Abdel-Rahman, one of Iman's alumni, says it is similar to other private schools in terms of extracurricular activities, yet he did not deny there are differences on other levels. First of all, Iman's branches, like all Islamic schools, observe gender segregation.

Also, students are obliged to observe religious rituals, whether during a regular school day or when on school trips. "What was special in our school was the presence of youth and scouting groups that are affiliated or close to al-Jamaa al-Islamiya," he said. "Their activities were different to other extracurricular activities. They would organise camps and trips to pools and to distant areas."

Abdel-Rahman denies, however, that Iman schools are used to foster potential partisans, saying many alumni support al-Jamaa al-Islamiya without actually joining the organisation. His experience at the renowned Islamic school was generally positive, yet he admits to having been shocked when he got to university and found a completely different lifestyle. There there were no stereotypes or hardliners, he said.

Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah (photo: AP)
Shia political Islam sets a precedent: in 1978, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, at the time the most prominent political Islam figure, who played a major role in igniting the Hezbollah war in the early 1980s, founded Imam Al-Khoei's "Mabarrat" -- a school that both shelters and teaches young orphans from the Shia Muslim sect

The role of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah

In 1978, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, at the time the most prominent political Islam figure and who played a major role in igniting the Hezbollah war in the early 1980s, founded Imam Al-Khoei's "Mabarrat" -- a school that both shelters and teaches young orphans from the Shia Muslim sect.

Later, the Mabarrat Charity Association was founded, subsequently establishing 15 Mabarrats in Beirut, the region of Mount Lebanon, Bekaa Valley and the South Governorate.

Ali Sherri, one of the first Mabarrat graduates and now the head of its alumni association, says the religious education he has received helped him overcome the hardships he went through as a needy orphan.

He also said his upbringing in a Mabarrat did not inhibit him from integrating into the French society when he flew to France for his academic studies, highlighting "Fadlallah's call for total openness".

Sherri explains that the Mabarrat Charity Association is funded by "Khums", which is money Shia Muslims pay to contribute to Islamic initiatives and projects.

The students of Hezbollah

Malak recalls two incidents while studying in a Mabarrat. The first was when students were suddenly told to go down to the schoolyard where media crews were waiting for them.

Hezbollah school in Beirut (photo: AP)
Primary and secondary schools under the Hezbollah aegis: by the early 1990s, more Islamic educational institutions were emerging, including the Islamic Organisation for Education that is directly affiliated to Hezbollah. It started in 1993 by establishing four schools in different areas, before expanding to 17 schools in Beirut, Bekaa and the south

They were asked to hold placards bearing support of the opposition's mobilisation in Bahrain and to chant political slogans along with the teaching staff. Bahrain was one of the Arab countries whose political crisis by the beginning of the Arab Spring had a sectarian dimension. Consequently, the Gulf country's unrest affected Lebanon.

The second incident took place six years before the beginning of the Syrian war when the school hosted a Hezbollah member who gave a lecture on the importance of being trained to use weapons, and "preparing for a time when everyone will have to fight". This was under the auspices of the school's board as similar lectures were given on different occasions, Malak said.

In the late 1970s, a group of pious Muslims founded the Islamic Religious Education Association, which aimed to boost religious education in public and private schools and to train teachers of religious education. Later, the association established Al-Mustafa private schools, with the first branch launched in Haret Hreik, south of Beirut in 1984.

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