May 7, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 608

Egypt Announces Plan to Revise Religious Studies Curricula, Removing Extremist Content and Promoting Tolerance

May 7, 2010 | By L. Azuri*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 608

It was recently announced that Egypt's Education Ministry, along with the Office of the Mufti and Al-Azhar, are to revise the religious studies curricula in the country's Muslim and Christian elementary, middle, and high schools. The move is aimed at removing erroneous interpretations and materials inciting to violence and extremism. The revised curricula will emphasize the inculcation of tolerance towards all monotheistic faiths, and these values will be taught independently of religious precepts.

Some oppositionists and religious scholars have objected to the reform plan, on the grounds that it constitutes capitulation to pressure by the U.S. and Israel and that it could undermine Islamic education in Egypt. The education minister and the mufti denied this, stressing that the reforms will be carried out under the exclusive supervision of Al-Azhar.

Reactions to the program in the government press were mixed. Some writers criticized the reform, saying that it is impossible to separate inculcation of moral values from inculcation of religious ones, while others praised it and welcomed the intent to teach religious tolerance.

Education Ministry and Mufti's Office Update the Religious Studies Curricula

The reform plan was announced at an April 26, 2010 press conference. Egyptian Education Minister Dr. Ahmad Zaki Badr announced his intention to amend the religious studies curricula for all school grades, starting in the coming academic year, based on the recommendations of Egyptian Mufti Dr. 'Ali Gum'a. He said that the revision was aimed at purging the curricula of erroneous interpretations and materials inciting to violence and extremism, and added that the Christian religious studies curricula would also be revised in accordance with recommendations by Coptic Pope Shenouda III.

Badr stressed that that the reform program sought to inculcate moral values independently of religious ones, and to encourage creative thinking, develop the pupils' problem-solving skills, and acquaint them with social developments in Egypt, the region, and the world. He added that the curricula would later be updated further according to the advice of experts; that teachers would be trained to implement the new program; and that a teacher's guide would be compiled to assist them in this task. Also, he said, a joint committee had been established to draw up the new curricula, comprising representatives of the Education Ministry and of Dar Al-Ifta (Egypt's supreme jurisprudential authority, headed by the Mufti).

Mufti 'Ali Gum'a stressed at the press conference that the current curricula were not fundamentally flawed, but only needed to be updated and adjusted to the spirit of the era. He added that the reform was the result of 10 years of work, during which experts studied curricula from Egypt, from other Islamic countries, and from across the world. He added that the new curricula would stress that there is no contradiction between religion and advanced modern technology – for religion is flexible, and is compatible with both progress and tolerance. He also announced that a new textbook, titled "Morals," would be compiled and introduced in all grades, to inculcate the values of tolerance shared by all monotheistic religions.[1]

Education Ministry sources reported that the main changes to be made to the curricula involve the elimination of all Koranic verses calling to jihad or the killing of polytheists. They added that the Mufti had advised focusing on specific topics such as women's rights, human rights, the mixing of the genders, and Islamic teachings on the attitude towards the other.[2]

Opponents of the Program:

The New Curricula – A Capitulation to American-Israeli Pressure

The announcement about the new religious curricula sparked protest among some oppositionists and religious scholars in Egypt. Ahmad Gabili, head of the oppositionist People's Party, who plans a presidential run in 2011, submitted an urgent query to the prime minister and the chairman of the Shura Council, demanding clarification regarding the purpose and timing of the reform, claiming that they were motivated by foreign pressure. He stated that the U.S. had pressured the late Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, and Israel had pressured former education minister Dr. Yousri Al-Gamal to reform the Al-Azhar curricula, to fight Islamic extremism, and to introduce Hebrew classes in Egyptian elementary schools – but that both had refused. Gabili called on the opposition parties to meet to discuss the implications of this reform program, which, he said, could "undermine the Arab and Islamic identity of Egypt's curricula."[3]

Gabili claimed that the individual in charge of reassessing the Islamic curricula in Egypt's state schools was a Jewish-American woman, a member of a team of American experts managing the "Strategic Program for Education Development in Egypt," which is part of the U.S. aid program. According to Gabili, the American Embassy in Cairo has been working for five years to prepare textbooks for Egyptian pupils. These are to be supplied to 39,000 Egyptian schools throughout the country, as part of an American plan to dry up the ideological sources of terror, and will replace the existing religion and history textbooks used in these schools. Similar programs, he said, are also being implemented in other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.[4]

Sheikh Hafez Al-Salame, a former advisor to the sheikh of Al-Azhar, attacked the Mufti for cooperating with the Education Ministry's initiative for a curricula reform. He characterized this reform as "playing with the Koran" and as "a Zionist-Crusader plot against Islamic Egypt, aimed at causing it to lose its faith and religion..." He added: "We expected the honorable [Mufti] not to take part in this plot... which is carried out by the Crusaders under the leadership of America, and by the Zionists under the leadership of Israel..."[5]

Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the Egyptian parliament, likewise accused the Education Minister of succumbing to American pressures to change the religious studies curricula. He said that the reform program violated Article 131 of Egypt's 1981 Education Law, which stipulates that special research centers are to have exclusive responsibility for amending curricula. He and 20 other MPs asked for a special parliamentary session on this matter.[6]

The education minister and the mufti both denied the allegations regarding foreign pressure. Mufti 'Ali Gum'a said that Al-Azhar had exclusive responsibility for formulating the new curricula, and that it was "the front line of defense for the principles of Islam." He added: "The new curricula will consolidate the pupils' understanding of pluralism, and teach them to respect those with different faiths, color, gender or languages..."[7]

