Eras in Education – Post-Colonial Morocco

Sunday School versus Weekday School: Parallel Church and State Developments in Post-Colonial Morocco

For most students who grew up in Canada during the last few decades, school meant reading, writing, and math with a dose of socialization on the side. Some students, myself included, also had a “bonus”
morning of school as part of church on Sundays. There did not seem to be much middle ground as to our sentiments about Sunday school; we either enjoyed it or we loathed it. These polarized opinions on religious education are mirrored in Canadian society’s historical orientation in regard to schooling.

Combining church and schooling now seems as exotic as a trip to Timbuktu. Yet in Morocco, practically next door to Timbuktu, Mali, the education system performs just this combined act.

The big difference growing up in Canada was that Sunday schools attempted to teach morals and values whereas weekday school focused more on skills and aptitudes, with moral education being incidental. Cruelty and violence was punished in school yet the curricula itself wasn’t based on learning to “love thy neighbour.” Presumably we students learned our basic social skills and mores outside formal classrooms.

However, in countries where Church and State were historically linked, the education system served to combine religious and secular teachings. In Morocco, independence from a colonial power brought to light important questions about what and how pupils would be taught, and what the emphasis of their education would be.

Morocco has a long tradition as an Islamic country and the arrival of colonial powers such as Portugal and France did not alter its heritage. Morocco gained independence from France in 1956 and shortly afterward a “Royal Commission for Education Reform laid down the basic [principles] of post-independence Moroccan education.”

One stated goal was to enact an Arabization of the curriculum, which up to that point was largely taught in French. Parallel to this colonial system were traditional Islamic religious schools known as Jamaa, which sought to remain independent of the new and more practically oriented system. This separation of French from Islamic schools is paralleled in the Canadian public-private school situation, although in Morocco Islam was more central to people’s lives than religion is to most Canadians.

Originally the French set up colonial schools that “primarily served the educational needs of the European minority.” This led some Moroccan families to demonstrate allegiance to their culture by sending their children to the Islamic schools. Education in Morocco was always about more than just learning the three R’s or learning about morality; it was about learning how to be a good Muslim, a definition that changed depending on each Moroccan’s point of view.

Traditionally Moroccan ?girls stayed at home while the boys went to the school.? As a result of this cultural reality, literacy in Morocco today is at 65.7 per cent for men and only 39.6 per cent for women. Despite the establishment of compulsory education in the early 1960s, “many children—particularly in rural areas—still do not attend school.” At the time of Morocco’s independence, only 17 per cent of students attended school compared to 85 per cent by 1985.

Today, a cultural tradition that favours men over women in terms of education has slowly eroded; a change That’s been accentuated by the passage in 2004 by King Mohammed VI of a family law known as Moudawana. This law granted rights to women who were raped or left destitute by their husbands. It also allowed for DNA testing to find out who a child’s father was and made it legal for women to initiate divorce. Ironically, new divorce laws actually led to fewer divorces overall because it became illegal for men to simply divorce their wives by an act of unilaterally repudiating them.

In Moroccan universities, sociologists today are allowed to study their own society more freely than in the past and “everyone now talks about women’s rights, even if jokingly.” Although the tone may be comedic, the fact that the issues are being discussed is nonetheless a sign of greater gender equality.

Moroccan independence occurred in large part because of nationalists who were educated in a Western-European style. As in other countries of Africa and the Middle East, they were wary of allowing religious authority to wield too much power in the new state apparatus. This is paralleled in the history of Canada, where early educators sought to create a public education system that was not heavily imbued with denominational or sectarian tendencies. This secular approach has in Morocco produced a controversial and outspoken sociologist named Fatima Mernissi who today teaches at Universit√© Mohammed V in the capital city of Rabat. In Mernissi’s view, the history of Islamic education has been a “dance of death between authority and individuality.”

Mernissi supports a historical branch of Islamic education known as the Mu?taliza who during the 9th and 10th centuries “placed reason on the same plane as revelation and borrowed liberally from extra-Islamic sources, especially Greek philosophy.” Although devout Muslims, they allowed for a greater breadth of philosophical input to their epistemology (ways of knowing the world).

For Mernissi, a reconciliation between Western secular education and Islamic Koranic (religion-based) education lies in a combination of the two. This perspective is interesting as a counterpoint to public education in Canada, where Sunday school and weekday school remain formally ensconced in their separate corners. Of course, Morocco is a far more homogenous culture than Canada and thus requires less tolerance of divergent religious points of view.

As Morocco emerged from its status as a colonially occupied country, conflicts in education occurred between Western-style secularists and Islamic traditionalists. When Mernissi states that “The power of the modern West has been built by state propagation, through public schools, of that humanism that the Arab masses have never had the right to,” she is speaking harsh words toward Islamic educators. In a way her critical perspective has produced the education system we have in the Western world today; it is hard for we of younger generations to imagine a time when prayer took place in school or when there were Bibles present in classrooms.

Yet, in parts of the world such as Morocco, it is for many people inconceivable that learning could take place separately from religious faith. In Morocco it is generally held that “God revealed his sacred law, the shari’a” and that all education or learning must take place with this divine truth in mind. Perhaps at the root of the matter is whether education without a moral component produces better students. For a culture such as Morocco’s, where religion and life have been so intrinsically linked, it is a challenging process for educators to find a harmonizing balance between Church and State.