ABU DHABI // Too many religious studies teachers are failing to properly educate and engage with pupils, at times promoting a strict interpretation of Islam without encouraging critical thinking, education experts say.
Instilling conservative ideas and telling pupils that certain actions are haram (forbidden) without explaining why can lead to them having “black-and-white” views, they said.
Academics from Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group and the Tabah Foundation, which promotes moderate and responsible Islamic discourse, outlined their concerns before a lecture on the topic at the foundation’s centre in Abu Dhabi on April 18.
Nadeem Memon, director of education at Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group, said that in both the UAE and further afield, parents raise concerns about conservative teachings – but that it is the educator and not the curriculum that is the problem.
Encouraging informed and critical thinking is crucial to counter the messages of extremists such as ISIL, they said.
“A lot of times, the complaints people come with are with what the teacher has espoused, rather than what the curriculum is teaching,” Mr Memon said.
“When you are teaching religion, there are so many perspectives that people can bring, and it is a can of worms because all parents will have different perspectives.
“Then there is no way in between, no middle ground.
“No Islamic studies class will promote extremism, but by the virtue of promoting intolerance, in a certain way you are giving the essence of extremism. And that is the problem with Islamic studies if you create students who think in black and white ways.”
An example, he said, is claiming that certain things are haram, such as music or comedy, or refusing to teach sex education at Islamic schools.
“There are some schools in the UAE that claim make-up is haram, but then you’ve got Muslim make-up artists,” said Mr Memon said.
“That brings the questions of ‘am I Muslim and this person is not?’”
While those may seem simple examples, he said, this is what ends up creating the hardline perspective that could be the root of extremism.
The Tabah Foundation also receives concerns from parents that Islamic studies teachers are not engaging students in conversations.
“We have to find the balance between taking a cautious approach and giving students the space to raise questions, and be able to answer that for them,” said Abaas Yunas, head of the foundation’s Futures Initiative.
“I have a daughter. She is in school and she does not always look forward to Islamic studies.
“Some people do have negative experiences with teachers teaching Islam. Then again, there are also good examples.”
Greater emphasis should be placed on how to nurture the minds of students to be protected against misinterpretations.
“Especially in this region, people understand the world primarily through the lens of their faith, and if that is not nurtured in schools they will find it somewhere else,” said Mr Yunas.
How religion can be better taught at schools is among the topics for debate at the lecture.
“The challenge today is how can we bring about an understanding of the religion and give students what they need to be positive critical thinkers.
“Some school curricula, when it comes to Islam, are not very strong. I don’t think until a few years ago there was not much attention to this on curricula.
“But with the things we have seen in the past, it makes you think what are our children learning. We see youngsters joining extremist groups and they think they are doing it for Islam, so you ask yourself, how were they so easily convinced?”