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Islamic education to include greater priority for tolerance

Afshan Ahmed

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DUBAI // A new Islamic education curriculum with greater focus on respecting and engaging with people of other faiths will be introduced to government schools from next year.

The Ministry of Education has developed textbooks and teaching material for Islamic and Arabic subjects that will focus on both national identity and community integration.

The changes will be phased in, with modifications to the Arabic syllabus in grades 1, 8 and 9 and Islamic education in grades 1 to 5.

"The topic of discussion all around the world now is about developing a peaceful and cooperative society," said Sheikha Khulood Al Qassimi, the director of the ministry's curriculum department.

"One of the main teachings of Islam is tolerance and unity, and this must be strongly reinforced in every lesson."

Sheikha Khulood said pupils would be given more projects and made to become involved in community service to teach them Islamic values and cultural awareness.

"We live in a diverse society in the UAE and pupils have to learn to live and accept others from all religions and nationalities," she said.

Teachers will also be trained to apply modern methods and technology including teaching online, interactive sessions, giving more priority to research-based assignments, and community activities.

Aatef Alkadiri, an Islamic supervisor of public schools in Ras Al Khaimah, said educators had been waiting for the curriculum to be modified for some time.

"Teaching cannot be confined to the textbook and must emphasise on a continuous learning process by a link to the virtual world," he said.

Mr Alkadiri added the course should be aligned to technological advancement so pupils could learn for themselves about their faith and other cultures.

"The role of the teacher is to facilitate and give them the right information, and make them more accepting to others ideas as well," he said.

Many federal and private universities in the UAE have started to incorporate interfaith dialogue and discussions in their agenda, but experts say such principles should be instilled at a young age.

Sumaya Al Balooshi, 25, an Emirati professional, this year took part in a cultural-exchange programme organised by the Al Maktoum College of Higher Education in Dundee, Scotland.

Ms Al Balooshi said UAE schools should increase their efforts to expose children to different societies.

"It was not until the programme that I was made aware of the ideology behind others faiths," she said. "We are obliged to understand others' point of view in the context of their background."

Since 2003, more than 400 female students from UAE and Qatar universities have been part of the scholarship programme.

The university, which is sponsored by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, the Minister of Finance, highlights the Government's push towards multiculturalism.

Ms Al Balooshi said if young people were not raised with such concepts, they could suffer from misconceptions.

"Understanding the principles of others' religions makes you a better human being and allows for better communication and relationships," she said.

Dr Hassan Tairab, an associate professor of curriculum instruction at the faculty of education at the UAE University (UAEU), agreed diversity brings understanding.

"Unfortunately, there is no prescribed curriculum that teaches topics like tolerance, equity and respect," Dr Tairab said. "Therefore, Islam should be taught in a way that focuses on its broad perspectives of developing human values too."

He said that when school graduates took up Islamic education at UAEU they were well versed in many aspects of the religion.

"But children do not only learn at school, so interaction with the community to appreciate the different races and ethnic backgrounds to encourage an openness and appreciation among them should be encouraged."

Some private schools have been connecting pupils with world faiths through the Face to Faith initiative of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which was brought to the Emirates by Gems, the country's largest private education provider.

Sian Rowles, the coordinator of the programme in the UAE, said 14 schools were involved and it was hoped to also involve government schools.

"In the programme, children video-conference with peers across the world on topics like unity, solidarity and role of women," said Ms Rowles, who also heads student development at Jumeirah College.

"They talk about how they live in their community and how they can work in collection and collaboration."

The school programme is conducted in 17 countries to foster dialogue skills in children aged between 12 and 17, to prevent conflict and stereotypes.

Ms Rowles said the aim was to engage in deeper, respectful dialogue.

"In the sessions they talk about their thoughts and beliefs, which helps to shatter a lot of illusions as well," she said.

"In some countries, the government is keen on introducing this into their national curriculum as well."

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