“I’ve found beauty and purity here at the Islamic University,” said Baizat Omarova, 18, a second-year student in the Dagestani town of Buinaksk. “It’s helped me to recover from my shocking experience at public secondary school, where they wouldn’t award me the gold medal I had earned unless I paid a hefty bribe.”
A high demand for college education and the liberalisation of Russia’s education system have created a boom in private universities across the federation. And in the Muslim republic of Dagestan, private Islamic colleges are becoming increasingly attractive.
The Islamic colleges are especially popular with students from rural areas and poorer backgrounds. The schools, which often rely on donations and the local mosques for support, provide free education and give financial help to hard-up students.
According to the Dagestani government’s committee on religion, there are 17 Islamic colleges in the republic, with around 5,000 students between them.
But to Akhmed Magomedov, the chairman of the committee on religion, this network of colleges is largely unregulated and potentially dangerous, as only seven of the 17 are licensed.
“The state cares what our young citizens are learning and how,” Magomedov said. “Some religious schools operate without proper registration, even without a license. People have turned a blind eye to this so far, but the situation cannot be allowed to continue.”
However, Dagestan’s deputy mufti Akhmadhaji Tagayev argues that such schools are filling an important gap in the state sector’s education provision, saying, “So what if they’re not registered? We are educating those who have not been brought up correctly by their parents and teachers.
“If we didn’t take them, they would end up on the streets. They are would-be criminals and we make law-abiding citizens out of them.”
Analysts believe that the suspicion and controversy surrounding these establishments is being driven by a fear of Islamic fundamentalism.
Dagestan experienced a surge of extremism in the mid-Nineties – much of it supported by Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries – although the authorities now maintain that the threat has been neutralised.
However, the state’s as yet unproven belief that many of the Islamic colleges are being funded from abroad has been enough to raise suspicions.
On the other hand, the Russian education ministry’s recent insistence that all new Islamic colleges have to be accredited has given rise to accusations of discrimination.
“To obtain such accreditation, the school has to meet national education standards,” complained Omar Nukhov, rector of the University of the Peoples of the Caucasus. “But there are no national standards for training Muslim preachers. This is just not fair.”
But a military conscription official told IWPR that being unlicensed is the least of many colleges’ problems. “We did an audit of one college in the Kizlyar region, while researching our recruitment options, and found that it had no classrooms as such, no register, and the only two teachers we saw were not trained,” the official claimed.
The army’s interest in the Islamic institutions has also caused tension. The spring conscription campaign is already underway, and students at non-registered Islamic colleges are not exempt from it. One religious leader warned, “If they don’t give our students a deferral, they will have to bribe their way out of military service. One way or another, they will continue their studies.”
Research has shown that most Dagestanis prefer a secular education. A sociological study carried out over two years at Dagestani State University showed that less than four per cent of urban high-school graduates want a religious education. More than 70 per cent opted for secular studies, with around ten per cent voicing a preference for a mix of the two.
Umar Khalitov, a student at the Imam Shafia Islamic University, told IWPR that he was happy with his studies no matter what the educational establishment may feel. “Although we have not studied any secular subjects, I do not feel I have any gaps in my education,” he said. “I read the Koran and Sharia law when I have free time. As this is my seventh year, I will be graduating soon and hope to get a job in a mosque after my internship.”
Observers have noticed a recent tendency for schoolchildren to skip their secular classes to attend Islamic lessons – often at the instigation of their parents. Natella Musalayeva, Dagestan’s first deputy education minister, said, “Some secular schools are losing their students before our very eyes.”
The education ministry calculates that at the beginning of this year around 2,000 students aged between seven and 15 did not attend school for various reasons.
Khadija Sikhalieva, head of the non-governmental organisation Muslimat, who also works at the local branch of the Islamic university in Buinaksk told IWPR, “The parents take their children out of school and bring them here. We don’t want this to happen – but at the same time we cannot turn them away. Allah would not forgive us for that.”
Nina Agayeva is a reporter for the Makhachkalinskie Novosti newspaper in Dagestan.
This article was originally published by the IWPR (Institute for War Peace Reporting), London, in the Caucasus Reporting Service (CRS No. 180, 22 May 2003). The Institute for War & Peace Reporting strengthens local journalism in areas of conflict. Religioscope has been allowed by the IWPR to repost its articles.
© 2003 Institute for War & Peace Reporting