I was somewhat dismayed by the press coverage of the official opening of a private secondary Islamic school a couple of weeks ago. Owing to the presence of a high-profile delegation from a Gulf state at the ceremony and the blessings of a former president of the Republic, the free press suddenly appears to see everything in pink. Critique, analysis and investigative journalism seemed to have been thrown out of the window in what is unfolding as a pathetic bootlicking operation. Instead of using that opportunity to offer us a tour d’horizon on the sudden mushrooming of private Islamic schools along with an itat des lieux, we were simply fed with an amateurish piece of reporting seasoned with mealy mouthed platitudes on an event whose repercussions on the Mauritian society at large is both significant and enduring. Amid raging debates on the necessity and propriety of education reforms, no one seem to bother why Islamic schools exist and flourish and how they fit in the education landscape of Mauritius.

It is certainly useful to distinguish between two types of Islamic schools: para-statal schools such as Islamic College, Aleemeah, Muslim Girls, Madad ul Islam (we’ll call them old Islamic schools-OIS) in contrast to independent private schools such as l’ecole Cassis, l’oiseau Vert, Doha and Islamiya school (we’ll call these new Islamic schools- NIS). While the former are partly subsidised by the state and operate under the rules and regulations of the P.S.S.A. the latter retain absolute independence insofar as curriculum, recruitment and administration are concerned. Although both share the refractory attitude to modernity, the latter have the additional trait of being further entrenched in some form of neo-Puritanism and hence is the object of our concern here. I should point out that despite my concerns, it doesn t follow that Islamic schools should be banned or closed down; what is needed instead is a radical transformation and reform of the current Islamic schools. I shall now briefly lay out the several points that give us cause to worry.

1) Social disintegration: None of the new Islamic schools have justified their existence on the argument that it was a lack of places in the old Islamic schools that prompted their emergence. So from the very start there was a clear ideological agenda. The first of these new schools draw inspiration on a South African tablighi-deobandi model with strict adherence to the hanafi school of thought. Another one draws on an Arabian reformist trend and is officially a branch of the local hizbullah ideology. A third one draws on the more modernist Jamat e Islami model of the Indian subcontinent. The latest one draws heavily on the Arabian salafi tendency, bent on the hanbali school of thought. Consequently social disintegration is further enhanced through these new schools that have become institutionalised mechanisms perpetuating religious and sub-religious disparity that tends to marginalise young Muslims children away from mainstream society.

2) Superiority complex: The rationale for the establishment of the NIS inevitably leads to the development of a superiority complex. The latest of the NIS, inaugurated with much fanfare, is the best example to illustrate the point. For years the promoters, who also happen to be ulemas have been delivering lectures in mosques all over the island on the need of a proper Islamic school. To that end, I even recall how the unislamic behaviour of Muslim girls attending the OIS were being freely employed to illustrate their moral decadence; their short skirts, their tight uniforms, their uncovered head, their flashing lip glosses, excessive make up, their easy-going attitude with boys and their frequent hanging around in the shopping malls have been a classic theme of the NIS propaganda. I was even told: apart form an Islamic name, what is Islamic about them? So, these new schools were meant to show what proper Islam is. It is not surprising therefore that over zealous parents proudly proclaim that their child attend X or Y Islamic school. Many would even tell you the enormous sacrifice they endure to send their children to the NIS surtout si ena grand tifi because of the allegedly decadent mainstream schools.

3) The women problematique: The rhetoric and discourse of the NIS promoters clearly reveals that they view youth and women as highly problematic. Consider the following: the first departments hastily opened by the NIS were the girl’s presumably because of their high vulnerability within mainstream schools. After all, didn’t the Prophet say that women are weak in their faith (deen) and their mental faculty (aql) as we are frequently reminded? Consequently, it is not surprising that you would not find a single woman on the board of directors of the several NIS nor even a woman head teacher. The apogee of such misogynist attitude can be gauged from the fact that two women teachers at one of NIS were asked to wear the long black robe (jilbaab) outside the school s premises. Upon their hesitation they were simply faced with the grim reality of either to comply or resign. I still recall how, some five ago, the manager of that same institution refuse to sit at a discussion table on the MPL issue, because a woman lawyer (who was islamically well dressed) was also sitting at the same table!

4) The Myth of Segregation. As reported by the press, the promoters of the NIS proudly proclaimed that nou fer tou zafer separi. In other words, at no point in time do girls and boys or indeed members of staff of opposite sex get together face to face. This is supposed to be THE Islamic way of doing things and is a point which all the NIS stresses unrelentingly. However this approach is financially inefficient, pedagogically frustrating, socially deviant and islamically unfounded. This is supposed to be based on the Islamic injunction against free-mixing (ikhtilaat). However this notion itself in nowhere to be found in the Quran or even in the Prophet s practices (sunna) and is only a Persian custom that crept into the Islamic mores after the conquest of Persia.

