The Dilemma Of Moving Primary Education To Mosques In Afghanistan

By Said Sabir Ibrahimi and Pashtana Durrani

Islamic education is already an integral part of Afghanistan’s so-called “secular” educational system, in addition to pure religious teachings at mosques, madrasahs, and Shariat faculties across the country. But the Education Ministry recently proposed a new policy approach in which Islam will become part of the education ecosystem, and one of the ideas is transferring primary education to mosques.

Last December, acting minister Rangina Hamidi wanted to secure a vote of confidence for her position at the Education Ministry. She delivered a speech in the Afghan parliament and laid out a plan with five pillars for reform in Islamic education, reforms in education and training improving the quality of education, administration, and resources, and strengthening education at provincial levels with formal schools at its center. The acting minister said 2.2 million Islamic books have been printed and distributed, but none of that satisfied the conservative members of the parliament enough to give her the vote.

Part of the plan was to move grades one to three from the formal education system to mosques, but when challenged by Afghan netizens and activists officials said this was only for areas that lacked schools. The new policy remains ambiguous and its effectiveness unknown. Even officials like Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Reconciliation Council, have opposed the move, saying it is “wrong and a mistake.”

Since 2001, after the fall of the Taliban’s tyrannical theocratic regime, there have been significant improvements in the education sector. Some 9.5 children are now in school with a dozen public and private universities and schools operating across the country. Afghanistan spends around 4% of its GDP on education, and half of the expenditure is paid by the international community. There are 270,000 employees at the Education Ministry, although there are concerns about ghost teachers and advisers. At the same time, an estimated 3.7 million Afghan children do not attend school, and many areas of the country lack schools and teachers.

The idea of moving education to mosques raises a set of questions. Is this a measure to bring secular education into mosques or the other way around? How does the ministry plan to provide teachers for the proposed mosque classes? How will it regulate educators? Formal education already faces many operational challenges, with some teachers going unchecked with their mistreatment and abuse of children. The sexual abuse of hundreds of students in Logar Province in 2019 is a case example. How will issues such as corporal punishment be moderated at mosques?

The second set of questions and concerns is about girls. If male imams are in charge, will Afghans in rural areas send their daughters to a mosque to be taught by a man, or will female teachers be trained instead? Some girls enroll in schools a bit late, sometimes around the age of 7 or 8. By the time they are in grade two or three, they may reach the age of puberty. How will the issue of menstruation affect girls’ participation in mosque education? How will the issue of segregation be resolved for communities wishing to segregate? Mosques, especially in rural areas, are usually one big hall where only men are allowed for prayers. Segregated spaces are scarce.

The third area of concern is the radicalization of children in mosques and madrasahs manipulated by jihadi groups such as the Taliban, the Islamic State, and other groups. In early adolescent development, children are more open to learning and capable of absorbing new concepts. Afghanistan is already struggling with containing the radicalization of youth, even within the formal education system. Radicalized groups like Hizb-e-Tahrir, a Salafi movement that operates across the country, carry influence at many universities, which has alarmed government officials. The government is attempting to regulate madrasahs, but it faces resistance.

The Taliban has long called secular education a threat to Afghan culture and Islamic values and has been known to burn down schools and kill teachers. The Taliban’s attitude toward education has barely changed over the past two decades. In the areas it controls, the hard-line movement has introduced more religion into the curriculum. For girls, it has allowed limited education until puberty, and in some areas it has completely banned girls from attending school. Reportedly, as part of the peace negotiations, the Taliban also wants to change the name of the Education Ministry to the Islamic Education Ministry.

Religious education has no doubt been an essential part of Afghan society. Even in major cities, many Afghans attend both mosque and secular education by choice. When necessary, mosques can be used as part of community-based education solutions, but they cannot serve as a substitute to formal schools for the questions raised above and the purpose of mosques in the first place. Mosques are supposed to be sacred spaces for worship and venues for spiritual growth. By design, they are not there to meet the needs of modern education — the same is true of churches and temples. If the counterargument is that the authorities will build the capacity of mosques to provide such substitution, then why not simply build more schools and train more teachers? Let mosques do their job of religious and spiritual education and schools do their job of educating Afghan children in the hard and soft sciences and preparing them for the 21st-century world.

The so-called introduction of Islam into the ecosystem of education and moving primary education to mosques is an attempt to appease the ultra-conservatives and score political points. This move has little positive impact on the quality or quantity of education in the country. Islam has been part of the education system for as long as there has been education. Stakeholders should focus on improving the quality and quantity of the existing formal education system. The focus should be on training competent teachers, building more schools for girls and boys and facilities such as libraries and sanitary toilets, and encouraging critical thinking. Mosques can be used on an ad-hoc basis in some areas, but they should not substitute schools.

This article was originally published in the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Gandhara website. Photo credit Mohammad Ismael (Reuters).