Islamic Kindergartens... Righteous Upbringing or Prelude to Extremism?

Friday 29 July 202211:46 am
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الحضانات الإسلامية... "تنشئة سليمة" أم تمهيد للتطرف؟

Toyour Al-Jannah”, “Noor Al-Huda”, “Baraem El Islam”, “Ahbab Allah”, “Little Muslims”, “Al-Tanshia’h Al-Salimah” and “Noor Al Islam”…

These are not the titles of Islamic hymns, but rather the names of nurseries in Palestine, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt, and Europe that admit children from the age of three months to four years old.

Religion is not the issue at these schools, but rather how it is being presented at a very early stage in the hopes that religious mobilization and nurturing will precede the conscious choice that an individual usually makes when they are older.

Whether in kindergatens or elsewhere, an Arab child will learn about the importance of religion and its centrality in his life. He will go on to memorize it and feel like he would gain the admiration of the adults around him if he repeats its words.

But what if parents do not want their children’s early and primary knowledge to be about religious teachings? But rather preferring that they merely memorize and understand numbers, letters, animal names, and basic words and their uses?

Taking care of the child or teaching him/her?

From Jordan, Khitam, 41, went through an unpleasant experience with Islamic nurseries, as she put it. Khitam is a veiled woman who is devout and adheres to her religion, but at the same time rejects religious education for children in their early years and sees that it would steal a part of their childhood.

She says, “I spent my childhood afraid of going to hell. God was depicted to me as a cruel God who throws people into hell just because they do not finish their breakfast. I didn’t want my child to view God the way I did when I was young, but I didn’t hold back from placing her in a nursery operating under an Islamic school for a number of various reasons.”

Khitam lives in the Khilda area in north-western Jordan, and she had chosen the nursery closest to her home, despite it being an Islamic one.

She adds, “It was no secret to me that this major educational institution had adopted a religious approach in their schooling and upbringing. This can be deduced from its name, the things the teachers spoke, and the visual aids and illustrations hung on the classroom walls, but I said to myself that I would correct any ideas I did not like if they were passed on to my child. I realized my mistake a little too late when I went to her kindergarten graduation ceremony.

The play that the children performed at their graduation was centered around mocking “the Pope” and the victory of Muslims over Christians. I went home, choked up and wondering what kind of environment I had left my child in all these years. I was looking at her in the back seat of the car as she was laughing, and the feeling of guilt was killing me.”

The struggle of the secular family

Any secular family in the Arab world faces this type of struggle when it comes to making choices for their children. A family that wants to raise its children in a secular upbringing will face the dread that its children will be ostracized by their peers, or that the teaching staff will stigmatize them as different, simply because they come from a family that is different.

In reality, parents think about a number of different requirements during the times they are absent from their children, especially those who are below the age of talking and are unable to speak up if they are abused. They ask for conditions, most notably safety, comfort, cleanliness, and proper care, in addition to everything Khitam mentioned, then comes, at the very end, the values ​​​​adopted by the nursery.

 The play that the children performed at their graduation was centered around mocking the Pope and highlighting the victory of Muslims over Christians

Yousra (pseudonym), is a 35 year old young woman from Tunisia. She chose values over care when deciding on the nursery of her child. She says, “I use a pseudonym, not out of fear, but in order to speak freely. I do not want my husband to use this conversation in court against me in the custody case, or for the judge to deem me unqualified to raise my children because I reject the so-called Islamic upbringing.”

Yousra is being subjected to a fierce campaign by her husband and his family for several reasons, including her refusal to have her nine-year-old daughter wear the headscarf. And even though the husband is not convinced of the necessity of her wearing hijab at this age either, he doesn’t want to go into conflict with his family about what the acceptable amount of religion would be for children.

She adds, “I didn’t have to put my little one in the nursery because my mother was able to take care of her during the hours I had to go to work. But then circumstances changed and I had to send my two-year-old child to the nursery. One day, he came back wearing a Hajj taqiyah (cap) while repeating the call to hajj. I was upset but I didn’t change the nursery, but later I started getting nervous about the kind of “anasheed” (islamic hymns and anthems) he was memorizing, in addition to their focus on concepts that are more Islamic than educational. When I changed his nursery I told my ex-husband about the reason, and he went nuts, but I managed to convince him when I added other reasons like the lack of hygiene and their disregard for actual education. Truth is, I lied at the time so that he wouldn’t stand against me on this.”

She concludes, “I am a believer in my own way, but I am not devout, and I believe that faith is a very private matter. I want my child to live and experience a normal childhood, not turn into a mosque sheikh at the age of three.”

