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Religious Studies Education: Interfaith Collaboration in the Classroom and Beyond

Published December 18, 2020 by Holland Freeman

Holland Freeman is joint winner of the first William Kessler Essay Prize Competition 2020. This is his submission.

The development of an effective education system is pivotal for communities that seek to increase their social, economic, and political stability. Positive educational outcomes contribute to higher levels of innovation, the cultivation of capable individuals, and a reduction in brain drain. [1] An effective education system is one that produces students who are both well-rounded and who possess an appropriate degree of specialization. Further, a holistic education system includes a variety of subjects that aptly prepare students for a rapidly changing world in the era of globalization.

Religious studies education plays an important role in the development of young people who are equipped, versatile, and creative. Today's young people increasingly find themselves as residents of linguistically, ethnically, and religiously diverse communities. Though this reality presents excellent opportunities for increased collaboration between community members, those who are not prepared to engage diversity of thought and practice are prone to develop attitudes of close-mindedness and radicalization of their own worldviews. Increasing levels of religious literacy among students optimizes the potential for younger generations to develop skills in conflict resolution and to work positively with those who adhere to different worldviews and theologies. Therefore, despite the current lack of religious studies curriculum in most public education systems, its inclusion is a significant component of creating a holistic system of education.

In the following argument, religious studies education assumes a form that is meaningfully distinct from theological education. Theological education refers to curriculum that equips students for further academic theological study, confessional ministry, or positions of religious leadership. It most commonly occurs in the context of post-secondary institutions or seminaries. By comparison, religious studies education is generally less confessional than theological education. Religious studies education often includes curriculum that pertains to the history, tenets, practices, and values of one or more faith tradition. It may use comparative methods in order to highlight the differences between or strengths within faith traditions. Theological education certainly has been a valuable contributor to the field of interfaith dialogue. However, this argument focuses its attention on the often-overlooked potential of religious studies education, particularly in the context of primary and secondary schooling. Specifically, it seeks to articulate the role of religious studies education in empowering young people to competently and constructively work alongside the religious "other" in their communities.

Religious studies education is particularly valuable in places where religious identities have palpable impacts on the social and political fabrics of the community. Such communities may be marked by religious segregation in schools and neighbourhoods, feelings of animosity between religious groups, and a prevalence of religiously motivated discrimination. In these cases, the ability to evaluate one's own beliefs, to understand the nuances of interpreting sacred texts, to speak knowledgeably about religious histories, and to engage in productive dialogue with those from other belief systems is a critical - if undervalued - skillset. In any community where religious diversity is present, the existing education system must provide students with the skills and knowledge necessary to develop this skillset. In turn, this skillset promises the cultivation of students who are religiously literate members of their neighbourhoods, workplaces, and classrooms, and who enthusiastically learn from and work alongside those of differing backgrounds for the betterment of their shared spaces.

The religious studies curriculum present in Iraq's education system serves as an illuminating case for the value of integrating carefully curated religious studies curriculum into public schools. Historically, Iraq's education system has enjoyed exceptionally high enrolment and literacy rates. Students benefit from a wide variety of course offerings including languages, natural and social sciences, mathematics, history, and vocational training. Included among these courses is religious studies, which is offered for several hours per week at all grade levels.

Following the end of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 and, more recently, the restoration of Daesh-occupied regions back into Iraqi control in 2017, the Ministry of Education undertook significant efforts to reform Iraq's education system. The Ministry's goals are aptly reflected in a recent educational reform drafted in 2011 as a joint effort between the Federal Republic of Iraq and the UNESCO International Bureau of Education. [2] Prior to this reform, schools in Daesh-controlled regions were marked by curriculum that was widely viewed as negative, intolerant, and regressive. By contrast, the new Iraqi Curriculum Framework includes religious rhetoric that focuses on the merciful, inclusive, and progressive messages of Islam while promoting the value of a common Iraqi identity across ethnic and religious lines. Its primary objectives include "forging moral persons based on high religious values and principles and by rejecting radicalism" and raising "proud and responsible citizens of Iraq and the wider world" from the pre-primary through the secondary levels. [3]