The Teaching of Values Cannot Be Separated from Religious Education

The Egyptian government press was divided in its reactions to the reform initiative. 'Abd Al-Latif Fayed, an editor of the daily Al-Gumhouriyya, opposed the reform on the grounds that it was impossible to separate the teaching of moral values from the teaching of religious precepts. He wrote: "The teaching of moral values and the teaching of religion are inseparable, and both are anchored in Islam... I am not claiming that Islam is wholly moral, but it provides a unique education that includes both beliefs and [codes of] behavior: [It includes] belief in Allah the one and only, His angels, scriptures and Messenger, and the Day of Judgment – as well as [codes of] social conduct. These [codes] cannot be separated from religion if we want them to serve as the basis of a virtuous society..."[8]

Proponents of the Program:

For the Sake of Social Unity, Pupils Must Be Taught Accurate Information About All Religions

Other op-eds in the Egyptian press applauded the intent to instill tolerance towards other religions. Hazem 'Abd Al-Rahman, columnist for the government daily Al-Ahram, wrote: "What do we expect from religious education in the elementary, middle, and high schools? Do we want it to be an instrument of da'wa [proselytizing], or an instrument of education and enlightenment? It is assumed that by the time pupils start school, they have reached the age of reason in the sense that they know which religion they belong to. However, they have very little knowledge about their own religion and about other faiths, and what they do know may include nonsense and misinformation. Therefore, the school's job is to provide them with an appropriate amount of accurate information about [all] the faiths.

"Accordingly, we hope that the talk about developing the religious [curriculum, means] that this curriculum will no longer promote the belief in a certain faith, but will set out the essence of all faiths... whether they are God-given or man-made, so that, upon the completion of his basic education, a pupil will be acquainted with all the religions that exist in his society, and his information will be accurate and correct. This means that the religious textbooks cannot remain as they are today, but must include basic texts from the Koran, the New Testament, the Old Testament, and the like, as well as major milestones in the biography of the three prophets. This knowledge will enable the members of different faiths to hold dialogue and understand one another while avoiding conflict and confrontation, as far as possible...

"If national unity is important to Egypt, how is it that when the average pupil, whether Muslim or Christian, finishes high school, his knowledge about the other religion is nothing but nonsense that is [totally] incorrect, or at the very least comes from dubious sources? Why do we do this, when we have print shops where the Education Ministry can print whatever textbooks it wants, and when we have noted lecturers of great expertise who can provide our children with flawless information about all the religions?...

"It is very strange that we do this, when the Koran includes a comprehensive definition of Christianity and Judaism and presents the different belief [systems]... How can we expect national unity if we teach our children that their fellow countrymen, who, like them, would sacrifice their souls for [the homeland], are followers of a flawed faith, whose scriptures are a [full of] mistakes and distortions? How can we demand that others treat us with respect when we, or some of us, call them infidels?..."

Pupils Must Be Taught Koran Verses Stressing Religious Freedom

"We must stop teaching our children anything that maligns the Christian faith and even the Jewish faith. We must carefully pick out the Koran verses that stress the values of coexistence, mutual brotherhood, and cooperation among people, and those that stress the individual's freedom to choose his faith, free from any kind of coercion. If there are other verses, which criticize the faith of our fellow countrymen, then the learning of these religious texts should be postponed until a later stage, when the pupils have already matured. The [custom of] applying the term 'infidel' to the followers of other faiths must be stopped, once and for all. This epithet is very dangerous, and constitutes license to kill [the members of other faiths]... Every individual has the complete freedom to believe whatever he wants, and Allah will judge him in the world to come. In this world, one must respect the laws of his country and the customs and traditions of his society..."[9]

Al-Gumhouriyya columnist Samir Ragab praised the education minister for having the courage to change the curricula: "[Minister] Ahmad Badr Zaki [is brave] by any standard, [for] he has dared to storm a castle that none of his predecessors dared to storm – whether out of fear or out of a preference for peace and quiet... For a long time, the religious curricula were sacrosanct and untouchable, even though they were obsolete programs formulated years ago by a bunch of closed-minded [people], some of whom still appear on the screens of our TV sets [from time to time]..."[10]

* L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 27, 2010.

[2] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), April 29, 2010.

[3] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), April 29, 2010.

[4] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), May 3, 2010. The independent Egyptian daily Al-Misriyyoun recently made similar claims in response to an announcement by the Cairo branch of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The agency announced its intention to produce TV programs for children aged 4-7, aimed at expanding their horizons and acquainting them with other cultures. According to the daily, the agency plans to produce three Sesame Street-style programs, at a cost of $300 million, as part of a Jewish-American plot to undermine Arab and Islamic identity and raise a new generation of Arab and Muslim children educated to love the U.S. and Israel. Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), April 30, 2010.

[5] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), May 2, 2010.

[6] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), May 4, 2010.

[7] Al-Ahram, Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), May 2, 2010. A senior source at the Al-Azhar Academy for Islamic Research said that this statement by the Mufti came in response to Al-Azhar's protest over the fact that at the press conference, Dar Al-Ifta, rather than Al-Azhar, had been presented as the body in charge of formulating the new curricula. The Education Ministry clarified that the revision would be carried out in cooperation with both Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 3, 2010.

[8] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), April 30, 2010.

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 2, 2010.

[10] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), April 28, 2010.

Share this Report: