Religious and inter-religious education
Prof. Dr Khairallah Assar (Algeria):
Peace Education and the Religions: An Analysis of the Algerian and the Syrian Experiences
|In my country, if I ask about human rights, someone reminds me of God’s rights. In the Western countries, if I ask about God’s rights, someone reminds me of human rights. So is the problem of the modern world: Here much of this, little of that; there much of that, little of this. Is the balance between the two so difficult?|
This paper is part of a larger research project about peace education in the Middle East. It is envisioned that peace among Middle Eastern states will be realised by the year 2010. Despite obstacles peace is gaining momentum nowadays. I believe that harmony and tranquillity will be prevailing by the end of the present decade.
Peace is not simply the absence of war. This kind of peace is desirable but not sufficient. If hearts and minds of both the governor and the governed in any state are not made up of peaceful attitudes and values, tolerance and acceptance of others, potentialities of wars and/or violence remain alive. With this postulate in mind, the question arises: How can individuals be prepared to be peaceful citizens?
The Preamble to the UNESCO’s constitution says: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defence of peace must be constructed“. It is true that peacefulness is the product of many forces: The family, the media, national-political orientation, propaganda, ideologies... Nevertheless, it is in school that organised and systematic efforts can be made to achieve peacefulness in the minds of citizens. School curricula are powerful means; they can shape youngsters’ minds and hearts. Hence, it is postulated that school curricula should be analysed before any attempt to construct a proposal to teach peace and peacefulness, as a course independent of others, in the Middle East.
In this paper, an attempt is made to partly analyse religious education in Algeria and Syria. The purpose thereof is to reveal how peace is taught as a conception linked to the transcendental dimension of social realities, and ideologies. This is followed by a critical discussion of the didactic employed. In the conclusion a general evaluation of the approach to peace education is given.
of the Educational Systems
Curricula are parts of the educational system which is itself a product of the value system and ideologies in any country. An overview cast at the factors determining the educational systems in both Algeria and Syria would be helpful in understanding and evaluating teaching of religions.
To begin with, Algeria and Syria are Muslim countries. Christians in Algeria are about one per cent: in Syria they constitute about ten per cent of the total population. Religions and religious practices are fully respected and freedom of worship is guaranteed. Political parties with religion as their formal ideology are not permitted. In Algeria Islamic oriented parties that were recognised as such a few years ago had to change their names in such a way as to exclude any explicit reference to Islam. “ The Islamic Renaissance Party“, for example, had to change, by the force of a governmental decree, to “The Renaissance Movement“. Hamas another major Islamic movement, hat to remove any mention of Islam in its name. Presently, it is called “Movement of Peace Society“. In reality, however, the two remain Islamically oriented political parties.
In the course of history, the Arabic language and culture on one hand, and Islam on the other, have always been intertwined in the Arab world. The impact of Arabism in Syria, however, has been deep, permeating all aspects of live and social reality; in Algeria the impact has been shallower. Two factors can be cited in this regard: First, the long period of the French colonisation that lasted 132 years. It had created a profound effect of the French language and culture on the Algerian society. The second, is the continuous existence of the original inhabitants of North Africa region, namely the Berber who prefer to be called “Ammazigh” i.e. the brave ones. Their language and many of their regional customs have survived so far, although the majority of them are Muslims and can speak Arabic. In Syria, no one ever argues the legitimacy of the Arabic language as the sole national and official language of the country. In Algeria, the Arabic language in general, and Arabism in particular are rather controversial issues on many socio-cultural levels.
There exists a uniform prescribed curriculum for all school levels, private school included, in both countries. The educational systems are centralised. The Ministries of Education commission experts to formulate the curricula, determine their contents and write the appropriate textbooks. Inspectors (called educational guides) see to it that teachers adhere to the prescribed curricula throughout their educational activities.
Problematic of Islam
The problematic of teaching Islam to Muslim youngsters (those who already have been taught in their families that they are Muslims and believe that Allah is one and Mohamed is His Messenger), has two dimensions: To begin with, Islam is a set of beliefs forming the Islamic creed. I. e. to believe in Allah, His Angels (including Satan and devils) the twenty-five Prophets (including Moses, Abraham and Jesus), the Four Holy Books, i.e. Torah, Zabour, the Bible, and the Koran, the day of judgement and finally, fate. The second dimension pertains to rituals forming the core of certain obligations such as to pray five times a day, to fast the month of Ramadan, alms giving, pilgrimage to Mecca, ... A Muslim has to learn how to wash, to cleanse his/her limbs and body, his/her clothes as well as the place where he/she would perform his/her prayers.
Aside form that, a Muslim is to believe that Allah is present watching and recording through angels what he/she does. Allah is watching and regulating the operations of the cosmos, nature and the humankind, too. The devil is existing also making efforts do divert humans from the right path set by Allah. Man is, therefore, between two forces: The force of the good defined as Allah had commanded, and the force of the evil defined as Satan and his associates try to influence human’s actions and sayings.
