As the Islamic movements started to spread across the Arab world in the early 1970s, a number of educational institutions affiliated to political Islam were established in Lebanon. Though they did not mark the beginning of religious education in the country, they differed from other Islamic and Christian schools.

Unlike religious schools that incorporate spirituality into their education, political Islam schools adopt Islam as an ideology and a doctrine relating to all aspects of life, including politics. In fact, some of them were actually founded by Islamic political parties.

Religious education in Lebanon

Cover of Kamal Salibi′s ″The Modern History of Lebanon″
As Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi mentioned in his book "The Modern History of Lebanon", many affluent Muslim families in the eighteenth century opted to send their children to schools founded by Christian missions – evidently one of the reasons a number of Muslim families converted to Christianity at the time

The supporters of this education system see it as a way of teaching moral and social values alongside the mainstream curricula, in the belief that such principles are only dictated by religion. Critics, however, argue that this type of education intensifies sectarianism by further isolating each sect from the other, especially in a society that is as diverse as the Lebanese.

But education in Lebanon has always been religious in one way or another. There was a time during the Ottoman Empire when education was only available in the Islamic 'kuttab' schools and mosques, where students studied the Koran, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and the Arabic language.

Only at the beginning of the 18th century, did schools affiliated to Christian missions begin to spring up. Many affluent Muslim families opted to send their children to these schools, as Kamal Salibi mentioned in his book "The Modern History of Lebanon", which was one of the reasons why a number of Muslim families converted to Christianity.

This trend angered the local Muslim community and the Ottoman Empire alike, with both convinced that the Christian missions were pioneering a western cultural attack, one that had to be resisted.

Averroism started to appear in many states. This pushback against Christian education was also marked by individual efforts, which included the establishment of Islamic educational institutions. The Al-Makassed Islamic Charitable Society, founded in 1878 in Beirut, is just one example.

However, the educational institutions of the Christian missions did not cease to exist. As a matter of fact, they inspired parishes and monasteries to follow suit. By the end of Ottoman rule and under the French mandate the local Christian schools had become among the most important in Lebanon.

By the time Lebanon declared independence, many areas remained cut off from both official mainstream education and other governmental services.

The birth of political Islam schools

The first school related to political Islam to open in Lebanon was named Iman, meaning faith in Arabic. Inaugurated in 1974, the school is part of the Islamic Education Association, which falls under al-Jamaa al-Islamiya's umbrella in Beirut. Other branches of the school were soon established in different parts of Lebanon.

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.

The association published a book called "Islam Is Our Message" for the subject of Islamic education, which is included in all school grades. The book has become the most common in schools belonging to the Shia sect as well as in non-religious schools located in Shia-dominant areas. There are no equivalent books in schools belonging to other Muslim sects.

Naim Qassem, currently the second in command of Hezbollah, is a founding member of the Islamic Religious Education Association. His relationship with the association these days is undisclosed, yet it is obvious Qassem still plays a major role, having sponsored many of its events.

At Khamenei and Khomeini′s service

Hassan graduated from Haret Hreik's Al-Mustafa, where he spent his entire school career. The extracurricular activities were not out of the ordinary, while its education level was relatively high, he says. As for the religious education, Hassan said there was one hour per week dedicated to the subject of religion and another to studying the Koran.

Hassan points out that the children of Hezbollah's martyrs who are enrolled in Al-Mustafa schools are exempt from tuition fees. He also said flags of Hezbollah are plenty inside the school premises along with photos of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini.

Maytham, another Al-Mustafa graduate, said the school's board called on students in 2007 to take part in protests organised by the March 8 Alliance against the government of then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The school also provided buses to transport the students to the venue of the demonstrations.

Hezbollah supporter protesting against the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Mobilising against the political foe: one graduate of the private Al-Mustafa school, admits that the school's board called on students in 2007 to take part in protests organised by the March 8 Alliance against the government of then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora

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. It has also built a school in the Iranian city of Qom.

Other educational initiatives

Among the educational institutions that appeared during this period of time were the schools of the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, also known as Al-Ahbash, a Sunni sect organisation. The association established its first school, The Islamic Culture High School, in 1991 in Beirut before other branches were inaugurated in Akkar Governorate, the city of Tripoli, Barja town and Bekaa Governorate.

Meanwhile, the educational and political activities of Salafists in Lebanon remain limited, thanks to a sustained official crackdown on the extremist views many of them adhere to. They established a handful of Islamic studies institutes, many which have since closed. Generally speaking, compared to other groups across the political spectrum, their influence is negligible.

Article 10 of the Lebanese constitution stipulates that "education is free" as long as decency is observed. There may be no disturbances to the public order, nor may religions or sects be insulted. It also affords different sects the right to establish their schools.

Ultimately, the Islamists have managed to reach large segments of Lebanese society through the education system. Publicly-funded mainstream education remained unavailable in many areas of Lebanon until recently and it still lags behind the private schools in terms of educational standards. According to a report released by Statistics in Focus, 66 percent of Lebanon's students attend fee-paying schools.

Hassan Lama′a

© raseef22 2018

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