Efforts to Fight Extremism in Education Miss the Point

On April 13, photos circulated in the Egyptian media of a book-burning ceremony. Several Ministry of Education officials can be seen in the pictures standing in a school courtyard, holding Egyptian flags and watching while a small pile of books turn to ashes in front of them. The books, reportedly from the school library, all dealt with Islamic matters; some were authored by Muslim Brotherhood leader and ideologue Sayyid Quttub.

After the uproar that followed, which included condemnation from the education ministry itself, Buthaina Kishk, a ministry official who oversaw the book-burning ceremony, called into a TV talk show to defend herself. She claimed that the books had been tampered with and that their content did not match their covers.  She said one book instructed children, “If your mother works, don’t eat from her hand, because her money is haram,”or sinful. Another book incited sectarianism, telling Muslims not to greet Christians first. 

“The generation who grew up on these books, without the education ministry realizing what was happening, has ended up burning us and attacking us and putting bombs under our feet, killing the army and the police,” argued Ms. Kishk. “These schools are Ikhwan schools, private schools, they weren’t monitored before this by the ministry. Now they are under financial, administrative, and educational scrutiny. We were given explicit instructions, as long as these schools are under scrutiny to follow and monitor them well, encircle them, to bring this lost generation back to Egypt.” Kishk said she and her colleagues were also instructed to form “an execution committee” and to “execute” inappropriate books. 

The ceremony appears to have been part of a wider effort to reassert control over schools that are allegedly run by the Brotherhood. In January of this year, Minister of Education Mahmoud Abo al-Nasr told Al Sharq Al Awsat that 174 schools with ties to the Brotherhood “have returned to Ministry of Education’s administration.” According to the newspaper, any school whose board was more than 5 percent Brotherhood or which received funding from the organization was taken over. 

Meanwhile, last month Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab formed a committee to review all school curricula. According to officials, the revisions are intended to target material that incites religious intolerance and violence. Authorities released a list of chapters that have been removed from the curriculum, without explaining why the material was deemed inappropriate, or what it will be replaced with. Chapters referring to Saladin and Uqba bin Nafi—and to wars with non-Muslims—are among those removed

In the last four years, millions of textbooks have been withdrawn and reprinted, but most changes have been political, un-transparent, and ad-hoc. After the January 25 uprising, the curriculum was updated to almost completely omit Hosni Mubarak’s thirty years in power. After the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood from power, there was another round of superficial, and strategic, curriculum changes. A high school psychology and sociology textbook that had a chapter on “the difference between a revolution and a coup” was reportedly hastily dropped from the curriculum in September 2013.  

The historic Islamic university of Al Azhar’s curriculum is also reportedly being revised. Officials there have said they will remove material that “does not suit modern times.” Al Azhar – a center of learning as well as a source of religious legitimacy – has been riven by contestation and violence since Morsi’s ouster. While student protests spread across the country, Al Azhar University appeared to be an epicenter of dissent. Students disrupted classes for months with protests, and the administration allowed police on campus, where they violently dispersed demonstrations. Hundreds of students and faculty members have been expelled, or referred to disciplinary action or criminal prosecution. The university – which came under government control in the 1960s – has long prided itself on its “moderation.” In practice this has meant a quietist, conservative approach to politics but hardly an enlightened one to religious matters. Al Azhar’s stated approach to fighting radical ideas is probably partly defensive – the university has been attacked for harboring religious extremists – and reflects a simplistic analysis of the factors that lead to extremismPurging textbooks of bigoted or embarrassingly anachronistic passages is a step in the right direction, but is not nearly enough. (That material is, in any case, available in spades elsewhere). Instead, Al Azhar should address the claims and arguments of fundamentalists, as well as the question of Islam’s suitability to “modern times.” But to do so requires a legitimacy, independence, and open-mindedness the institution unfortunately does not possess. In general it is hard to see how real curriculum reform – religious or otherwise – can take place at Egyptian universities when freedom of thought and speech are not protected. 

The image of a bunch of flag-draped educators setting fire to books in a school courtyard has understandably provoked disapproval in Egypt, as well as abroad. But this incident is nothing compared to the much more scandalous shortcomings of Egypt’s educational system. While authorities express concern over violent rhetoric, they should also address the issue of violent acts taking place within schools. In March of this year, an 11-year-old boy, Islam Sherif, was beaten to death by one of his teachers. The Egyptian Coalition of Children’s Rights found that twenty-six schoolchildren died of negligence or violence last year. 

Public schools are overcrowded, underfunded, and produce dismal results. The curriculum is by all accounts outdated and generally stultifying, and teaching methodologies encourage neither creativity nor critical thinking. Education funding was 4 percent of GDP and 11 percent of the government budget in 2013-2014, and the overwhelming majority of this goes to staff salaries. Teachers, however, still make so little that they rely on private tutoring for most of their income. Egypt was ranked at the bottom of both the 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 Global Competitiveness Reports’ ranking of world primary education systems. 

Egypt is desperately in need of economic development, of opportunities for a generation that is being wasted. The single most important step the government could take to improve the country’s prospects would be massive investment in and radical reform of the public education system. At a recent economic summit held in Egypt’s coastal resort of Sharm al-Sheikh in an attempt to bring in investment, authorities did not showcase a single educational project, prioritizing construction mega-projects over the capacities of their citizens. Small steps have since been taken—including a $400 million deal with the World Bank to ensure access to, among other things, education for children of 1.5 million impoverished families. But if the quality of that education doesn’t improve, access to it will be worth very little. 

Ursula Lindsey reports on politics, culture and education in the Arab world. She manages The Arabist blog and is the middle east correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education.