In Algeria, a Tug of War for Young Minds

From IHT by Michael Slackman.

First, Abdel Malek Outas's teachers taught him to write math equations in Arabic, and embrace Islam and the Arab world. Then they told him to write in Latin letters that are no longer branded unpatriotic, and open his mind to the West.

Malek is 19, and he is confused.

"When we were in middle school we studied only in Arabic," he said. "When we went to high school, they changed the program, and a lot is in French. Sometimes, we don't even understand what we are writing."

The confusion has bled off the pages of his math book and deep into his life. One moment, he is rapping; another, he recounts how he flirted with terrorism, agreeing two years ago to go with a recruiter to kill apostates in the name of jihad.

At a time of religious revival across the Muslim world, Algeria's youth are in play. The focus of this contest is the schools, where for decades Islamists controlled what children learned, and how they learned, officials and education experts here said.

Now the government is urgently trying to re-engineer Algerian identity, changing the curriculum to wrest momentum from the Islamists, provide its youth with more employable skills, and combat the terrorism it fears schools have inadvertently encouraged.

It appears to be the most ambitious attempt in the region to change a school system to make its students less vulnerable to religious extremism.

But many educators are resisting the changes, and many disenchanted young men are dropping out of schools. It is a tense time in Algiers, where city streets are crowded with police officers and security checkpoints and alive with fears that Algeria is facing a resurgence of Islamic terrorism.

There is a sense this country could still go either way. Young people here in the capital appear extremely observant, filling mosques for the daily prayers, insisting that they have a place to pray in school. The strictest form of Islam, Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, has become the gold standard for the young.

And yet, the young in Algiers also appear far more socially liberal than their peers in places like Egypt and Jordan. Young veiled women walk hand in hand, or sit leg to leg, with young men, public flirtations unthinkable in most other Muslim countries.

The two natures of the country reflect the way in which Algerian identity was cleaved in half by 132 years of French colonial rule, and then again by independence and forced Arabization. Once the French were driven out in 1962, the Algerians were determined to forge a national identity free from Western influence.

The schools were one center of that drive. French was banned as the language of education, replaced by Arabic. Islamic law and the study of the Koran were required, and math and science were shortchanged.

There is a feeling among many Algerians that they went too far.

This year, the government is beginning to make substantive changes. The schools are moving from rote learning — which was always linked to memorizing the Koran — to critical thinking, where teachers ask students to research subjects and think about concepts.

"Before, teachers used to explain the lesson," Malek said. "Now they want us to think more, to research, but it's very difficult for us."

Malek says he hopes to graduate from high school next year and now wants to join the military, just like his father. He is a long way from being the person who had accepted what he says the terrorist recruiter told him — that soldiers, like his own father, are apostates and should be killed. His resolution lasted for three days, until his imam found out and persuaded him not to go.

But the call to jihad still tugs at him. In his world, jihad, or struggle, is a duty for Muslims, but as Malek explains, the challenge is who will convince young people of the proper form that struggle should take.

"They really convince you," he said of the extremists.

In Algeria, your sense of identity often depends on when you went to school.

Hassinah Bou Bekeur, 26, enjoys watching the Saudi satellite channels and the news in Arabic. She watches with her mother and four younger sisters in one room. But her father, Nasreddin, 60, stays in another room so he can watch in French, the language of his education.

"He is not very strict," she said of her father, with a touch of affection and disappointment in her voice. "We have more awareness of religion now."

The Bou Bekeur family illustrates the outcome of Algeria's school-based Arabization project. The family is close but the generation gap is extraordinary. It is not solely the result of schooling — but the history of the education system here helps explain the distance between the generations.

It begins with occupation and schools designed to train people for a French- run system. Even after independence, the schools needed to continue to train in French because the government needed managers and experts to replace those French citizens who had left the country, officials here said. In 1971, officials said, the Arabization project began in earnest, when French was prohibited as a language of education.

But there were not enough educators qualified to teach in Arabic, so Algeria turned to Egyptians, Iraqis and Syrians — not realizing, officials say now, that many of those teachers had extreme religious views and that they helped plant the seeds of radicalism that would later flourish in a school system where Arabization became interchangeable with Islamization. In the Bou Bekeur house that meant children far more religious than their father — and their mother.

"We would never have imagined Algeria could one day be faced with violence that would come from Islam," said Fatiha Yomsi, an adviser to the minister of education.

Students go to school amid subdued tension because many educators do not like the changes that are coming.

"You see, all these classes are mixed," she said. "It is very important. We fought for this. That is why I am targeted for death."

At stake are the identities of young people like Malek, Amine and Lamine — and their futures.

The young men focused on trying to pass their exams, because Algiers is full of examples of those who have not. More than 500,000 students drop out each year, officials said — and only about 20 percent of students make it into high school. Only about half make it from high school into a university. A vast majority of dropouts are young men, who see no link between work and school. Young women tend to stick with school because, officials said, it offers independence from their parents.

Algeria's young men leave school because there is no longer any connection between education and employment, school officials said. The schools raise them to be religious, but do not teach them skills needed to get a job.

This is another cause for extremism, and it is one reason the police do nothing to stop so many young men from illegally selling everything from deodorant to bread at makeshift stands.


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