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Kyrgyzstan: No Work for Madrassa Graduates

A growing number of Islamic school graduates want to work as teachers in the state system, but find their qualifications are not recognised.
By IWPR Central Asia
Students leaving the growing number of Muslim religious schools in Kyrgyzstan complain they cannot get teaching jobs in state schools because their diplomas are not officially recognised.

Almost none of the students trained at Islamic schools or madrassas go on to find employment in state education. They see this as tantamount to discrimination, arguing that they are well qualified to teach but are prevented from doing so, while schoolchildren are instructed in religion and ethics by non-specialists.

While the issue has opened up a wider debate about the separation of religion and the secular state, some experts on Islam say madrassa graduates should be allowed to teach religion in the schools, especially if they acquire a broader education that includes non-religious subjects.

Kyrgyzstan now has about 50 madrassas, seven Muslim institutes and one Islamic university – the result of a religious revival that began after this Central Asian state became independent in 1991. Many parents are now keen for their children to have religious education and ethics classes as part of the secular school curriculum.

“None of the current graduates of madrassas and Islamic institutes can find a job [in the state school system] even though there are now more than 10,000 of them,” claimed Jamal Frontbek-Kyzy, who leads a Muslim women’s group called Mutakalim.

“The Ministry of Education pays no attention to our appeals, as religion is separate from the state. Nor does the State Agency for Religious Affairs care.”

Frontbek-Kyzy said women suffered more than men from the lack of access to jobs in education.

“The boys can work as clerics whereas the girls can’t find employment at all,” she explained. “As a result, the girls usually get married as soon as possible.”

The solution, said Frontbek-Kyzy, is for madrassas to introduce more general education courses into their curricula so that they are more compatible with the state system, and their graduates become more employable.

“Our diplomas would then be in demand and would be recognised by the Kyrgyz Ministry of Education,” she said.

Frontbek-Kyzy admitted that the country’s madrassas would need to raise their standards a good deal before their diplomas could command general respect.

One problem, she said, was that these institutions themselves lacked qualified theology teachers.

“There is not a single doctor of theology at the Islamic university, the seven institutes or the 50 madrassas,” she maintained. “The teachers we have today are mainly self-taught.”

Kadyr Malikov, a theologian who works at the Institute for Strategy, Analysis and Theory in Bishkek, agreed that madrassas need to incorporate secular subjects into their curricula.

“We need to start reforming the religious education system,” he said. “That entails raising the standard of religious education to a more academic level. We need a more intellectual Islam,” he said.

“We want the madrassas to be transformed into recognised schools that also provide a secular education, with secular subjects and state-recognised diplomas.”

Malikov says it is ignorance, not religious learning, that is a danger to society.

“The influence of religion is increasing in the country and we must recognise that. The danger of social unrest stems not from Islam itself but from ignorance of the basics of religion on the part of believers,” he said.

He attributes this “ignorance” to what he calls the “acute lack of an intellectual group among the clergy,” and estimates that only 30 or 40 per cent of imams or prayer leaders in Kyrgyzstan have received a formal theological education.”

Asan Saipov, spokesman for the chief mufti, who heads the country’s officially-recognised Muslim establishment, appears to be more interested in seeing the state change its overall attitude towards Islam than in encouraging radical reforms within the madrassas.

He would like, for example, to see the abolition of the current constitutional safeguard separating religion from the state.

Saipov complains that although Kyrgyzstan’s Islamic university offers several non-religious courses such as the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, the history of Kyrgyzstan and the history of religion, the education ministry still insists this is not enough.

The result, he said, is that state schools are left with no teachers qualified to offer pupils a moral education.

“The schools offer lessons in ethics taught by the usual untrained secular teachers who distort these lessons, whereas our [graduate] teachers are not allowed to work there because of these disagreements with the education ministry,” he said.

Saipov believes the dearth of proper religious teaching in the schools has led many young people to convert to what he calls “sects and non-traditional religious movements that do not lead to any good”. He was alluding to the numerous evangelical Christian and other groups that recruited many converts in Kyrgyzstan in recent years.

He fears that without a more considered approach to the role of Islam, there could one day be bloodshed, even a break-up of Kyrgyzstan. At the moment, however, “officials here were raised in atheism and they get scared even when they hear the word ‘religion’”, he said.

Saipov offers a simple solution, saying, “The Ministry of Education should stop creating obstacles and start recognising Islamic diplomas so that graduates from Islamic institutes can teach in all schools and universities.”

The Kyrgyz government shows little sign of giving into such uncompromising demands and appears committed to the separation of church and state.

According to Ainura Isirailova of the government agency in charge of issuing educational permits and certification, the official line is that the education provided by madrassas and other Muslim institutions “is not secular, they only provide religious education, and so their diplomas are not recognised by the Ministry of Education”.

Sharsheke Usenov of the State Agency for Religious Affairs, underlined the point that the divide between religion and state is here to stay. However, he said the decision to incorporate more secular subjects into the madrassas’ curriculum was a step in the right direction.

“Muslim leaders need to think about what the graduates of the Islamic institutions will do, and introduce secular subjects… into their programmes,” he said. “They need to work in this direction in order to make sure their diplomas win recognition.”

The authorities are clearly not ruling out a compromise altogether.

Yevgeniya Chubukova, who works at the government department for professional education, indicated that if the madrassas introduced a broader set of courses, the state would heed their demands for recognition.

“If they start to follow the standards of secondary and higher education approved by the Ministry of Education, along with their religious subjects, they will be able to award two diplomas [for religious and secular courses], and then the whole problem will be resolved,” said Chubukova.

Tolkun Namatbaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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