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Religious Education in the Balance

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Tarek Heggy

According to some statistics, fully one quarter of those enrolled in the educational system in Egypt today are studying in religious educational establishments [schools, academies, and colleges run by Al-Azhar]. Other statistics reduce the number to one fifth, while a recent survey places it at no more than one sixth. Even if we assume that the lowest estimate of one sixth, that is, slightly over 16%, is the correct one, this means that more than three million students receive their education from start to finish in religious establishments. And the number would rise to four or five million if we accept the other statistics. What is certain is that we are facing an educational phenomenon that is bound to have far-reaching social, political and economic ramifications and hence needs to be closely examined and analyzed.

The first question that springs to mind here is “why”. Why does a society like Egypt’s end up sending such large numbers of its youth to study at religious establishments? This question evokes another question: What brought us to this? Was it planned or is it a random development that grew out of a reality not governed by strategic planning but by reactions and bureaucracy?
Before going into the question of why this phenomenon has reached such proportions in Egypt, it should be noted that, apart from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen, no similar phenomenon exists in any other of the more than 200 states in the world. Accordingly, we need to ask ourselves whether we have allowed matters to reach this point because we aspire to be not like Japan, Singapore, France, Canada or Spain [educationally and hence culturally] but like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen. And is this what we aimed for when we laid down a strategic educational policy in full awareness of its implications and consequences?
It beggars belief that we could knowingly have put in place an educational policy aimed at having one quarter, one fifth or one sixth of young people enrolled in the educational system receive their education in religious establishments. In fact, I would say that we never did lay down such a policy – or, indeed, any educational policy at all!
In my view, matters evolved in the direction they have done as a result of realities on the ground as well as bureaucracy. The huge forest of educational religious establishments we are now seeing sprouted up haphazardly, in reaction to specific problems, such as the lack of educational establishments within easy reach of children living in to small towns and villages and as a place of educational refuge for pupils who could not, whether for lack of material means or minimal educational requirements, join the general education system. If I am right, and I believe I am, our approach to the problem of education is consistent with our approach to many other issues.
Writing this article forced me to contemplate some alarming facts. Among the most disturbing is that we established the network of religious education as the solution of least resistance, so to speak, for the problems of the lowest social classes and the segments of society with the poorest learning skills. If that is so, this means that from a strategic point of view we are injecting huge numbers of the most disadvantaged elements of society
- economically, socially and in terms of learning skills - into a religious educational system that is acquiring gargantuan proportions. Moreover, we have done so without making any effort to consider the strategic results – political, economic, social – of this “solution” on the future of society.
Over the years I have asked many, probably hundreds, of junior employees and workers if their children were attending Al-Azhar schools. The great majority replied in the negative and expressed disdain for the quality of education provided by these schools. Their reaction led me to believe, perhaps wrongly, that religious education in our society is perceived as the last refuge of those who, for lack of social, economic or mental abilities, have no recourse to the general education system. Once again I must emphasize that allowing this phenomenon to flourish unchecked will have dire consequences for society as a whole. The time has come to study the phenomenon and the adverse strategic results it is bound to produce rather than leave it to the culture of improvising ad hoc solutions that has prevailed for decades.
Over the last few decades, our society has been swept by a powerful wave of obscurantism, as evidenced by the primitive and archaic understanding of religion that has become all too prevalent. And yet no one seems to have studied the relationship between this wave and the hordes of mainly underprivileged members of society who have studied in religious educational establishments and who are, for obvious reasons, particularly vulnerable to the appeal of a simplistic understanding of religion.
Have any of our strategic thinkers looked at the phenomenon from another angle and asked themselves what effect these huge numbers of Egyptian students enrolled in religious establishments will have on the country’s scientific, technological, industrial and trade sectors? We have seen other countries expand religious education to the point which eventually gave rise to a cadre of men of religion determined to prevent their societies from joining the march of progress. Can we honestly say that we are not moving uncomfortably close to a similar scenario?
It is also to be questioned whether we have looked at the issue of religious education in Egypt from an extremely important perspective. The values of progress are a set of values that form an integral part of the ethos of every prosperous society. Among the most important are a belief in human diversity, pluralism, the universality of knowledge, human rights and women’s rights. I spent hours reviewing the curricula on offer at Al-Azhar’s educational establishments in various subjects – culture, literature and languages – and found them to be either totally devoid of any attempt to plant the seeds of these values in their students’ minds or actively promoting opposing values. Are we aware of the magnitude of the problem we have ourselves created by producing graduates whose conscience and mindset are inculcated with values diametrically opposed to the values of progress? In this connection, it is well to remember that progress is more a function of a set of values than it is of material resources.
Has anyone considered the possibility that, by allowing such a huge number of religious educational establishments to mushroom in our midst, we are, from a strategic political perspective, ultimately serving the interests of a trend that has rightfully been described by the state as the worst enemy of civil society? Are we as a society and a state financing the enemies of civil society and of progress?
Has anyone reflected on how such an extensive network of religious educational establishments will impact on the general cultural climate, on social peace and on our nature as a Mediterranean society? Or is the issue of such little importance that no one considers it worthy of attention?



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