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Religion Studies in Kyrgyz Schools: Knowledge Against Radicalization

Starting from September 2020, the introduction of a new subject – “History of Religious Cultures” is planned in all schools of Kyrgyzstan. The subject has been evaluated during five years; experimental lessons are already taught in 56 schools of all regions of the country during this academic year.

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An experimental lesson is being taught in the eighth grade of the Bishkek’s secondary school. The school was chosen for the testing of a new subject – “History of Religious Cultures”. It is designed for one academic year and teaches about existing religions: their origins, differences and features.

Zaiyrbek Ergeshov

Zaiyrbek Ergeshov, Director of the State Commission for Religious Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic, says that initially the new subject aroused misunderstanding and questions from the parents.

“We explained them that this was not a religious subject, this was subject of scientific studies of religion. We provide them with knowledge. We explain to children how religion has influenced the development of culture and science, how it has shaped the progress and development of human civilization in general,” Ergeshov says.

A history teacher at school No. 10 Salkynai Iskakova, in order to avoid misunderstanding, gathered the students’ parents before the beginning of the academic year and explained the topics of the new subject and that it was not promoting any religion.

“The teacher should be neutral towards all religions during the lesson, try not to hurt the children’s feelings regarding their religion. A teacher should give common knowledge, should help children to understand what religion is,” Iskakova said.

The subject “History of Religious Cultures” is the result of joint work of the specialists from the State Commission for Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Education and Science, the Kyrgyz Academy of Education, as well as religious experts and representatives of various faiths in Kyrgyzstan.

According to the religious scholar Indira Aslanova, the subject develops an understanding of religious traditions that existed and still exist in the world and their contribution to the culture.

In this regard, the subject is created to expand the students’ worldview, to demonstrate that religious phenomena are amazing, different, and influenced the culture in different ways. The world is not limited to the only religion that we ourselves represent. The world is huge and diverse.

The subject has been evaluated during the last five years. Much attention is paid to the preparation of a textbook and guidelines for teachers. The subject is constantly updated and simplified. The task is to make the textbook as clear as possible, correct and respectful to all religions, as well as comprehensive, specialists note.

According to Zaiyrbek Ergeshov, the original version of the textbook was written in an academic sophisticated language, but gradually it was made clear and understandable for children and teachers.

The Bishkek Education Department takes into account the opinions of all teachers, who submitted reports and recommendations on the necessary adjustments and clarifications based on the results of their work on the subject. The textbook and guidelines for teachers are now being prepared for printing; the Ministry of Education has already announced a tender.

In total, 56 schools across the country participate in evaluation process; about three hundred students are covered. Six schools are located in Bishkek.

“It turned out that children need it. Understanding that there is not just Islam or Christianity in the world, gives generally good results. […] There were cases when children refused vaccinations. This is also a misunderstanding of religion. Not only by children, but also by their parents. There is necessity to study this subject and study it in depth. This is the main aim of this course,” says Chinara Baktygulova, chief specialist of the education development unit of the Bishkek Education Department.

We will counter radicalization and extremism through the knowledge

During discussions of the school subject “History of Religious Cultures”, representatives of different faiths, theologians, and religious scholars were involved so that the textbook had a correct description of each religion. However, it was decided that the representatives of faiths should not teach children. Therefore, the subject is taught by history teachers and teachers of the subject “Man and society”. It is emphasized that this is a purely secular subject.

“We want children to develop an immunity. We will counter radicalization and extremism through the knowledge. The main goal is to form interfaith dialogue and interfaith relations among youth, among our citizens. We must respect different cultures, we must respect different religions as well,” says Ergeshov.

Teachers will undergo development trainings at a specialized republican institute. Those teachers who are already teaching the subject in the chosen schools have the appropriate certificates and are ready to share their experience with colleagues from other schools.

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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