School by the Book

By Kuchment, Anna; Seibert, Sam et al. | Newsweek International, March 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

School by the Book


Kuchment, Anna, Seibert, Sam, Matthews, Owen, Pepper, Tara, Moreau, Ron, Ismail, Gameela, Newsweek International


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. …

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