In fact, what the Islamic sources have constantly condemned is licentious seclusion (khalwa). Where people of the opposite sex meet each other in public and where the risk of licentiousness is averted the sources are silent. Or when the law of necessity dictates, such as during pilgrimage, in mosques, on public transport, in the market, on the battlefield and where medical and indeed educational needs require, the presence of males and females side by side has never been a problem. Hence the total and indiscriminate separation of boys from girls is not an Islamic notion per se; rather it is a cultural practice that has come to pervade Arab societies and mistakenly believed to be Islamic. There is a case though to educate young adolescents particularly from form III to form V separately, for most of the school day. However, more mature students of the sixth form who have already gone through the crises of early adolescence must be given the opportunity to work alongside each other in groups and under staff supervision. This becomes a necessity for subjects like science, ICT, design and technology where massive investment is needed to build hi-tech labs; workshops and libraries or where the scarcity of high- calibre human resources in particular fields is felt. And it is totally Islamic to do so under such circumstances.

5) Nepotism: a least expected attitude in what is supposed to be the pinnacle of Islamic ethics. The manager of one these institutions is allegedly remunerating himself Rs 20,000 per month for only two days of work per week. The real sting in the tale is that, he does not have any qualification or experience in teaching at secondary level. Worse still, he also doesn’t have any experience either in educational management and administration. Adding insult to injury, his wife has been employed without undergoing through any application procedure and has not even been interviewed. And to appease the concerns of other members, two strategies were adopted: some have been taken on board as teaching staff with higher salaries than what they previously earned in public schools. Others who might raise eyebrows have been guaranteed jobs for their offspring when the latter return back from Arabian universities. Another NIS is run by one couple and their acquaintances; procedural irregularities and the culture of opacity are so rampant in the NIS that one wonder how can that be Islamic.

6) Fundamentalism: the mantra of the NIS have constantly been the restoration of pristine and true Islam, hence the declaration of the Qatari education minister that the school he sponsored aims to donner une image fidhle de l’Islam. Elaborating further, the manager gives us an insight into his vision of the Mauritian society; his school he said fait face a l’ignorance and according to him notre jeunesse est exposi a plusieur dangers. With a besieged mentality and a zeal to combat an illusive ignorance (jahiliyya) as premises, Islamic schools are now an indispensable tool in the hands of crusading missionaries. We are told that 25% of teaching hours in the latest NIS is devoted to the study of Islam! Again the percentage of Islamic and Arabic teaching staff in one NIS can well be over 25% and more are to join.

The primary focus of Islamic studies at the NIS is the notion of tawheed (strict monotheism) a condition of which is the doctrine of friendship and enmity (al wala wal bara) on the basis of faith. Infidels (kafirs), polytheists (mushriks) and their ways and practices must be shunned. Any resemblance to the infidels or participation in their activities and festivals implies imitation (tashabbuh) and makes you one of them on the day of judgement. Which is why the school uniform, the greetings, and the overall attitude of the pupils and staff of the NIS is so different, if not idiosyncratic. The relentless insistence on the doctrine of ordaining good (ma’ruf) and forbidding evil (munkar) by the hand, the mouth or heart as a primary duty of an exemplary Muslim is incubating a young generation of fanatical zealots ever so willing to exercise force to ordain good and forbid evil. It is useful to remember that the members of the escadron de la mort were influenced by that same doctrine which they assume warrant the physical elimination of drug dealers. Pressured to forbid evil and frustrated by their inability to do anything about public evils in our society (such as films, alcohol and casual sex), our new puritans direct their entire wrath on the female members within the family. Ask young Muslim girls, how many of them are regularly being called shaytan, creole, nasaara and you would be surprised to see that we are not far from medieval European witch-hunting.

7) Intellectual vacuity: since the reforms in the education sector a couple of years ago, the NIS have so far not come up with a single proposition to show how they were ahead of reforms. While debates raged on issues such as oriental languages, compulsory schooling up to 16, ZEP projects, regionalisation, numeracy and literacy strategy, vocational education, the death of elitism, values and ethics, inclusion, the widening of the basic curriculum, delinquency etc, the NIS shone by their eloquent silence. Such mutism on and disregard for issues of national importance lead us to conclude that the NIS operate in complete isolation from the wider society. Moreover they do not appear to understand how the external environment could have a direct impact on their evolution and how they need to constantly adapt their course of action on the basis of major policy decision by the state and on the evolving social trends.

If Islamic schools want us to take them seriously, they need to answer some basic questions: First of all, they need to define what is Islamic education what is its specificity? What is the philosophy of education in Islam? Why do we need Islamic Education? What are the threats facing Islamic education and what opportunities lies before it? What has been the major strength and weakness of Islamic schools so far? How do Islamic Schools promote a better modus vivendi among different communities in the multicultural setting of Mauritius? To that end, how do they network among themselves and how do they plan to outreach mainstream schools and other Catholic or Hindu schools? How does their educational theories converge to or diverge from Piaget, Dewey, Skinner, Freud, Coles, Golman, Maslow and other major theories and how these affect their teaching methods? How they plan to teach music, drama, art, literature, citizenship and sex education? But more importantly, how do they plan address the seven the major sins that we have enumerated previously? In simple terms, they need to clearly spell out: where they are, where do they want to go and how do they plan to get there? Unless these hard questions are tackled in a white paper by an Association of Islamic Schools, I am afraid that the former President’s wish that “cet icole produise des individus responsable et imotionellement equilibri” might simply be. wishful thinking.

Belall Maudarbux