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World

Elections ignite debate over Islamic education in Morocco

Students in Morocco have already over a week in the classroom, but curriculum changes mean they still don't have religious studies textbooks. The issue has been subject to much debate in the country.

When a young women went into a bookstore in Casablanca to get her religion textbooks for the school year all the store's owner could say was that the books were not yet available.

Her situation is like that of many Moroccan families who are constantly searching for these books, despite the school year having started more than 10 days ago. Changes made to the books by the Ministry of Education at the request of King Mohammad VI are keeping the texts from students' bookshelves.

Marokko Klassenzimmer in Rabat (Reuters/Y. Boudlal)

A classroom in Rabat, Morocco

In February, the Moroccan king ordered that the Ministries of National Education and Vocational Training as well as Religious Endowments and Affairs review school materials "to give more importance to education on the Islamic values of tolerance and coexistence with various cultures as well as opening up society to the modern era."

Parliamentary elections on Friday are unlikely to change this debate, in spite of the controversy raging around the candidates' campaigns, specifically the Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (PJD). The liberal parties, such as the Authenticity and Modernity Party as well as the left-wing opposition make for strong competition for the PJD and are calling for the separation of religion and politics.

Tolerance and openness to other cultures

Education expert Idriss El-Samghour told DW the growing unrest in the world is a direct result of extremism and religious fanaticism. He added that it was necessary for Morocco to review the religious education curricula "in order to fit in with moderation and coexistence with different cultures and human values."

Some of the major changes being carried out cutting the quantity of material in half so students can better absorb the content in a more interactive way.  Officials replaced and deemphasized some of the religious verses that focus on jihad and war. In addition to these core components associated with Islamic teachings, the updated curriculum will focus on civil rights and the environment.

Fadja Rajoani, a human rights activist, told DW that she was "very pleased" with the changes and that they will help children "identify with Islam and understand other religions as well. It advocates the philosophy of tolerance in Islam as well as freedom and coexistence."

No surrender to Salafists' demands

Although there was considerable debate about some of the changes, it didn't disrupt the review process. Resistance to the changes came from the Salafist movement after its members learned that "Islamic education" would become "religious education."

The "Moroccan Association of Teachers of Islamic Education" condemned the decision to deemphasize certain religious verses, stating on its Facebook page that "these selections and changes to the curriculum are unacceptable and show the Ministry's surrender to the pressure of Western secularism."

The group argued that the term "religious education" was "strange." Some Salafist groups attacked one of the pictures on the cover of one of the new textbooks, which shows boys and girls of different races holding hands in front of the sun.

Marokko Journalist und Kommunikationsexperte Omar Ouchen (Omar Ouchen)

Moroccan journalist and communications expert Omar Ouchen

While activist Rajoani said the photo "reflects the innocence of children at that age," Salafists criticized the picture because the girls were not wearing headscarves and accused the authors of being "Masonic worshippers of the sun.”  

Continued reforms

While some believe that the review will herald in encouraging reforms, Moroccan journalist and communication expert Omar Ouchen told DW that the process needs to "influence the values of young people, but the Moroccan mentality is powerless to do so for political, cultural and religious reasons."

Ouchen said the curriculum should "give priority to science, language and technology." He added that the "political elite in Morocco are powerless and do not have the courage to demand radical reforms."

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