Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2012

Religious Education and Pluralism in Egypt and Tunisia

Muhammad Faour

August 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Religion occupies a prominent position in the education systems of all Arab countries. With the rise of Islamists across the Arab world, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, there is a possibility that the new parties in power will update education curricula to reflect conservative Islamic beliefs. Education is very important for any ideological party that assumes political power. And in the long run, the Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia will target education reform to ensure that more Islamic content is included in all students’ schooling. But in the short term, the emerging power of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia is unlikely to lead to a dramatic change in the curricula and culture of public schools or to the imposition of an Islamic code of conduct. Political and economic matters are more urgent than educational change during the current transitional period. Islam is already incorporated into many aspects of Egyptian public education, from Arabic language courses to social studies, and some classes give more weight to conservative Islamic values to the detriment of pluralistic norms or other religious beliefs. The existing school climate is largely compatible with the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, so it is doubtful that the FJP will risk a public outcry by pushing for official change now. Meanwhile, though Islam is the only religion taught in Tunisian public schools, the country has a long history of secularization and the education system promotes universal values like freedom, tolerance, and social justice. Ennahda is unlikely to reverse this trend in the near term. Going forward, Egypt and Tunisia should maintain religious education as part of their curricula, but the focus must be on liberal Islamic content. Both countries should also make their systems more compatible with democratic values by promoting education for citizenship—the development of informed, responsible citizens who think freely and contribute to society. A step in the right direction is the new religious education initiative proposed by the Egyptian Family House and spearheaded by Al-Azhar that emphasizes diversity and basic freedoms. As Egypt and Tunisia transition away from autocracy toward more democratic societies, they must make the most of this chance to apply the principles of pluralism to education as well.