with connotations that would encourage religious discrimination and give preference to Islam over other religions and beliefs.
The school curricula and programs used in schools adopt the idea that Islam is the basis of human values and community relations—not citizenship or human bonding
The school curricula and programs used in schools adopt the idea that Islam is the basis of human values and community relations—not citizenship or human bonding. The danger of that lies in having an education system fostering the ideology upheld by certain extremist groups that do not believe in equality and citizenship, claiming that rights are closely linked to the religious view one holds, instead of the constitution or the international human rights treaties.
The third feature of educational content is discrimination on the basis of religion and incitement against others. For instance, the Islamic religious education textbook for the fifth primary grade titled “Jund Allah,” or the soldier of God, praises the use of religion to justify the sense of patriotism, glorifying the 1973 October war which positioned Egypt and Arab states against Israel, to take back the Sinai. The lesson also discussed the Jewish community’s religious and historical heritage during the life of the Prophet, and how they were forced out of Medina, stressing their “treacherous nature.” The homework for this lesson includes assignments such as writing an essay on how “Yesterday’s Jews are today’s Jews,” looking for verses that talk about the Jewish community’s supposed treachery.
More than just a curriculum
There are also several practices in schools that could encourage religious discrimination, such as the recitation of Quranic verses in the morning assembly at the beginning of the school day. During Islamic religious classes, Christian students are forced to leave the classroom to the school yard, where they gather for their religious classes and are not allotted a classroom. There is also a lack of specialized teachers for Christian religion classes, which are often taught by Christian teachers of other subjects, mainly due to the absence of any departments in faculties of education to train teachers in the subject of Christian religion.
Furthermore, religious discourse dominates the classroom through organizationally-affiliated teachers trying to imbue students with Islamic principles. Many of these teachers were trained and qualified by political Islam groups, which, for decades, have planned to prepare educators and recruit them upon graduation.
The Muslim Brotherhood was considered to be the most active group in Egypt. Its founder Hassan al-Bana, a teacher himself, had realized the importance of education in bringing up Muslim individuals and fostering a Muslim community—something that would pave the way for the group’s dominance at the social and political levels. These groups were keen on infiltrating unions in a bid to form lobbies to shape the educational policies and to also make their way into the departments and institutions in charge of developing, monitoring, and formulating these policies.
Talks about developing education, notably school curricula and programs, began after July 2013 and the ousting of Mohamed Morsi. This was when the Ministry of Education announced that it would overhaul the education system and review public education curricula.
The ministry talked about what it called an “intellectual security” strategy to confront extremism and violence in school learning. Indeed, then-Education Minister Mahmoud Abo El-Nasr issued a decision to form a committee within the ministry to review some religious textbooks and monitor subjects that promote violence or extremism or refer to any political or religious affiliations and any concepts that can be misinterpreted and “misused.” Consequently, the ministry decided to remove some topics from the Arabic language program for the fifth grade, which included illustrated details and violent terms related to the battles of Muslim leaders such Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi and Uqba ibn Nafi, as well as stories about burning enemies.
In May 2018, the ministry also announced the implementation of a new school curriculum, in a bid to develop education programs that promote religious freedom, spread a culture of tolerance, and consolidate national identity. The new school program includes a new curriculum titled “Values and Respecting Others: Together We Build” for the third primary grade. Moreover, as part of the ministry’s efforts to overhaul the education sector, teachers would be trained to promote religious freedom and coexistence, rejecting intolerance both inside and outside the classroom.
The Egyptian government also issued the National Strategy for Human Rights for 2021–2026 which comprised a clause for the Ministry of Education to review religious curricula and remove any topics and courses that might undermine the culture of tolerance in society, in addition to adding a syllabus on upholding “a culture of love and tolerance” and a sense of true citizenship.
Combating extremism in education cannot be limited to removing a lesson here and a course there
The Ministry of Education introduced several improvements to the school curricula, eliminating courses or syllabuses explicitly inciting violence based on religious difference. However, the current school curriculum continues to be discriminatory, and elevates Sunni Islam at the expense of other religions and faiths, instead of promoting and emphasizing on pluralism and human rights as the basis of citizenship. It is therefore necessary to restrict the religionization of school curricula and limit religious discourse in lessons, or at least stick to the Toledo Guiding Principles on religious education as a standard. This would deepen the understanding of religious pluralism in a way to contribute to promoting equality and non-discrimination on the basis of religion.
Furthermore, combating extremism in education cannot be limited to removing a lesson here and a course there. This approach must be extended to the administration, the teachers, and the entire education system. Pluralism and accepting other religions ought to be instilled in the learning process and become an integral part of the civil society’s involvement in the reform process to generate effective solutions on the ground.
Ishak Ibrahim is a researcher, advocate and campaigner specialized in issues related freedom of belief and religious minorities at Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).