Today, Islamic studies courses are optional for all Iraqi students, thus allowing non-religious and non-Muslim students to omit the course if they choose. Additionally, alternative religious courses, such as those on Christian theology and history, are available in schools where religious minorities make up a significant portion of the student body. [4] In these cases, students are free to attend the religious studies course that best aligns with their own religious identity. This model encourages a sense of camaraderie among religious minorities while also creating safe spaces for students to be self-reflective and appropriately critical of their own religious identities. While no education system is above critique, the trajectory of Iraq's public education system over the last two decades paints a hopeful picture for the future of Iraq's youngest generations. It can be expected that students who have diligently invested in their studies will graduate secondary education feeling comfortable engaging the vast diversity of thought and theological convictions that are present in their communities.

Given the challenges of cultivating a safe and successful learning environment in the wake sectarian violence, it is unsurprising that Iraq’s inclusion of religious education into the classroom has received mixed feedback. Even so, Iraq’s religious education offers a refreshingly hopeful model by which students can learn to reject extreme religious ideologies and warmly embrace the religious identities with which they regularly come into contact. The Iraqi Ministry of Education's verbal and written commitments to creating morally upright, innovative, and lifelong learners meaningfully contribute to efforts that focus on incorporating religious tolerance and a common national identity into the classroom. With these goals in mind, Iraq has confidently set itself on an upward course that understands education as a means of mitigating violent extremism and viewing the diversity of its national community as an asset. For any community that experiences religious cleavages and discrimination, Iraq is an encouraging model for the value of religious studies education with an eye to interfaith collaboration.

The incorporation of religious studies curriculum into an otherwise secular school system certainly poses challenges for educators and students alike. In order to be most effective, religious education curriculum must have religious literacy, interfaith collaboration, and openness to diversity of thought among its primary goals. Similarly, a carefully curated curriculum is one which discourages radicalization and violence, division between religious identities, and intolerance. Local education systems that seek to incorporate religious studies into their curriculum will need to be mindful of and accommodating to the unique religious and theological makeup of their community. Thus, each community's religious studies curriculum may incorporate distinct content or cover a particular spread of subjects that are relevant to the cultural and societal values of that community. This undertaking will not be without difficulty and may necessitate modifications and revisions. However, the challenge of developing religiously literate students is much preferable to the challenge of navigating a society in which students are fearful of one another's religious convictions or are keen to force their own worldview onto others.

For scholars and practitioners who concern themselves with the vital and sensitive issues of interfaith dialogue, religious literacy, and community development, the potential of religious studies education must not be overlooked. It is the hope of any forward-looking community that each new generation would be better equipped than the last to create positive, equitable, and innovative change. Consequently, as students are increasingly steeped in a world that possesses a diversity of identities, communities must take tangible steps to ensure that their young people are prepared to embrace the positive benefits that a religiously diverse world has to offer.

[1] Brain-drain is conventionally understood as a phenomenon in which the brightest and most skilled individuals in a community leave their area of origin for more promising educational and career prospects elsewhere. In other words, those who are perhaps the most poised to create positive change in their communities are "drained" from the locality, preventing communities from escaping multigenerational cycles of poverty, violence, or other forms of instability.

[2] UNESCO Iraq Office, "The Concept of Curriculum and the Rationale for Quality Curriculum Development," Iraqi Curriculum Framework (2012), 13-23.

[3] UNESCO International Bureau of Education, "Iraq," World Data on Education (2010-2011), 7th ed, 7-9, 11-12, 14-17.

[4] The presence of religious studies courses other than Islamic studies exists primarily in Iraqi-Kurdistan, which generally has more religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse student bodies than other regions in Iraq.

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