A plan to use a new textbook to teach morals to Egyptian students at schools across the country, part of a broader effort to clamp down on religious extremism, has drawn the ire of Islamist conservatives.
The textbook, to be used in the academic year beginning in September, focuses on teaching good behaviour and tolerance to students regardless of their religious background.
Religious conservatives expressed fear that this is a step towards removing traditional Islamic religious studies classes from the curriculum.
“This is the reality: The government wants to eliminate the religion classes and they are paving the way for this by teaching this new textbook,” Salafist preacher Sameh Abdel Hamid said. “Do we really need the new book when religion books contain all the values and ideals contained in it?”
The plan to use the new book was announced in April by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which regulates the country’s mosques and determines which Islamic studies courses are taught in schools.
The Ministry of Religious Endowments has been leading a campaign — strongly backed by the rest of the government — against religious extremism.
Following the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in 2013 and the subsequent designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, Cairo has promoted a more tolerant and moderate form of Islam.
This campaign is centred on Egypt’s schools amid other attempts to protect students from extremist views.
The new textbook tries to teach that difference is not a sin, that non-Muslims are not infidels and that the world is made to have enough room for everybody, regardless of what one believes, Religious Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said.
“We are badly in need of teaching such a book because we need to raise a new generation of Egyptians who share the same values and know how to respect each other’s beliefs and way of thinking,” Gomaa said.
Gomaa confirmed that the new book was approved by al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt, and the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is followed by most of Egypt’s Christians.
However, religious conservatives reacted with anger towards the textbook and plans to have Muslims and Christians attend classes together. Egypt’s Muslim and Christian students previously attended separate religious education classes.
“This is a system that has prevailed here for decades but the problem is that it is creating little room for tolerance,” said Ahmed Zayed, a sociology professor at Cairo University. “The same system has failed to unite Egyptians around the same values and ideals.”
Christians make up almost 10% of Egypt’s population. For the most part, Muslims and Christians live peacefully together, although there have been cases of intolerance and Christians have complained about an inability to legally build churches in the country.
Nevertheless, Abdel Hamid said forcing Muslim and Christian students to attend the same classes and learn from the same curriculum will help erase sectarian divisions.
“Each religion has its own specificity and it is in nobody’s interest to eliminate this specificity,” he said.
Egypt has taken several measures to prevent extremist religious views from gaining mainstream recognition.
Gomaa and others at the ministry removed extremist books, audio media from the libraries of Egypt’s more than 100,000 mosques and cracked down on hard-line preachers.
The Ministry of Education, which designs the curriculum and prints textbooks, removed controversial material from books and added lessons on religious tolerance. Al-Azhar is said to be reviewing its books and making changes to curricula taught at its schools and colleges.
These moves came after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for religious reform.
Gomaa said the new textbook would not substitute for religion classes at schools but would represent a major step forward in unifying the values and morals of Egyptians across the religious divide.
“We only want our children to agree on a certain set of morals, be averse to violence and tolerate differences,” Gomaa said. “These are all values important to spread as we fight this ferocious war against extremism.”
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.