In the last installment of this series, I discussed ways in which religious diversity can be an asset, and not a liability, for the Central Asian republics. The premise was that Central Asian states see religious diversity as a threat, but policies that celebrate diversity and foster a sense of citizenship among different communities will increase stability. In any policy that tries to do this, religious education plays a pivotal role.
Religious education has been a heavily debated topic at IGE’s conferences on religion, security and citizenship in Central Asia. Why is it so important? In countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where civic identity is weak, religious education is an indispensable tool for building citizens who see no conflict between their civic and religious selves. It also provides a strong barrier to extremist teachings, giving citizens the knowledge to respond to these distortions of faith.
There are two types of education issues here. The first is secular education about religion, which is critical to addressing misunderstandings, rumors, and lies that create conflict among religious groups, or between secular and religious people. If, as suggested in the last part of this series, the Central Asian states are to create inclusive rather than exclusive identities, then education must break down the barriers that separate “us” from “them.” Without this, prejudice will eat away at the trust that is critical to social stability.
The second type is education in a certain religious tradition. Allowing religious people to receive a theological education in their own faith, without undue interference from the state, is just as important for building citizens and ensuring stability as secular education about religion. Every major religious tradition has its own equivalent of the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do to you. This maxim of basic civility is critical to the flourishing of society. Religious groups can either undergird or undermine that civility. Evidence shows that strong religious education encourages them to do the former.
Theological literacy is also a critical and underappreciated barrier to the spread of religious extremism. Extremism is a distortion of religious teaching, and religious ignorance provides fertile soil for these distortions to grow. Education, on the other hand, equips clergy and laity to effectively and peacefully counter extremist ideologies.
All too often, however, Central Asian governments have opted for policies that not only fail to see religious education as a tool, but consider it a threat. No state in the region, with the possible exception of Uzbekistan, has constructed a system of religious education that is adequate to the growing spiritual appetite of its people. Increased public religiosity without quality religious education creates an opening for extremism.
Central Asian states also closely monitor (or forbid altogether) students studying Islam abroad. In the most visible instance of this in recent years, Tajikistan recalled all of its citizens studying Islam in foreign countries, where a thorough Islamic education is much more accessible than in Central Asia. Proponents of this approach argue that students studying Islam abroad are being radicalized. Not only is this patently false, but it alienates these students and deprives society of well-educated religious professionals.
The current model is unsustainable. Central Asia needs to see religious education, like religious diversity, as an asset, not a liability to be managed. There are several examples from which the region could take inspiration.
In the United Kingdom, the REsilience program (where RE stands for religious education) equips teachers to handle contentious religious issues in the classroom. Educators are given online training in methods to teach controversial issues, as well as resources that explore specific topics, such as religious extremism, terrorism, religion and identity, and religion and gender. This approach recognizes the importance of addressing divisive issues head-on in the classroom in a well-considered, well-informed manner, instead of avoiding them altogether.
Hesse State in Germany also provides an example of an innovative approach to religious education. Faced with growing radicalization among its large immigrant Muslim population, officials are using religious education as a tool to fight back. The state’s public schools now offer Islam classes with a focus on tolerance and human dignity, filling a gap in Islamic education that young Muslims previously filled with YouTube videos and underground sermons. Through this approach, the government hopes to signal state acceptance of Islam while giving students the knowledge to reject extremist teachings.
The Al Irsyad madrasa in Singapore is another example of creative thinking. Through a careful balance of secular education and religious instruction, the madrasa builds citizens while building faith, giving them a grounding in theology while preparing them to become participants in a globalizing world. This combination is a recent requirement for Singapore’s madrasas, of which Al Irsyad is the best example—one from which Singapore’s neighbors are starting to learn.
These models show how religious education from both secular and religious viewpoints can fight extremism and foster responsible citizens. Instead of seeing it as a security threat, the Central Asian states should see religious education as a solution. The state can support religious education in a way that fosters civic unity and a respect for diversity, and if it does, education will become Central Asia’s first line of defense against extremism.
-Cory Bender is Program Officer for Central Asia at the Institute for Global Engagement, a think-and-do tank working at the critical intersection of religion and global affairs, building sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide.