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Debate on whether Islam should be taught at secondary schools heats up

'Exposure to other faiths helped foster tolerance'

The request made by Imam Mohammed El Sadi that Muslim students be taught Islam at secondary school has fuelled a heated debate. Kurt Sansone got a snapshot of the controversy when he asked the question on Facebook.

It is yet another debate instigated by the changing cultural reality in Malta, and as always, it is not shorn of controversy, misconceptions and fear.

But the request to have Islam taught to Muslim students in State schools has prompted a wider debate on religious education that was pre-empted eight years ago by US-based Maltese academic John Baldacchino.

In a 2009 opinion piece in the Times of Malta, Prof. Baldacchino said the lack of distinction between religious education and the teaching of doctrine in schools was a reflection of society at large.

Maltese society faced a higher degree of religious ignorance and intolerance as a result, he wrote.

At the time, his comments were prompted by an opinion piece penned by the Archbishop’s delegate for Catechesis, Fr René Camilleri, who lamented that students were “simply regurgitating answers in their Matsec religion exams from parish catechesis lessons”.

Prof. Baldacchino’s words may seem prophetic today as society comes to grips with the demands of a minority faith group.

Although religious education in schools focuses on the Roman Catholic faith, students are briefly exposed to other faiths, like Islam and Judaism.

An assistant head at a government school, who spoke to this newspaper on the condition of anonymity, said the exposure to other faiths helped foster tolerance, but she expressed serious reservations about Islam being taught as a subject.

“I think we are being naïve in believing that Islam can be taught just like any other subject, including our religion… Will the teachers have the same qualifications as other teachers? What happens with content that is contrary to civil rights and the freedoms that we enjoy?”

Hers are pertinent questions that have to be addressed. In some way, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo did emphasise that any teaching of Islam would have to be done within a regulated curriculum and in full respect of the country’s laws.

Whether that will be enough to placate the discomfort of many with Islam is unknown, but for many others, it is the whole notion of teaching religion at school that is questionable.

The context

In the wake of a decision to close the Miriam Al Batool Muslim secondary school, Imam Mohammed El Sadi asked that Muslim children be taught Islam in State schools.

Education Minister Evarist Bartolo said he had no problem with the suggestion, so long as the teaching was accredited by the education authorities and recognised the same way as other subjects.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna also weighed in on the debate, saying Church schools should also be able to offer Islam as a subject to Muslim students if it was feasible. He insisted Church schools would remain Catholic but had to respect the religious freedom of others.

What the Constitution says

Article 2 states that “religious teaching of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith shall be provided in all State schools as part of compulsory education”. However, Article 40 of the Constitution also ensures religious freedom and worship for all.

Religion in State schools

Religion is taught as a compulsory subject. Parents can request that their child be exempted from the lessons. Ethics was introduced in secondary schools as a replacement for those who opt out of religion lessons. However, ethics is not yet available in all schools.

The question

Should Islam be taught in schools to Muslim students as part of the national curriculum?

The replies on Facebook

The replies reflect the views of the journalist’s friends list on Facebook. The qualitative exercise elicited more than 60 comments. Below is a snapshot that broadly reflects the different arguments.

Yes to religion… but not just one

Marco Cremona: It would not be wise to focus on Islam and Catholicism. There is merit in teaching religious studies in schools without focusing on a single religion as is the case today. Religious extremism stems from indoctrination – teaching a single religion – and ignorance of other religions, peoples and cultures.

Judith Gatt: From the moment a society is considered to be religious – a big percentage are considered believers – it is important to teach not only the religion of the State but also of minorities. This is a way to make people understand that no one religion is the true and only one.

Kevin J Holmes: I am against the removal of religious studies from our schools… but we should not be teaching Islam, Catholicism, Hindu or Buddhism. We should be teaching that every religion has its pitfalls, the history and origins of each, similarities, and most of all that there is good in every religion.

Joanna Ripard: A basic knowledge of all the mainstream faiths should be imparted to all students. It should help to foster understanding and tolerance from a young age.

