Kyrgyz Religious Education Plan Sparks Controversy

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan - The Kyrgyz government has revealed plans to introduce religious education into the secondary school curriculum; a controversial move that it hopes will combat religious extremism in the country.

Critics, however, are asking who will be teaching the course, how the education ministry will pay for it, and whether religion belongs in the classroom at all.

Plans are at an early stage and few details were available on the proposed syllabus, but one education ministry official who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity said the government hopes the classes will deter young people from joining “dubious religious organisations”.

Kyrgyzstan is a secular state and religion is currently banned from schools, but that looks set to change with education minister Dosbol Nur Uulu recently revealing that the subject will soon be taught in secondary schools.

He said the decision was prompted by a recent upsurge in extremist violence – citing two recent armed attacks in the south of the country on police and customs officers that were allegedly carried out by members of radical Islamic groups. The classes would deal with mainstream religions, he said, contrasting them with more radical movements.

Kyrgyzstan is predominantly Muslim – though about 15 per cent of the population is Russian Orthodox – and the government worries about militant Islamic groups within its borders pushing for an Iranian or Afghan style of political Islam. Chief among them is the banned Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir – most active in the south – which is seen as a threat to national stability.

The authorities are also wary of other imports, including Christian evangelical groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists, while the Reverend Moon's Unification Church is also present.

Reaction to the proposal to introduce compulsory religious education for the country’s 1.2 million schoolchildren has so far been mixed.

The deputy rector of the Islamic University, Ravshan Akimbai Uulu, supports the plan – but worries that radical Islamists might infiltrate the religious teaching staff.

“This threat does exist. Religious education carries a similar responsibility to doctors. If doctors protect the body, then we protect the soul. It is very important who teaches this subject. If professionals teach it, then we'll support it totally,” said Akimbai Uulu.

This view was echoed by political scientist Nur Omarov, who believes the government’s intentions are good. But he stresses that the religious education sessions must not be taught by clerics, and suggests studying religion be optional. He also worries that financial pressures means the education ministry will not be able to afford up-to date-textbooks that reflect modern realities.

“The strategy hasn't been thought out at all,” said Omarov.

The education ministry official admitted that financial constraints will cause problems, but said it would retrain history and language teachers to run the courses – not clerics.

“Introducing just one hour of the subject in 2,050 schools around the republic entails costs running into the millions,” he said. “But if this subject is really, then the requirement will be that not a single representative of the clergy, of whatever religion, is involved in the process.”

Though no teachers interviewed by IWPR could give examples of pupils who had join extremist groups, some believe that the possibility exists and say religious education could prevent it from happening.

“Young people usually do things without thinking, under the influence of momentary impulses,” said Nurgul Murzaeva, a secondary school teacher in the village of Mramornoe, near Bishkek.

“If the mainstream religions are explained competently and in detail, then this will give pupils the chance to assess the situation adequately and understand how correctly or incorrectly they are acting when they join a religious organisation. Studying these 'classic' religions will, I believe, make it possible to stop many schoolchildren from joining extremist religious groups.”

Other educators, however, think religion has no place in the classroom.

“Introducing this subject into the school curriculum is not the answer,” said Olga Sumarokova, a former teacher of Russian language and culture at a Bishkek school. “I think that issues around joining a religious group are resolved at family level, not at school.”

Almaz Tajybay, the head of Change, a non-government group, agrees that religious instruction is not the way to combat extremism among young people, saying those who have joined banned organisations do not usually attend school anyway. He says the money for retraining teachers should be spent instead on encouraging such pupils to come back to school.

“That will be cheaper and more effective,” said Tajybay.