Two dozen soldiers stand guard at the main gate of Istanbul University. They are posted there every day to watch the students walk through the great Ottoman arch. The troops will stop any young woman student who dares wrap her head in a scarf, any male student with a turban. Violators risk expulsion--it's the law. The country's leaders have been trying to suppress radical Islam ever since the birth of the Turkish Republic, back in 1923. They believe (not without reason) that some militant clerics would gladly return the country to the Middle Ages if they could. Is the threat really bad enough to warrant a ban on head scarves in class, enforced by a platoon of armed troops? "That's something new," says one 31-year-old lecturer in modern Turkish literature. "It shows that the government is afraid."
The confrontations in the 19th-century archway are tiny skirmishes in a struggle that spans the Islamic world. On one side are Muslims who believe in the value of secular institutions. On the other side are militants committed to the idea of Sharia--Islamic rule. Schoolrooms are their battlefield. At stake is the next generation of Muslims--and perhaps the outcome of the great "clash of civilizations" between the jihadists and the West. The fight for Islam's soul takes many forms. In countries like Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia, secular governments enforce tough laws to keep control of the schools, while Islamist teachers and students work in the shadows. In the madrasas of rural Pakistan, the state has launched "a greater jihad," as President Pervez Musharraf calls it, "a jihad against illiteracy... poverty, backwardness, hunger."
The conflict has also spread to the West. The French government has banned head scarves in state-run schools since 1989. Forbidding the scarves was a way to stop Islamist bullies from singling out bare-headed Muslim girls for abuse. In the Netherlands, concern over the spread of hate speech prompted an investigation of the nation's 32 state-sponsored Islamic elementary schools. The Security Service has just issued an intelligence report saying that as many as 10 of those schools have been heavily subsidized by Muslim hard-liners in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Turkey.
Not all the news is so worrisome. As the following school profiles make clear, Islamic education is as diverse as the religion itself. Muslim educators in Britain, the United States and elsewhere are trying to teach students to think for themselves. The youngsters tend to have a healthy head start, says Safaa Zarzour, the principal of the Universal School, an Islamic private school in Chicago. "A lot of our kids have an advantage in that they are less absolutist," he says. "They know that many things change from culture to culture."
The narrow-mindedness of groups like the Taliban is hardly an Islamic ideal. "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave," counsels the Hadith, the traditional sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The first Muslims followed that advice enthusiastically. "Traditional Islamic education encompassed both what we would call religious education and the hard and soft sciences--logic, astronomy, mathematics," says Alan Godlas, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Georgia. "The world was seen to be nothing but the signs of God. Muslims were supposed to study the world so they could study the signs of God." In fact, Muslim scholars preserved and expanded on classical Greek thought through the early Middle Ages, while Europe wallowed in illiterate brutality. "Without Islamic and Arab scientists and thinkers, the European Renaissance would not have occurred," says Taj Hargey, a professor of African history at New York's Sarah Lawrence College.
Over the centuries the emphasis of Islamic scholarship changed. "After the 13th-century Mongol invasion, stagnation set in," says Yahiya Emerick, a popular U.S. writer on Islam. Schools stressed recitation of the Qur'an above understanding its message. The problem grew as Islam spread outside the Arabic-speaking lands. Most Muslims, believing that God personally dictated the Qur'an, distrust translations.
Now some Islamic educators are questioning the value of rote memorization. "We still have imams trained in Muslim countries, who know how to recite but not how to reflect and think about the Qur'an in the context of modern British life," says Abdullah Sahin, a researcher in Islamic education at the University of Birmingham. "Islamic education is reduced to learning the outward features of the book, not necessarily the content." Hargey agrees: "If you read the Qur'an properly, it appeals to the head. It repeats, 'Can you not understand?' 'Can you not see?' It engages the believer based on reason."
Pakistan has set out to revive that spirit of omnivorous learning. The government is too broke to provide free public schools for all students. That means as many as 800,000 Pakistani children must either attend a madrasa (religious school) or do without formal education. Many of the back-country Qur'an schools offer no math or science. Some don't even teach basic literacy. They are the kind of places where the Taliban was hatched. But the country needs every school it has. "Most madrasas do good works," says Musharraf. "They give an education, three meals a day and a place to sleep for many children who otherwise couldn't afford to go to school." Shutting them down is out of the question.
Instead, Musharraf plans to fix them. "We are telling these schools that if they teach modern science and math, and not only religion, then the government will recognize their certificates, and their students will therefore be entitled to very good jobs," the Interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, told NEWSWEEK. "This is very good bait." Most Pakistanis agree. "Ask anyone in even the poorest and most remote villages, and they want their children to have an education that includes mathematics, computers, foreign languages and history," says Samina Ahmed, director of the International Crisis Group in Pakistan. "They want their children to be able to get a good job."