In Palestine, things are not much different from Jordan and Tunisia. Suhair al-Khaled, a 33 year old who works in the field of public relations and marketing in Ramallah, talks to Raseef22 on the issue. After looking for a long time for a nursery that did not restrict her daughter to religious teachings, she thought that she had found what she was looking for. She says:

“It didn’t take long for the child to start telling me to say ‘bismillah’ before we began eating, and she began reciting the Islamic dua’ that is said before entering the bathroom  (Allaahumma inni a'oodhu bika min al-khubthi wa'l-khabaa'ith — O Allah, We seek refuge with You from malice and wickedness).”

“This is where alarm bells sounded inside my head, as nurseries that use the Islamic religion as an educational approach do not inform parents in advance about this policy, on the assumption that religious education will gain the blessing of society and be desired by it.”

Egypt: 10,000 unlicensed nurseries

In Egypt, there are many unlicensed home-based nurseries that mothers end up resorting to due to their low costs, bypassing the lack of legal responsibility on these homes in the event that the child is subjected to any harm within them. The important thing is that the child can spend his day eating, drinking, and playing with the other children, and memorizing verses from the Qur’an.

In 2019, a report under the title “Unlicensed Nurseries and Creating Extremism” was published by the Youm7 newspaper. The report confirmed the existence of more than 1,500 unlicensed nurseries in Cairo alone, while the Advisor to the Minister of  Social Solidarity for Social Protection Policies, Dr. Mervat Sabreen stated that in the year 2020 the number reached up to 10 thousand nurseries.

Currently, the Egyptian government is leading a wide campaign to license these nurseries, as the deadline to rectify the situation expires at the beginning of 2023, under penalty of legal punishment.

The option of nurseries will remain the almost only option for the working mother, unless there are exceptions such as the existence of a support system from women in the family. Likewise, non-working mothers need nurseries just as much, as long as there are no public gardens and safe play areas in Arab countries that meet the needs of the mother and her child to spend the day in, in addition to the cultural and environmental change that has limited the neighborhoods from being a suitable place for the child to exist without parental supervision.

Islamic nurseries in inclusive societies

Islamic nurseries are not exclusive to Arab societies. In Europe, with a simple Google search, you can find dozens of Islamic nurseries in the country that you live in, and most of them can be found among schools.

If you dig a little deeper into the research, you will come across news reporting the closure of many of these nurseries in Germany, France, and Austria, for reasons related to either being “linked to extremist religious groups” or being in “violation of the country’s values and its diversity, in addition to creating a parallel culture.”

Islamic nurseries are opened in Europe under the protection of the laws of freedom of belief and religious diversity, whereas they are opened in the Arab world with the protection of constitutions that say that Islam is the state’s religion. But the question is whether it is necessary to pass religious education at such an extremely early stage at all.

Do children understand what religion is?

Education specialist Salam Karim, who holds a master’s degree in educational methods, answers this question by saying, “I am with the child getting to know God and seeing Him within an image of love and not fear, but what is happening in reality within nurseries and schools is much different. As an educator, I prefer that the child recognizes the blessings around him, and in return I refuse that he learns what he isn’t capable of understanding and being aware of — like saying to him, for example: ‘Those who lie will go to hell’. How will the child understand this sentence when he is unable to experience it in his perceived, real, and physical world?”

Islamic nurseries in Europe under the protection of the laws of religious diversity, whereas they are open in the Arab world with the protection of constitutions that say Islam is the state religion

The question remains whether religious education is originally a main task of nurseries and daycares. According to their basic definition, nurseries should take care of children in terms of their eating, drinking, sleeping, and hygiene during the agreed upon period of time they are left under their care, and it is not their role to teach or educate them.

Lina Fleifel from Tree Tops Nursery, a preschool located in Amman, tells Raseef22:

“While public and private schools are subject to the authority and control of the Ministry of Education and adhere to well-known and established curricula, nurseries are subject to the Ministry of Social Development and there are no set or specific curricula, but there are instructions and regulations that must be adhered to in order for the nursery to obtain a license and be allowed to operate.”

The instructions that Fleifel is referring to mainly have to do with the number of children compared to the number of nannies, the standards of hygiene, heating and air conditioning requirements, and the presence of outdoor spaces. She points out that nurseries are primarily care centers, not educational institutions, and their duty is to take care of the child, and therefore each nursery has the freedom to choose what it’ll teach the children. She says, “In our nursery, we know neither the Islamic nor the Christian religion, and we see that children at this stage are still too young to absorb and understand this kind of information, in addition to the fact that every home, whether it is Christian or Muslim, differs in the way it implements its child’s upbringing, and we do not wish to have a role in the matter, especially in a way that may conflict with the perceptions of the parents. What we offer children in this regard is limited to a few occasions and events that we present in a very simple way, such as Santa Claus coming to the nursery or explaining to the children that Ramadan is an important occasion that has its own special atmosphere. Of course, some families choose not to send their children on the day a religious occasion tied to the Christian faith is set to take place.”

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