According to Islam humans were created to perform the task of worshipping Allah. To worship Allah means to try to re-construct human life and society, and the world in general. By doing good, man fulfils the will of Allah: and by doing evil one fulfils the will of Satan and his associates. Allah rewards man for doing the good and punishes man for doing the evil.
However, the ideal Muslim is he/she who worships Allah neither to be rewarded (to have a spot in paradise), nor to avoid any punishment in hell. Rather he/she worships Allah because of his/her firmly founded beliefs and convictions in Islam only.
As regards spirituality, it is (difficult to define) derived from soul/spirit which is the concept that transcends empirical understanding and empirical reason. Ethics to be considered spiritual, must be based upon and/or derived from Koranic statements and/or Mohamed’s traditions. Relevant in this regard is the concept halal i.e. spiritually permissible and haram i.e. spiritually forbidden. Ethics of philosophical (human) reasoning is neither Islamic, nor divine, because et is not spiritual.
On the basis of the foregoing analysis, the pedagogical problematic in Islam is firmly interconnected with the Islamic creeds and rituals. Islamic ethics is a derivative of both. Authors of school textbooks usually keep these two dimensions in mind on one hand; and try to move in the educational processes from what is simple and easy to understand, gradually towards the complex conceptions in accord with the appropriate curriculum criteria, on the other hand. In the final analysis, Islam is believed to contain an economic, social, political, global ... system to reform man and woman and his/her society in their totalities.
Didactic in schools
Teaching Islam and about Islam is clearly stated as integral part of curricula in Algeria and Syria. School textbooks are formally prepared for this purpose. In Syria, however, two sets of textbooks are prescribed in the intermediate and secondary stages: One set for Muslim pupils; the other set for Christian pupils. In Algeria, Christian pupils are often taught religion by the churches to which they belong.
Further, in addition to the lessons on religions in Syria, a course on national-socialist education is prescribed also. In this course pupils learn about nationalism, socialism, international organisations, international relations, imperialism, ... The rationale for this course seems to overcome any fragmentation of national allegiance and values that may take place in the minds of pupils as a result of teaching two separate religions.
Algerian Experience analysed
To give the reader a rough assessment of teaching Islam in Algeria, I shall review the textbook for the fourth school year. Titled "Islamic Education“, the textbook consists of sixty-three lessons to be taught within the school year.  Although the lessons are not organised under proper headings, they deal with the Islamic creed, rituals and ethics including social interactions. How to pray, fast and give out alms to the poor constitute a large portion of the book. Among ethical qualities, one finds truthfulness, tightness, obedience to Allah and parents, justice, love, etc. Relations with neighbours, co-operation for the sake of the common good and brotherly relations in general are stressed. The transcendental dimension of daily life events is supported by Koranic verses, on one hand, and the Prophet’s traditions, on the other hand. Identification as an educative process is emphasised through presentation of extracts of Mohamed’s biography, His deeds and actions. Pupils are urged to read the lesson, to understand, to think, to infer and to answer questions. Further, pupils are requested to memorise Koranic verse and some sayings of the Prophet. In brief, pupils seem to be indoctrinated so that they may become good Muslim citizens, and live properly within a network of relations with Allah, their societies and themselves as well.
Syrian Experience analysed
First, the textbook titled, “Islamic Education”, for the seventh school year (second year in the intermediate stage)  is divided to the following six sections:
The Glorious Koran;
The Prophet’s traditions;
Moral and Ethics;
How to worship
Biographies of the Prophet Mohamed and His Comrades
Each section is divided to lessons, the total of which is four lessons to be covered within the school year.
Examining the above-mentioned textbook, one can discern that the Islamic rituals are always intertwined with attempts to teach ethical behaviour. No ritual, such as prayer and fasting, are ever separated from certain moral implications attached to them. In addition to this ethical dimension, Islam is taught as a religion based on justice. The far objective, there is to perpetuate that Islam, as a religion, is against colonisation and exploitation which are usually associated with capitalism.
Arab nationalism and link with the Arab nation, past and present, are clearly stressed as an attempt to strengthen the Arabian dimension in the cultural personalities of pupils. Extracts of biographies of the Prophet Mohamed and His Comrades are given, not only to make pupils better Muslim citizens by using the educative Power of the identification process, but to explicate also, the Arabian profound influence on Islam itself.
Pupils are requested to memorise a number of Koranic verses. They should also answer questions and discuss the contents of every lesson. More, they should learn to abide overtly by some Islamic rules derived from the lessons contents themselves. In brief, identification, indoctrination, and disputation are extensively employed to coach and guide pupils to the right path as defined in Islam.
