Wednesday, 28 August 2002

RELIGIOUS EDUCATION SPARKS CONTROVERSY IN AZERBAIJAN

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By Gulnara Ismailova (8/28/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Lately, debates at government level regarding the introduction of a special discipline on religious issues in secondary schools' curriculum have become noticeable in Azerbaijan. Discussions on this theme gained salience with the new educational year approaching.

The teaching of basic religious matters in the secondary schools of the country was proposed several years ago by the head of the Muslims' Spiritual Directorate of the Caucasus Sheikh-ul-Islam alhaji Allahshukur Pashazade, and recently supported by the State Committee on working with Religious Organizations (SCWRO) Rafiq Aliev.

Lately, debates at government level regarding the introduction of a special discipline on religious issues in secondary schools' curriculum have become noticeable in Azerbaijan. Discussions on this theme gained salience with the new educational year approaching.

The teaching of basic religious matters in the secondary schools of the country was proposed several years ago by the head of the Muslims' Spiritual Directorate of the Caucasus Sheikh-ul-Islam alhaji Allahshukur Pashazade, and recently supported by the State Committee on working with Religious Organizations (SCWRO) Rafiq Aliev.

Today 4 medreses (primary Islamic religious school) and one Islamic university are functioning in Azerbaijan. Numerous medreses attached to mosques were closed down by officials as they failed to submit relevant documentation to the SCWRO, and functioning medreses act by license from the state committee. At the end of June, the SCWRO registered the Baku Islamic University.

The SCWRO considers necessary the introduction in the curriculum of secondary schools of a special discipline on religious subjects, which will not give room for dominance by either the Shi'a or Sunni interpretations of Islamic canons. It even prepared a special textbook about the basics of religion. Well-known theologians and public figures have expressed their support to the state committee on the issue.

The Minister of Education, Misir Mardanov, is a fierce opponent of this initiative. The Minister does not consider the absence of religious teaching in the educational system problematic. According to him, this system is based on the Constitution "with a rather well-founded legislative base". "I don't want an uproar to be made around this issue, to raise problems between different departments", says Mardanov.

Most likely, the minister was referring to the SCWRO, emerging with initiatives on religious education of the population. While commenting opening on voluntary courses for religious education, Mardanov stated that this issue was not yet discussed. The minister did not express his opinion regarding the possible publication and introduction of textbooks on the basics of religion in secondary schools.

Meanwhile many human rights organizations welcome the introduction of religious education. "It is a matter of history of religion. The young generation must be aware of moral values, which includes religion. But only the state is empowered to decide on the issue", says Haji Akif, press-secretary of the spiritual directorate.

But in the opinion of the coordinator of the Center on freedom of conscience and confession Ilgar Ibragimogli, it is necessary to remember adherents of various confessions live in Azerbaijan, and that it is not permissible to restrict their rights. That's why the issue of teaching staff of this subject is of importance".

Ibragimov named the current situation at the faculty of theology of Baku State University. According to students of theology, the religious doctrine of Islam taught by Turkish teachers working at the faculty differs from the traditional belief in Azerbaijan. But to experts watching the development of the situation in this sphere, the statement of SCWRO spokesman N. Allahverdiev that from 2002-2003 secondary schools would not teach the subject of religion came as a surprise. Committee head Aliev later explained that religion would not be a subject in its own right in secondary schools, but the themes connected with religion will be taught in the context of history, social science and literature.

Observers considered this fact as deviation by SCWRO while the Ministry of Education from the very beginning was against the introduction of the subject of religion in schools.

SCWRO did not motivate its change of mind. Given that all strategically important decisions in Azerbaijan are made with the approval of the country's highest political authorities, it is not difficult to identify the real authors behind the reduction of governmental frictions on the teaching of religion in secondary schools.

The main adherents of teaching religion in schools argue that increased knowledge about religion may help to prevent the young generation from falling under the negative influence of internal or foreign radical religious circles, and improve the religious culture of the population.

Some analysts are inclined to think that the leading political powers of the country are not interested in such long-term strategies. Permanently criticized by European political institutions for antidemocratic behavior, political authorities of the country keep on the safe side from possible accusations of supporting the dissemination of Islam in the country, which could be construed as breaching the secular nature of the state.

But despite the complexity of the situation, heated discussions on the issue of religious education in schools is still going on. And it turns urgent with the beginning of each education year. For today, it is clear that the subject of religious education will not be introduced this year. What happens next year remains to be seen.

Gulnara Ismailova

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