The threat of radical violence leads Egypt to take a far tougher line. The minister of Education, Hussein Kamel Baha El-Din, has cracked down hard on Islamic schools ever since he took office a decade ago. The curriculum for all schools, public and private, is dictated by the government. Religious books of any sort are banned from school libraries. Schoolgirls 12 and under are forbidden to wear veils. Opponents say Baha El-Din has fired 2,000 suspected Islamists from teaching jobs in the past five years. His reply: "I will not hesitate to bring this figure up to 10,000 in order to fight these extremist infiltrators. They want to destroy the coming generations."
The ambitions of some moderates are anything but modest. Hargey has set out to create America's first Islamic university, "a fully fledged alternative to the Ivy League," he calls it. He estimates he will need roughly $100 million to build Crescent University. So far he has raised less than 1 percent of that sum. Nevertheless he says he has recruited a board of directors and is nearing a deal on a 1,000-acre campus outside New York City. He says it would be the first school of its kind anywhere in the world. Never mind the big Islamic universities in countries like Pakistan and Malaysia. "You can't have a free-thinking university in a repressive environment," Hargey says. "A truly pluralistic, progressive Islamic school can exist only in a democratic society." He quotes a favorite line from the Hadith: "The ink of the scholar is greater than the blood of the martyr." If only everyone thought so.
Below are examples of Islamic schools worldwide.
The white dome of al-Azhar Mosque looms over the athletic field, where boys and girls scuffle after soccer balls, shoot baskets and play tag. It looks like any school playground anywhere in the world; the only obvious signs of Islam are the head scarves some girls are wearing. Boys and girls attend classes together, too, though they cannot sit together. In fact, the only time the sexes are segregated is at prayer time. Girls comprise nearly 60 percent of the Al-Azhar student body and last year, for the first time, a girl was voted student president. "This proves we are moderate," says one proud teacher.
Al-Azhar, which means "The Light," was established in 1961 and named after Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University. Originally, its 14 founding fathers wanted to set up a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, in the center of Jakarta, but city officials refused to grant them the necessary license because they didn't think a religious boarding school would be appropriate in the capital. So Al-Azhar's founding fathers opted for a coed day school, serving students from the ages of 4 to 18, that would stress Islamic education while creating a tight Muslim community in the heart of the city.
The school, which has one of the best reputations in Jakarta, includes studies in Islamic faith, morality, law and the history of the religion. "The difference is that state-run schools will only provide Islamic studies for two hours a week, while we provide seven hours a week," says Principal H. Wardi Isman. And that's strictly through books; in addition, each day begins at 6:45 a.m. with a 15-minute prayer session, boys sitting in the front rows, girls in the back. (Those who arrive late have to do extra prayer time at the mosque.) Another prayer session is held during the midday lunch break in two large auditoriums--one for girls, the other for boys.
Al-Azhar follows the government curriculum in math, science, history, literature, Indonesian, computers and Arabic and English languages. Whenever possible, the school tries to make the Qur'an relevant to the subjects at hand. "For example, in geography lessons we include places discussed in the Qur'an," says Isman. And in studies of human reproduction, the teacher always cites a Qur'anic chapter on reproduction. The school also offers up to 13 extracurricular activities, including theater and dance; its Indonesian dance troupe has performed in Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands and France.
The school boasts a good record of getting its graduates into top universities abroad, as well as at home. "The teachers here are high quality. Some of them even have master's degrees," says Raafiana Mirna, 17, who has attended the school since she was 4. Mirna believes the school's good academic record will help her pass the state entrance exam for the prestigious University of Indonesia. But that was not her parents' goal in enrolling her at Al-Azhar. "My parents said religious education is very important," she says. "My father said that if I only wanted to pass my university entrance exam, it was not enough."
In recent years, Al-Azhar has gradually grown more conservative. Next year, for the first time, girls will be required to wear uniforms consisting of head scarves and long-sleeved shirts that hang to the heels. Five years ago, when the Indonesian economy was going strong, things were different; girls were allowed to wear skirts up to their knees, short-sleeved shirts and no head scarves. "Now it's more restricted," says Q. Maryatul, 17, who uses just her first initial. "It's good. It's not good to wear miniskirts," she says. Zahrudin Sulthani, a teacher of Arabic, agrees that the mood at Al-Azhar has changed since the economic crisis hit in 1997. "Five years ago we had to put guards at the mosque to make sure students didn't sneak out of the prayer sessions," he recalls. Now, he says, the school has few discipline problems and confronted no opposition when it announced the stricter dress code for girls. He attributes the rising conservatism largely to the Afghan war. "With the attack on Afghanistan, the solidarity of Muslims has strengthened," he says. "Now we realize that wherever you are, as long as you are Muslim you have something in common."