Secondly, Christianity is taught to Christian pupils by a textbook prescribed for the seventh grade (the second year in the intermediate stage) titled “Christian Religious Education”  The book is divided to four sections covering twenty-four chapters. The first section is devoted to Mary an Jesus, His birth and resurrection; the second deals with a number of Biblical parables; the third treats Jesus’ four Sermons titled “Happy are those ...” and the last section consists of biographies of the major saints in the Christian history, such as Philips, Thomas, Jacob, Stephanos, Augustine, John of Damascus, and Sam’an of the Pillar.
Christian ethics founded on love, humility, spirituality and purity of one’s ago constitute the general denominator permeating all lessons. The Christian creed is presented as a set of beliefs in Jesus Christ and his mission aiming to save mankind and the world. Ethical didactic which implies love, purity, peace, ... is clearly stated and stressed.
The method of direct preaching coupled with an urge to learn, explain, discuss, answer questions, and be able to infer is employed as an educative instrument to strengthen the pedagogical impact on the cultural personality of pupils. Finally, attempts are made to establish links between daily events of the pupils and socio-political institutions on the national and international levels on one hand, and the religious massages of the textbook’s lessons, on the other hand.
Both - Islam and Christianity - are presented to the pupils as ideal religions, each on its own merits. No reference is made to the controversial issues incorporated in their particular creeds when compared with each other. This fact implies that the textbooks’ writers try to encourage harmony between adherents of both religions. Observations of daily life in schools do confirm that this fact prevails extensively in Syria.
It is interesting to note that Husserl’s concept “Lebenswelt” i.e. “life world”, is relevant in this context. In the Western societies, mention of God in the Course of daily interactions is rather rare. In the Muslim societies the name of Allah is present in almost all daily interactions and communications. In greetings, planning and pondering about life and world events, Allah is referred to as the cause, the power, the observer and/or the ultimate determiner of the circumstance, the human will and human judgement. In other words, “Lebenswelt” considered as a set of stimuli and responses in daily interactions, Allah is there present despite secularised and traditionally -oriented Muslims and Christians as well. Muslim and Christian pupils seem, in this regard, to be almost equal in their configurations of the immanent and the transcendental problematic of their daily lives. Religious lessons substantiate this bent of mind. Secularisation and/or Westernisation processes in political and cultural activities and mass media have contributed, by and large, towards diminishing this phenomenon, but they have not been able to annul it. In fact, it was Emile Durkheim, about a century ago, who made the observation that the role played by God in social life (in Europe) was shrinking. This was due, in his opinion, to the expansion of science and scientific thinking in understanding natural and social phenomena. Truly, he was describing the changes that were taking place in Western societies. Middle Eastern societies have been lagging behind.
It has become clear, so far, that peace education as a topic independent of others given in schools in Algeria and Syria does not exist. Peace is taught as a by-product of religious education in both countries.
Peace, however, is rather a complex conception. Menaces to peace, plenty they are, must be taken into account when a peace paradigm is to be constructed. Poverty, diseases, ignorance, local and regional wars, weapons of mass destruction are symptoms of the peace-war syndrome in our present world. Pupils should learn about these issues. Pupils should be provided with data and information about war and peace within any course oriented toward teaching peacefulness.
When Samuel Huntington formulated this thesis, “Clash of Civilisations” he seemed to be trying to re-construct minds of men in order to orient their processes towards wars and/or violence. A peace paradigm in which civilisations would co-operate, respect, and complement and learn from one another is not only possible but it is desirable also. There is no reason for civilisations to clash as Huntington wishes the world to believe.
There is no way to peace, peace is the way, so did Mahatma Gandhi say about six decades ago. Gandhi invented the non-violence resistance to fight the British occupation of his country. Although wars start in the mind of men, as the UNESCO proclaims; fertile soil may help seeds of war to hatch in the mind of men: The mind of man does not function independently of factors operating in the surroundings of men in whose mind wars may rage. Famine and mal-nourishment, which about five hundred humans are suffering, are undoubtedly potentials factors that may lead to wars and violence sooner or later.
In the beginning of this paper, I stated that peace would be prevailing in the Middle East by the end of the present decade. In the end of this paper, however, I say that famine should be eradicated from all parts of the word by end of this decade. I appeal to Allah to help me contribute towards rendering this dream true.
| (In Arabic) The Algerian Republic,
Democratic and Popular, The Ministry of Education and Formation, Islamic
Education for the Fourth Year Fundamental School, prepared by Mohamed al-Araby
Mukhailef et al, Published by the National Pedagogical Institute, Algiers,
 (In Arabic) The Syrian Arab Republic, The Ministry of Education, Islamic Education for the Second Year, Intermediate Stage, Published by the General Establishment of Prints and School Books, Damascus, 2000-2001
 (In Arabic), The Syrian Arab Republic, The Ministry of Education, Religious Christian Education for the Second Year, Intermediate Stage, Published by the General Establishment for Prints and School Books, Damascus, 1999-2000