How Political Islam Schools Shape New Generations in Lebanon?

Wednesday 14 March 201809:17 pm
As the Islamic movements started to spread across the Arab world in the early 1970s, a number of educational institutions affiliated to political Islam were established in Lebanon. Though they did not mark the beginning of the religious education in the country, they were different from other Islamic and Christian schools. Unlike religious schools that incorporate spirituality into their education, political Islam schools adopt Islam as an ideology and a doctrine of all aspects of life, including politics. In fact, Islamic political parties have spawned some of these schools.

Religious Education in Lebanon

The supporters of this education system see it as a way to teach moral and social values alongside the main curriculums, out of the belief that such principles are only dictated by religion. Critics, however, argue that this type of education intensifies sectarianism by further isolating each sect from the other, especially in a society that is as diversified as the Lebanese. But education in Lebanon has always been religious one way or another. There was a time during the Ottoman Empire when education was only available in the Islamic 'kuttab' schools and mosques, where students studied Quran, Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and the Arabic language. By the beginning of the 18th century, schools affiliated to Christian missions started springing up. Many affluent Muslim families opted to send their children to these schools, as Kamal Salibi mentioned in his book "The Modern History of Lebanon", which was one of the reasons why a number of Muslim families converted to Christianity. This trend angered the local Muslim community and the Ottman Empire alike, with both convinced Christian missions were leading western cultural attacks that had to be counterbalanced. Averroism started to appear in many states. There were also individual efforts pushing against Christian education, establishing Islamic educational institutions such as Al-Makassed Islamic Charitable Society, founded in 1878 in Beirut. However, the educational institutions of the Christian missions did not cease to exist. As a matter of fact, they inspired parishes and monasteries to follow suit. The local Christian schools became among the most important in Lebanon until the end of the Ottoman rule and France's mandate power over the country. By the time Lebanon declared independence, the official mainstream education was unavailable in many areas, nor were other governmental services.

Beginning of Political Islam Schools

The first school that was related to political Islam in Lebanon was named Iman, meaning faith in Arabic. Inaugurated in 1974, the school has been part of the Islamic Education Association, which falls under al-Jamaa al-Islamiya's umbrella in Beirut. Other branches of the school were soon established in different parts of Lebanon. Abdel-Rahman, one of Iman's alumni, says it is similar to other private schools in terms of extracurricular activities, yet he did not deny there are differences on other levels. First of all, Iman's branches are gender segregated, like all Islamic schools. Also, students are obliged to observe religious rituals, whether during a regular school day or while being on a trip. "What was special in our school was the presence of youth and scouting groups that are affiliated or close to al-Jamaa al-Islamiya," he said. "Their activities are different than other extracurricular activities. They would organize camps and trips to pools and to distant areas." Abdel-Rahman denies that Iman schools were used to create potential partisans, saying many alumni support al-Jamaa al-Islamiya without joining it. He thinks his experience with the renowned Islamic school was overall positive, yet he admitted to being shocked when he went to university where he found a completely different lifestyle. There were no stereotypes or hardliners, he said.

Fadlallah Joins in

In 1978, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, at the time the most prominent political Islam figure who played a major role in igniting the Hezbollah war in the early 1980s, founded Imam Al-Khoei's "Mabarrat" -- a school that both shelters and teaches young orphans from the Shia Muslim sect. Later, the Mabarrat Charity Association was founded, and it established 15 Mabarrats in Beirut, the region of Mount Lebanon, Bekaa Valley and the South Governorate. Ali Sherri, one of the first Mabarrat graduates and now the head of its alumni association, says the religious education he has received helped him overcome the hardships he went through as a needy orphan. He also said his upbringing in a Mabarrat did not inhibit him from integrating into the French society when he flew to France for his academic studies, highlighting "Fadlallah's call for total openness". Sherri explains that the Mabarrat Charity Association is funded by "Khums", which is money Shia Muslims pay to contribute to Islamic initiatives and projects. Malak recalls two incidents while studying in a Mabarrat. The first was when students were suddenly told to go down to the schoolyard where media crews were waiting for them. They were asked to hold placards bearing support of the opposition's mobilization in Bahrain and to chant political slogans along with the teaching staff. Bahrain was one of the Arab countries whose political crisis by the beginning of the Arab Spring had a sectarian dimension. Consequently, the Gulf country's unrest affected Lebanon. The second incident took place six years before the beginning of the Syrian war when the school hosted a Hezbollah member who gave a lecture on the importance of being trained to use weapons, and "preparing for a time when everyone will have to fight". This was under the auspices of the school's board as similar lectures were given on different occasions, Malak said.

Hezbollah's Schools

In the late 1970s, a group of pious Muslims founded the Islamic Religious Education Association, which aimed to boost religious education in public and private schools and to train the teachers of religious teachings. Later, the association established Al-Mustafa private schools, with the first branch launched in Haret Hreik, south of Beirut in 1984. The association published a book called "Islam Is Our Message" for the subject of Islamic Education, which is included in all school grades. The book has become the most common in schools belonging to the Shia sect, and also in non-religious schools that are located in Shia-dominant areas. There are no equivalent books in schools belonging to other Muslim sects. Naim Qassem, currently the second in command of Hezbollah, is a member of the founding group of the Islamic Religious Education Association. His relationship with the association these days is undisclosed, yet it is obvious Qassem still plays a major role, having sponsored many of its events. Hassan was graduated from Haret Hreik's Al-Mustafa, where he spent all his school life. The extracurricular activities were not out of the ordinary, while its education level was relatively high, he says. As for the religious education, Hassan said there was one hour per week dedicated to the subject of religion, and another to study Quran. Hassan points out that the children of Hezbollah's martyrs who are enrolled in Al-Mustafa schools are exempted from tuition fees. He also said flags of Hezbollah are plenty inside the school premises along with photos of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini. Maytham, another Al-Mustafa graduate, said the school's board called on students in 2007 to take part in protests organized by the March 8 Alliance against the government of then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The school also provided buses to transport the students to the venue of the demonstrations. By the early 1990s, more Islamic educational institutions were established without adding much to the model of religious schools, including the Islamic Organization for Education that is directly affiliated to Hezbollah. It started in 1993 by establishing four schools in different areas, before expanding to 17 schools in Beirut, Bekaa and the South. It has also built a school in the Iranian city of Qom.

More Educational Initiatives

Among the educational institutions that appeared during this period of time were the schools of the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, also known as Al-Ahbash, a Sunni sect organisation. The association established its first school, The Islamic Culture High School, in 1991 in Beirut before other branches were inaugurated in Akkar Governorate, the city of Tripoli, Barja town and Bekaa Governorate. The Salafists, meanwhile, have very limited educational and political activities in Lebanon as a result of sustaining a crackdown over the extremist views many of them believe in. They only established institutes that teach Islamic studies, many of which were eventually shut down. Generally speaking, their capabilities are poor compared to other groups across the political spectrum. Article 10 of the Lebanese constitution stipulates that "education is free" as long as it observes the decencies and does not disturb public order or insult a religion or a sect. It also gives different sects the right to establish their schools. Through their schools, Islamists have reached out to large segments of the Lebanese society. Meanwhile, the public mainstream education remained unavailable in many Lebanese territories until recently, and it is not up to par compared to the private education. According to a report released by Statistics in Focus, 66 percent of Lebanon's students are enrolled in private schools.
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