Lebanon's education system training children for civil strife

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Both veiled and un-veiled students at al-Mustaqbal School in Beirut. Photo/Marwan Tahtah

By: Faten Elhajj

Published Wednesday, November 5, 2014

There are always problems between parents and both private and public school administrations over issues of banning or imposing certain religious practices. The irony is that schools that are adamant about freedom of education – which is guaranteed in the constitution – do not acknowledge that their sectarian practices infringe on the freedoms of others and undermine the culture of tolerance. The most dangerous thing would be to transform public schools into institutions subject to centers of sectarian influence that use them to spread their beliefs without accountability or oversight.

Ten-year-old Fatima did not understand why, on her first day of school, she was taken to the administration office and why she stayed there till the end of the school day. The little girl at the Evangelical Baptist School did not go to class or to the playground. Her crime is that her parents wanted their daughter to wear the headscarf, which the school administration considered a violation of its internal rules.

Fatima was registered in kindergarten in this school specifically, her mother said, because “we didn’t want to isolate ourselves within a sectarian and regional canton.” The parents who invoked in their complaint to the Education Ministry, Article 9 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of belief, are upset with the administration’s harassment of their little girl even after she put on a bandana as a compromise. Article 9 stipulates that, “There shall be absolute freedom of conscience. The state in rendering homage to the Most High shall respect all religions and creeds and guarantees, under its protection, the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed. It also guarantees that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, is respected.”

The private school, however, has its own rationale which its principal, Pierre Rahhal, discussed. For him the issue is a simple one and it has nothing to do with the headscarf or religion. The issue, he said, is that the school’s policies and bylaws which the parents signed off on from the beginning, ban wearing a headband, hat or headcover just like they ban wearing slippers of any kind. Rahhal rejected the parents claim that “we detained the girl and dealt with her directly. Rather, we contacted the parents because, first, they violated the agreement by bringing Fatima with a full cover and, second, by not going through with the condition to wear a bandana.” Rahhal relies on Article 10 of the constitution that “protects our schools systems and laws, which we can not apply to one group of students but not to another. For example, we have been teaching Christian education to everybody for 60 years.”

It is clear that the Lebanese constitution gave religious sects, through Article 10, enduring rights, prohibiting any violation of them. The text of Article 10 contradicts Article 9. It stipulates: “Education is free insofar as it is not contrary to public order and morals and does not interfere with the dignity of any of the religions or creeds. There shall be no violation of the right of religious communities to have their own schools provided they follow the general rules issued by the state regulating public instruction.”

Religion class

As a matter of fact, this incident is one of many daily incidents at private and public schools, but only a few of them become public. Simply put, the reason for this phenomenon is the absence of state authority vis-à-vis the rising influence of religious sects.

In this regard, an incident at the secular SABIS school comes to mind. At the end of last year, the school prevented some students who drew a cross on their foreheads on Ash Monday to attend class. The school informed the parents of its decision emphasizing that no religious or political symbols are allowed, while at the same time allowing a religious obligation which means the headscarf is permitted but the cross is banned, as the principal explained to the parents.

There is confusion about the headscarf at some private schools. Is it a school uniform or a religious belief? School administrations often hide behind this ambiguity to either impose it on its students or to ban it. Al-Mabarrat Charitable Association demands that all its female students and teachers wear a headscarf as part of the school’s official dress code and the code of conduct that everyone signs when they decide to join the school. “This code of conduct does not surprise anyone,” said principal of al-Kawthar High School, Rana Ismail, adding that “whoever agrees to sign it, makes a personal choice.” Other than that, “we are open to accept others and to teach our children to respect all sects.” She went on to say that the religion class is not obligatory for non-Muslim students and they have the right to not attend it, although, “we advise parents to have their children attend the class in order to learn about another religion.”

This option creates procedural problems in the education process itself which requires dividing students into different sections during the religion class. This is a complicated matter in a religiously diverse society such as Lebanon. Because sect leaders objected to doing away with religion classes and refused to adopt a unified book of religious culture when the curriculum was devised in 1997, sects and denominations impose their beliefs in private schools. As to public schools, teaching religious education was entrusted to institutions of religious endowments that send religious education instructors and to school principals to organize the process. A sheikh is sent to a Muslim-majority school and a priest is sent to a Christian-majority school while both a sheikh and a priest are sent to a mixed school.

This robs a school, especially a public school, of its purpose and function and undermines its character as a unifying national institution. It also gives the principal free reign to decide, according to their own will, what they want to happen during the religion class, not to mention the pressure they are under from the religious group or the political party in whose sphere of influence their school happens to be. A person who refused to give their name or job said in this context that a principal once insisted on a sheikh who belongs to his sect to teach the religion course even though the students were mostly from another sect. The parents, who objected to the content of the class, were up in arms so the teacher was changed three times.

Prayers instead of the national anthem

The principal of Ghosta Public School in Keserwan, Michel Doueihy, said that since he was assigned to the school he revived the national anthem after it had been replaced with Christian morning prayers. He pointed out that it is not right for a public school to practice any kind of discrimination or to take any sectarian side. Students leaving the classroom during the religious education class is a very dangerous step, according to Doueihy. The state should not shirk its responsibility under the pretext of freedom of education leaving religious groups to devise its school systems according to their own taste and allow sectarianism to thrive in educational institutions. The issue is also subject to the balance of power in the area where the school is located. Some public high schools in Beirut’s southern Dahiyeh require the recitation of daily Muslim morning prayers under the supervision of the principal and the headmaster.

Religious authorities also decide the days of the weekend. A school in Wata Musaitbeh used this official circular to change the weekend from Friday and Sunday to Saturday and Sunday after receiving the blessings of the Druze religious authorities since the school is located in an area that lies within their sphere of influence.

If this is happening in public schools, imagine what happens in religiously-affiliated private schools. This makes the education minister’s circular issued on July 17 in response to the incident at SABIS school invalid because it was the result of pressure by the clergy.

The circular called on public and private high schools not to issue any rules, decisions or instructions that might violate religious freedom, freedom of education or ways to express them and the culture of diversity, tolerance and promoting the idea of democracy as long as they are being exercised in a way that is not contrary to or does not disturb public order.

‘Sectarian party and chaos’

Education scholar Adnan al-Amin said the circular is not clear because “we do not know if it mixes individual and collective freedoms. To allow individuals the freedom to practice their religious beliefs such as wearing something or putting a certain religious symbol is one thing but to give religious communities the freedom to turn a school into a place to practice their beliefs is another altogether. It is not permissible for the director of a public institution that adopts the rituals of a certain sect to allow the establishment of a chapel or a mosque or a church or to organize a religious celebration in a public place such as a public school. If the minister’s circular addresses both kinds of freedoms, then that is a problem and it is an attack on the other in a specific place and time.”

According to educational sociology scholar, Ogarit Younan, what is happening is the result of the separation that the state officially consecrated with the decree of religious education issued on October 10, 2000. In that decree, it approved a unified religion book for Christian sects and a unified religion book for Muslim sects as though its job is to unite the sects and not the Lebanese people. Still to this day, it has not succeed in this task. It introduced a religion class in place of the art and activities class and students experienced the worst educational lesson when they had to leave the classroom during the religion class. “It is a sectarian party and chaos,” said Younan who wondered if Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is actually being implemented. In other words, are children truly given freedom of thought, conscience and religion whether by their parents or the school? And are schools and individuals exercising religious freedom or sectarian polarization and confessional ideologization?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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