ISLAMIC HIGH SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
Set in Victorian buildings in a leafy suburb, the Manchester Islamic High School for Girls looks like an old English boarding school. It isn't. The 235 girls who attend wear regulation white scarves and spend a good part of the day on Qur'anic studies. Still, the school is clearly well integrated into the community. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, neighbors concerned that the school might be the target of a backlash brought cards and flowers to show their support. Students set up an exhibit in the public library to inform local residents about Islam.
Established in 1991, the school combines age-old traditions with modern ambition. Girls, ranging in age from 11 to 16, read the Qur'an in Arabic and are immersed in their faith, but are taught their responsibility to make a contribution to civil society. They surf the Net in the library; in the chemistry lab budding doctors and pharmacists measure solutions into beakers. Last year the school had a 94 percent pass rate for the national public exams taken at 16. Admission is competitive. "We look at both the academic and the Islamic side of the child, and we interview the parents as well," says headmistress Aminata Sessay. "We do not reject a child because she's not very Islamic. We want to know the kind of support that child needs for her Islamic upbringing, to increase her Islamic knowledge and therefore have confidence in herself."
Sometimes it's a tough adjustment for new students. Hafsa Amanji, 12, is still getting used to covering her head and praying five times daily. She did neither at her old state primary school, but here, she says, "I'm learning to discipline myself." Indeed, the students exude self-assurance. By the time the girls reach the top grades, they are polishing resumes, enjoying work experience in city offices and planning careers as physicians and barristers. "We know that if we work hard we'll do well," says a 16-year-old student who is planning a career in medicine or dentistry. "It is stressful, obviously, but we're confident." Biology teacher Saduf Chaudhri used to teach in a secular school where Muslim girls "tended to be stereotypically quiet and timid," she says. "The teachers would think they were nice girls, but they didn't really voice their opinions." At Manchester Islamic, she says, "they're so confident because they're allowed to be themselves, and I think this is one of the most important things about this school."
The girls "are British and Muslim, and they are proud to be both," says Sessay. Though most parents are ambitious for their daughters, many also encourage an early marriage and, Sessay says, "we actually quite like that." She explains, "We encourage them to achieve both [family and career]. All of us who teach in this school are women, married with children. We are their role models, working mothers." Ask the students about marriage and they giggle like any other teenagers. "One day we will [marry]," says Sanna Asif, 14. "We just don't know when."
Teachers aim to fulfill the requirements of Britain's standard national curriculum, while keeping each subject in line with Islamic beliefs. There are no music lessons because there are "a lot of gray areas in music about what we as Muslims can and cannot do," says Sessay. In biology class, the theory of evolution is taught: "I want my students to pass their exams," explains Chaudhri, "but we also talk about the fact that it is just a theory, that it's not proven." Reproduction is also discussed--albeit very delicately. "When we talk about sex education, we talk much more about why people choose to have families and what place it has in society [than about sex]," says Chaudhri. "I'd say perhaps that's the only thing that we cover in a very drastically Islamic way." Islam is also useful for discipline; when math teacher Saliha Chaudhry gives a test, she reminds her students, "'Make sure you don't cheat because even if I don't see you, God's watching and he'll see you."
Debate in classes is lively and the girls are taught the beliefs of other major world religions, including Christianity, Judaism and the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths. "They compare what the Qur'an says with what other religions say, so they can see the similarities and the differences," says Sessay. The school's goal is to give students not only a basic understanding of their faith but also a sense of how young Muslims can live in secular British society. "By the time they leave this school, the girls can discuss, sensibly, myths about Islam," says Sessay. "We teach Islam in a strong, constructive, modern way, and it gives them the confidence to defend their own faith because they have knowledge of their religion." Just ask the visitors to the local library.
JAMIA ULUMIA ISLAMI
Squatting on a bare floor in the huge prayer hall, Rizwan Ahmed joins more than 250 young pupils in Qur'anic recitation. The 9-year-old son of a local trader, Ahmed is halfway through his primary religious education, which requires memorizing the holy book. "I will be a hafiz (person who memorizes the Qur'an) soon," the boy says proudly.
