Finland: Islam in schools should contribute to anti-radicalization

Finnish pupils in elementary education have started their school year of 2016 with a new national curriculum. In Finland, every school is obliged to offer subject education in Islam for Muslim children, when at least three students would select it instead of the majority Evangelic Lutheran religious education or alternatively Ethics. Whereas until now the contents of teaching and learning for minority religion subjects (i.e. not Evangelic Lutheran) such as Islam, Baha’i, Mormonism etc. were determined in a separate document, the curriculum for Islam has been revised so that it is now for the first time included in the new national curriculum.

The change means that Islam as a school subject is now treated with the same degree of attention as all the other subjects are. As for each religious subject the curriculum is categorized into three different content areas; “Relationship to one’s own religion”, “Religious diversity in the world” and lastly “Good life principles”, the contents of Islam are hence comparable also with other religious subjects such as Catholicism and Judaism, ensuring equal literacy in their respective religions for students of these subjects.

The new curriculum aims at empowering the pupils of today to be able to deal with issues concerning the Finnish society in the early 21st century. The content areas outlined for the subject of Islam throughout the class levels 1-9 include for example reflections on religion as part of one’s cultural identity, the historical influence of Islam in the European culture, political Islam, inter-religious dialogue and religion in media and popular culture. Moreover, alongside with the traditional content-based learning the new curriculum emphasizes phenomenon-based learning in all subjects. Hence, for example in Islamic education children are encouraged to research and learn about current trends and phenomena in the society and analyze and critically think about them from the standpoint of their religion. The curriculum gives as well more space to co-operation across subjects, while for example visits to local worship places (e.g. churches or mosques) can be done together with Muslim and Christian student groups.

The importance of religious school education has been lately discussed in the Finnish media in terms of how it prevents radicalization and enhances social cohesion. The sociologist Karin Creutz commented in an interview that when Islam is taught in the schools, it will give tools and skills for the Muslim children and youth to understand and know their religion and hence avoid being drawn into radicalism and the dark-side of the violent Islamism, like the Islamic State. Also the Islam school teacher Suaad Onniselkä confirmed on a radio program what Creutz was as well had argued for, that Islam as a school subject will contribute positively to the construction of the Self-identity among Muslim children in Finland. Hence, according to Onniselkä, religion functions as an empowering element.

When Islam is now taught in schools on a comparable level with other religious subjects, it will support holistically the understanding of differences in religious structures and culture as such. Such a school education shall help to raise generations who will be enabled to build world peace. Yet, education in religious literacy should not merely be restricted to school children but should be expanded to the communal level, Creutz again argues. Thus, the general knowledge on religions and the discourse at the societal level should be more inclusive of aspects of religion as part of people’s lives in a world in which religions are falsely stigmatized in a pseudo-secularized society.