Europe Grapples with Independent Koran Schools Radicalizing Students
by Abigail R. Esman
The exam is multiple choice, with questions about the treatment of enemies — homosexuals, for instance, and unbelievers. How should they be punished, the children are asked: with lashings? Stoning? Killed by the sword?
This is not in the Islamic State, or Taliban-run Afghanistan. It is an exam that has been given for years at some of the Netherlands’ weekend Koran schools, and Education Minister Dennis Wiersma wants it stopped. In November, he proposed a new law that would allow government oversight of these schools.
The exam came to light during a 2019 investigation by newspaper NRC Handelsblad and television news show “Nieuwsuur,” which found that at least half of the country’s independent Koran schools were being run by Salafists, who were actively indoctrinating the students. Salafists generally reject all aspects of modern, Western life, including secularism and secular political states. ISIS is an example of a Salafist group.
According to the investigation, teachers at these schools have praised sharia-based legal systems, warned children to stay away from “enemies” (gays and non-Muslims), and reject Western (and therefore, Dutch) culture completely. “You can better congratulate someone for a murder than wish them a Merry Christmas,” one imam was recorded telling his students.
More recently, Muslim primary schools have also come under fire, not only for spreading radical Islamist ideas and anti-Jewish rhetoric, but for failing to meet standard education requirements and banning such things as music, dance, and art.
Yet despite all this, Wiersma’s colleagues have shown reluctance to approve his proposed bill. More research and debate would be needed, they say, not just into the Islamist threat being posed, but into the proposal’s feasibility. Is such a law even democratic, or does it allow the government to determine how parents raise their children, a possible violation of free speech?
The problem of radicalization in Koran schools and in Islamic day schools is hardly limited to the Netherlands. Officials in Sweden, France, Belgium, Austria, the UK, and elsewhere face similar situations, all of which threaten to shape the culture and ideologies of an entire new generation of Europe’s Muslims.
Yet while Dutch officials hesitate, Sweden is taking more aggressive action. Since 2019, authorities have forced the closure of 17 Muslim day schools, citing concerns over Muslim Brotherhood leadership and efforts to radicalize the students. What’s more, education officials claim, most of the schools fail to meet legal education standards or have simply been mismanaged. And because private religious day schools are funded by the government, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate maintains that it has the right to shut those institutions down.
France also has been taking more aggressive action, closing Islamic schools throughout the country, including two declared “illegal” in Montpellier, last November. And last June, in Birmingham, England, the British education office Ofsted found that boys and girls at the Redstone Education Academy were being segregated in classrooms. Moreover, Ofsted discovered, the school’s director, Waheed Alam (aka Abu Khadeejah), had published articles that aimed “to restrict the activities of women” and promoted the idea of male guardianship. Accusing him of radicalizing his students, Ofsted forced Alam from office, declaring that he “has produced a number of online sermons and articles between 2015 and 2019 which fail to show tolerance of, and respect for, the rights of others, and/or undermining fundamental British values.”
But even as early as 2016, officials expressed concern about these “unregistered” schools. And Ofsted warned of the threat in 2019, finding that up to 6,000 children were being educated in such “unregistered settings,” and that 21 percent of those settings were “places of religious instruction,” according to the Spectator. “Unregistered religious schools which are not subject to formal oversight over matters of safeguarding and rooted in segregated communities, play their part in the fostering of ‘parallel societies’ which threaten to tear apart the nation’s social fabric,” the Spectator reported.
This is precisely the problem confronting Belgium. More than half of all public school students in Brussels and in Antwerp are enrolled in religious Muslim schools, with as many as 81 percent in the Antwerp region of Borgerhout. For Filip de Winter, a leader of the far-right Flemish Vlaams Belang party, such numbers foreshadow exactly the kind of schism described by the Spectator as Muslim youth become less assimilated.
Others agree. During a parliamentary debate last June about the possible licensing of yet another such school, Plura C, Flemish Education Minister Ben Weyts noted, “I can see no way in which such a school can contribute to integration and a harmonious society … We do the children and parents no service [by permitting] them.”
Indeed, earlier investigations into Plura C had already concluded that the school, which is affiliated with Turkish Islamist organization Milli Gorus, “would become an extremist vector in the Limburg educational environment, in accordance with the supporting ideology that goes against the principles of human rights and other foundations of the rule of law.”
Nonetheless, as in Holland, such arguments have come against strong resistance. “You can’t be just a little bit for freedom of education,” one minister argued. Others pointed to the questionable morality of closing or banning such schools that meet the legal educational and administrative requirements. Consequently, despite the school’s potential to become an “extremist vector” in the region, the Belgian government seems unlikely to do much to stop it.
To be sure, some of the objections being made — in Belgium, in the Netherlands, and elsewhere — have merit. But they point to the dilemma that such extremism forces us to confront in every instance: that sometimes one of the greatest threats to democracy can be democracy itself.
Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her latest book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @abigailesman. A version of this article was originally published at IPT.