James Vella Clark: Open-mindedness leads to more tolerance. Islam is a beautiful culture with an intriguing history and background. I agree that the system should devote more resources to teaching about other cultures in schools and not only to young children but way up.

Ethics… the new religion

Marie Briguglio: Ethics should be taught to all. Religion of any kind can be an optional extra after school… as long as Catholic religion keeps its prime position in the syllabus I cannot blame people of other religions or no religion from wanting an alternative.

Ruben Overend: Compulsory teaching of any religion in State schools should be replaced by ethics. Increase science lessons and introduce critical thinking. Catholic education and Islam should be optional.

Rita Farrugia: As a mother with children in a State school, who also attend catechism lessons at the MUSEUM, I believe religion should stop being taught at schools and ethics introduced instead.

Katia Abela: A broader, more general ethical studies should replace religious studies in State schools. The focus should be to instil in children a sense of what is right and wrong: to raise good people rather than simply religious people.

Obviously this does not prompt a complete abolishment of religion. Parents can still opt to baptise their children and take them to catechism lessons.

Keep religion out of schools

Jeremy Camilleri: The State should not be burdened with religious teachings. Yes for religious freedom; no for the State being involved in its propagation.

Cyrus Engerer: I don’t think public schools should teach one religion or another. Everyone should be free to follow a religion or none at all after school hours. Public schools should focus on fostering young inquisitive minds.

Etienne St John: No religion should be taught in schools… passing down faiths and discussing any kind of religion should be the responsibility of the family, gathered to-gether as a family.

Lino Briguglio: This issue is making many Maltese aware that if they are so sure that there is a ‘Catholic God’ and that ‘eternal salvation’ is only through the Catholic religion, so are the Muslims with regard to their ‘Muslim God’ and their Muslim religion. Eventually, I think, all civilised societies will consider religion in the same way that they consider party politics – one has a right to hold an opinion but no right to impose it on others. Religion, like party politics, will have no place in compulsory education.

Elle Bonello Azzopardi Ibbotson: Being an atheist myself I don’t believe that religion should be imposed on children. Religion lessons should be removed from State schools.

Islam and Church schools… unhappy mix

Ruth Calleja: The only place where Islam should not be taught is in Church schools, considering that to get into a Church school you must present a baptism certificate. And with regards to the other schools I would say that values and ethics should be taught to everyone.

Charles Stroud: I feel that Catholic Church schools have a right to and should teach the Catholic religion. We are free to choose the school that we send our children to. If Islam is to be taught, then there should be Islamic schools to do it in. The Catholic religion being taught in State Schools is what we inherited. At some time a decision has to be taken if any religion should be taught in State schools.

Lawrence Ellul: I have no problem with Muslim students in government schools learning their religion. However you cannot do this for Church schools since one of the requirements to enter these schools is baptism. As for independent schools, if they have Muslim students it should be OK to offer the subject. It is important to have a standard curriculum.

Islam in schools? No thanks

Angelo Bonello: They do not allow our religion to be taught in their country and so we do not allow theirs to be taught in ours. In a democratic society the majority wins. Whoever wants diversity [it-taħlit] has no place in Malta.

Alison Debattista: When they start teaching our religion in their schools, we start teaching Islam in ours.

Nyal Xuereb: Church schools are Christian schools... full stop! State schools are governed by the Constitution, which speaks of Catholic teachings... double full stop!

Paul Galea: When in Rome do as the Romans do... In Australia and other countries where a number of Maltese emigrated many years ago, the organisation founded by St Ġorġ Preca, MUSEUM, sent their members there to teach our religion. This is only the first request. They [Muslims] are already trying to infiltrate into local councils and Parliament. Open up our eyes and minds. Let us not be that Ġaħan Malti who says ‘It will never happen to me’.

Malcolm Seychell: A big no. The Imam said publicly that he will not tolerate gays as teachers because it is against Islam. So what policy does the government want to introduce: a secular State or a more extremist State than Catholicism? You either learn Catholicism or ethics, and it should be obligatory especially for foreigners. Unless we want a disaster like the rest of Europe we have to have, more or less, the same values.

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