Ahmed is a day student at Jamia Ulumia Islami (the Institute for Islamic Learning), one of Pakistan's largest and most influential Islamic seminaries. Run by a trust established by Islamic scholar Maulana Yousuf Binnori, Jamia offers everything from elementary religious education beginning at the age of 4 to postgraduate courses in Islamic studies. Located in downtown Karachi, the sprawling red-brick structure with tall minarets houses about 2,500 students--many in free hostels--including hundreds from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Central Asia. "Their number has decreased because of the restrictions imposed by [Pakistan's] military government," says a Jamia official. Even so, the school is so crowded that for some lectures, pupils spill over from the classrooms into the lobby.
Boys and young men comprise almost the entire student body. A few young girls--mostly the daughters of staff members--are allowed in the elementary classes. Though the school's focus is on religious education, students also learn elementary physics, chemistry, mathematics and English. Boys in their teens wear white turbans and learn hadis (the sayings of Muhammad) and fiqah (Islamic law) as well. "We are not against science, but the students basically come here to receive religious education," says Dr. Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, dean of the school.
The day begins at the crack of dawn with morning prayers, held in the mosque's main hall. A simple breakfast of bread and tea is served around 6, followed by academic lessons. At noontime, the students break for lunch and afternoon prayers for two hours. Though the school closes around 4, most students stay in the mosque for prayers until dusk. There are almost no extracurricular activities; even sports are prohibited. Television and radio are banned, though some students have tape recorders for listening to Qur'an recitation. Most spend their free time roaming the streets of Karachi.
The school teaches the concept of jihad--holy war--as a special subject to prepare students to fight for the cause of Islam. "Jihad is compulsory for all Muslims," says Shamzai. He denies that his pupils receive any military training, but admits that students have taken time off from their studies to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Many of the Taliban leaders were graduates of the Jamia. "They would often consult their teachers on matters related to government and Islamic Sharia," says one staffer proudly. Thousands of Pakistani and foreign students from the Jamia participated in the Taliban's war against the Northern Alliance and the U.S.-led coalition. Indeed, Shamzai is widely respected throughout Pakistan for his support for the Taliban and other militant groups. He says he is not a member of any party but gave his "blessing" to the militant group Jaish-e-Muhammed when it was formed two years ago. That group has since been accused of the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl.
During the war in Afghanistan, Shamzai led protest rallies against the U.S. attack on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. "U.S. military action on Afghanistan was essentially an attack on Islam," he says. Though he claims to support the Pakistani government's action against terrorism, he rejects President Pervez Musharraf's move to curb militancy by cracking down on the education system. The government has made it compulsory for madrasas to register with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and to teach science and other subjects. "We will not accept the dictates of the government," says Shamzai. "One should not equate jihad with terrorism."
Misr el Gedidah, Egypt
Talaea Al-Kamal was the first private school in Egypt to add the description "Islamic" to its name. That was back in the 1970s, when pediatrician Zaheera Abdeen established her institution devoted to religious education. Walking into the schoolyard today, there is little hint that it is Islamic. Some girls are fully covered with the hajib, while others wear short, tight dresses. They sport trendy haircuts, polished nails and brash voices. Boys wear baseball caps and athletic clothes from Nike and Adidas. The curriculum includes computers and French, with little religious education. Yasmine El Fass, 15, says that most of her Islamic learning comes from talking with her peers in the mosque. Her mother, Nevine, recalls how different the school was when her son started 11 years ago. "I chose the school because I wanted my son to know enough about Allah," she says.
Like most of Egypt's Islamic schools, Talaea Al-Kamal has grown increasingly secular. When Abdeen opened her first branch, outside Cairo, she hoped to impart to the younger generation the Islamic values their parents neglected. She got permission from the Education Ministry to give nine extra religious lessons a week. Girls were required to dress modestly and wear head scarves. Families were drawn to the school for its reasonable fees--about $120 a year--and excellent academic reputation.
But by the end of the 1980s, things began to unravel. Abdeen replaced the morning flag salute and Egyptian national anthem with Islamic songs and salutes. That didn't sit well with Hussein Kamel Baha El Din, a fellow pediatrician and former student of Abdeen's, who became Education minister in 1992. He put the school under "supervision," banned head scarves for girls in the primary grades and took over everything from vetting new teachers to dictating the curriculum.
It is hard now for longtime teachers to remember the old days. "It was another school," says primary-school head Wafaa Zaki. "But don't blame Dr. Zaheera. She spent her life struggling for the school's Islamic line with [the government]." Lately, the school has been suffering financially. The average class size has risen to 40, and teachers earn as little as $80 per month. Their loss of enthusiasm is palpable. But for some, there are other benefits. "If you get paid less, you get paid more from God," says Zaki. "And this is why most of us are still here." For now, anyway.