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Debates on Islamism: Faith Schools

Schoolgirls just outside Damascus, Syria
Schoolgirls just outside Damascus, Syria (Photo: SAMEER AL-DOUMY / AFP / Getty Images)

Clarion Project runs a Facebook dialogue discussion group called Lets Talk About Islamism. That group has a a little over 5,000 members from around the world who engage in lively and spirited debate on issues relating to Islamism. The demography of the group is continually in flux as people come and go. Some very specific issues keep on returning.

These recurring arguments illustrate sticking points in the conversation about Islamism. There are very sharp divides in opinion and seemingly little willingness to see the other side and move forward. This is not because the people on either side are irrational or do not want resolution. It is because they have deeply held beliefs about the issue in question and see their position as the correct one.

I want to summarize those debates we keep getting stuck on. (Of course, this is just how I perceive the conversation based on moderating many online discussions on this topic over several years. We welcome your comments.)

Broadening the conversation in this way may get us one step closer to resolving them. This is part of a series, with each article covering one such debate. This debate will be on the topic of faith schools.

Note: To keep the conversation lively, I have used as protagonists in the debate historical figures as fictional frames for the discussion.  The following “conversation” on faith schools is between Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the first president and founder of the Republic of Turkey, and Aurangzeb (1618-1707), the sixth and last (effective) Mughal emperor.

Ataturk, a Turkish army officer,  was considered a revolutionary. He was ideologically a secularist and nationalist. His policies, known as Kemalism, are rapidly being replaced by Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan am Islamist. As the president of the newly formed Turkish Republic, Ataturk initiated free and compulsory primary education. Turkish women received certain civil and political rights during his presidency ahead of many Western countries. However he was also heavily authoritarian.

Aurangzeb, ruler of the Mughal, an Islamic empire in the Indian subcontinent, is known for abandoning his predecessors’ legacies of pluralism and religious tolerance. Known as an authoritarian, he introduced many sharia-based laws, including the institution of the jizya tax (mandatory protection money paid by non-Muslims) and the banning of alcohol, gambling, music and narcotics. Many historians charged him with the destruction of Hindu temples. 

Faith Schools

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: Faith schools are indoctrination camps that should be banned. It is a form of child abuse to impose a religion onto children who are far too young to adequately process what they are being told. Religion has done untold harm throughout the centuries, and inculcating children into irrational ritual and superstition has no place in a civilized society.

Schools should be places of integration and learning where children are equipped to be productive and flourishing citizens. Dividing children into faith based groups at such a young age only reinforces societal divisions by promoting radically different worldviews.

How can children who grow up in such different ways form a properly cohesive society? If parents want to teach their children about religion, they can do so in their own time. Religion should be left at the school gates.

Aurangzeb: Let’s be realistic. Any school is going to teach an ethos and values. Already we have private schools, Montessori schools, technical colleges and other sorts of schools. Why should religious people not be able to educate their children as they see fit? Why does the state want to control everything that goes into the minds of young people?

There is a lot to learn about religion. A Muslim would want their children to have the opportunity to learn to read and write Arabic. They would want their children to learn classical Islamic theology in the traditions of the four schools of jurisprudence. All of this takes time, longer than one would have at home. Why not include it in the classroom? As long as the secular subjects like math and science are taught, what difference does it make to include a religious education?

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: It makes a difference because religious ideas are deeply personal. There is no reason to assume a child wants to follow the same religion as their parents. To allow religious people to have their own separate schools to teach their children is coercive and a violation of the child’s rights to a good independent start in life. A proper system overseen by the democratically elected government will ensure that children from all backgrounds receive an equal chance by teaching them a basic foundation from which they can build.

Aurangzeb: Democracy is just two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner. If you abrogate the right to teach children which metaphysical values and truths are OK and which are not, you are taking a theological stance. There is no “neutral.” Telling children that all religions are equally true, and they can choose which one they like best since the only sphere religion matters in is the private one is a very Western way of looking at faith. It strips parents of their right to bring up their kids authentically from within their own traditions and snatches them away from their own heritage. This is doubly true where parents are paying for the faith schools themselves.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: Nonsense. We know that a lot of harmful stuff is being taught in some of these faith schools, especially about men and women, about non-believers, about hell, etc. These ideas are damaging, and the state needs to act to protect children and society from them.

Aurangzeb: Religious beliefs are not hate speech. Just because you don’t like religion that doesn’t mean everyone has to live that way. You are anti-choice.

Which side did you agree with? Did we miss out part of the argument? Join the conversation on Facebook at Lets Talk About Islamism or write to us by clicking here.

 

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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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