Studying What’s Taught: Islamic Education around the World

Those who strongly support public education may not always realize how nationalistic it is, but from what is taught in publicly funded schools to how it’s being taught, curricula are a reflection of a nation’s priorities, values, objectives, and culture.

At an April 2 event at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, Jenny Berglund (Associate Professor of the study of religions at Södertörn University in Sweden) presented a paper on publicly funded Islamic education in Europe and the United States. She was joined by Susan Douglass, a senior research associate of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University, to examine how certain countries approach religious education—Islamic education in particular—based on their history and political system.

According to Berglund, there are two models of religious education: the confessional (denominational) approach and the non-confessional (comparative study of religions) approach. They differ primarily in who (teachers and schools, the state, religious authorities, etc.) has the authority to determine and develop content, select resources, and train teachers. It’s worth noting, however, that none of the countries’ approaches to religious education can be neatly compartmentalized into one of the two models.

Berglund also distinguishes three modes of religious education:

Education into religion introduces the pupil to a specific religious tradition, with the purpose of promoting personal, moral, and spiritual development as well as to build religious identity within a particular tradition. Many confessional approaches emphasize learning into religion, or learning how to live in accordance with specific religious tenets and practices. Education about religion utilizes a more or less academic examination of various religious traditions. This approach contextualizes religion within the comparative study of religions, history, and sociology. Education from religion takes the personal experience of the pupil as its principal point of departure. The idea is the enhance students’ capacity to reflect upon important questions of life and provide an opportunity to develop personal responses to major moral and religious problems.

Because religious education is highly dependent on each country’s geographic location and culture, there was no discussion about whether a singular form of Islam exists. Even national curricula and how they are adapted in each local classroom demonstrates the unique interpretation of material as contextualized in the culture of that geography. When one member of the audience asked about journalist Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article, in which he characterizes ISIS’s version of Islam as true because they adhere to its medieval interpretation (an article I referenced recently in discussing ISIS and “true” Islam), Douglass retorted, “There’s not one such medieval interpretation of Islam.”

Berglund classified each of the countries she studied according to their approaches to Islamic education: (1) cooperation between the state and religious institutions (Austria, Germany, Spain) where officially recognized religions can collaborate with the state to provide Islamic religious education in the public school system; (2) the existence of parallel state or dominant religions (The Netherlands and Finland) where two predominant religions have already been incorporated into the school system, thus allowing for Islam to incorporate in a similar manner; (3) the existence of one dominant state religion (Sweden and the United Kingdom) that is considered the national religion and that enjoys a close relationship with government but where other religions are afforded equal rights; and (4) distinct separation between church and state (France and the United States) where Islamic education is up to Muslim communities themselves, though some religious education is provided within classes.

In the United States, publicly funded schools and universities must teach religion neutrally because of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, so the only form of Islamic education in public schools is non-confessional and teaching about Islam.

I did find it striking that Susan Douglass seemed to imply that a secular humanist approach to religious education may be problematic: “Some of the books used in colleges, whether they should or not, really do take an editorial tone that is secular humanist. Many Christian parents are absolutely allergic to that. It makes them very suspicious of the whole enterprise of teaching about religion.”

Religious education in U.S. public schools is typically provided within a world history, geography, or world religion course rather than taught on its own, and the demand for more extensive religious education was low until the 1990s. In the past twenty-five years, however, the First Amendment Center has created a set of guidelines for teaching religion, and the American Academy of Religion has also worked extensively on making sure religion is taught with respect to the First Amendment in public schools.

However, Berglund notes a major flaw among teachers in the United States: they are not required to have training in the comparative study of religions and are “rarely taught about religion in their formal teacher training,” so they have little academic religious literacy and may choose to resort to the use of non-academic sources like the media.

She also makes the interesting point that differing ideas of what social cohesion means influence how religious education is administered. In Sweden, one non-confessional course of world religions is given to students of mixed backgrounds to “forestall prejudice and xenophobia,” while in Finland, students can attend a religious education course that caters to their background, which helps them “build a strong sense of personal identity” so that they can contribute to Finland uniquely.

“Publicly funded religious education can be understood as a litmus test for church-state relations,” Berglund concludes. More attention is usually given to the discussion of Islamic education after events like 9/11 or the 2004 bombing of the Atocha station in Madrid, Spain. (Since 9/11, many U.S. Muslim parents have sent or considered sending their kids to Muslim schools in fear of anti-Muslim attitudes in the public school system.) Yet, we have to be careful not to assume that increased religiosity is associated with fundamentalism, she warns, because studies have shown high levels of religiosity are actually correlated with the “search for alternate forms of identity and the individualization of faith.”

With these conclusions, Berglund says that the best practice is to not decontexualize a practice from the country, but that some interesting follow-up questions should focus on achievement in children who attend Muslim (or religious schools) and those who attend public schools, an arena where there is currently a lack of research.

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