Islam and society26.03.2023

Teaching Islam in schools promotes tolerance

The growing religious diversity in Switzerland poses new challenges for schools as well. With this in mind, experts from the Universities of Fribourg and Lucerne have investigated various school teaching models on questions of religion throughout Switzerland. One of the study’s findings is that Islamic religious education has an integrative effect in schools, as it brings the environments of school and religion into dialogue with each other.

In German-speaking areas of Switzerland, denominational Islamic religious instruction is currently given at eight schools in four cantons (Lucerne, Zurich, Thurgau, Schaffhausen) – according to the results of the study. This teaching, like Catholic or Protestant instruction, complements the compulsory lessons about questions of ethics and religions. Associations responsible for this type of teaching create a broad base that includes parents, local governments and churches. The lessons provide age-appropriate teachings of Islam, which is geared towards the Swiss context. While legal recognition of a religious organisation is a prerequisite for teaching religion in the majority of Swiss cantons, in some cantons there is a bit of leeway.

In Western Switzerland, for example, religious education is entirely the responsibility of the state. In some cases, excursions offer the opportunity to explore religious buildings and meet representatives of religious communities. Thus, teaching increasingly also involves religion as it is practiced. In Ticino, on the other hand, the new religious education introduced in 2019 also focuses on the concerns of religious minorities.

Preventing radicalisation
For the study, the authors used qualitative expert interviews to interview key figures in denominational religious Islamic education as well as state religious education. These interviews provided a variety of different perspectives which came from administrators, schools and religious communities. It turned out that despite fundamentally different starting points, all the forms of teaching had similar characteristics in important points such as the acceptance of different perspectives on the topic of religion. According to the general view of the research, forms of teaching that take this diversity into account make an important contribution to the prevention of radicalisation: they strengthen understanding and tolerance, provide guidance to children and young people in building their own religious identity, and enable them to constructively deal with religious diversity, thus increasing the resilience to religious understandings that are strongly demarcating and identitarian. These types of teaching avoid creating a vacuum with regard to religion and identity, a situation which can make young people vulnerable to radicalisation processes.

The experts recommend making use of local experiences and developing contacts between schools and religious communities. Legal leeway should be used for the expansion of Islamic religious education. At the same time, this should be further developed using measures of quality assurance and further training as well as through networking the participants.

The study was jointly developed by the Swiss Centre for Islam and Society and the Institute for Religious Law of the University of Fribourg as well as the Center for Research on Religion of the University of Lucerne. It was backed by the Swiss Federal Office of Police (fedpol) as part of the National Action Plan to prevent and combat radicalisation and violent extremism.

> Schmid Hansjörg, Pahud de Mortanges René, Tunger-Zanetti Andreas, Roveri Tatiana:
Religiöse Diversität, interreligiöse Perspektiven und islamischer Religionsunterricht in der Schweiz: Bestandsaufnahme und Gestaltungsspielräume (available in German and French)