Religion - Indonesia follows moral compass

New curriculum seeks to defend against religious extremism

The country with the world's largest Muslim population is tackling growing concerns over fundamentalist violence by introducing a new curriculum focusing on moral and religious instruction - at the expense of science.

Government officials in Indonesia are worried about the increasing influence of religious extremism and attacks on Christian churches. More rigorous religious education, emphasising peacefulness and tolerance, will help to inoculate young people against fundamentalist preaching, they believe.

"Terrorism is not triggered by long hours of lessons on religion," said Mohammad Nuh, education and culture minister, at a debate in the country's House of Representatives earlier this year. "The growing acts of terrorism were basically due to incomplete religious education. Therefore, we need to add more hours for religious subjects."

The first group of Indonesian teachers will next month begin training in the new government-approved curriculum, which overhauls education for students of all ages and drops science and social studies as discrete subjects for children aged 6-12, to make time for religious and moral education.

Roy Gardner of the University of London's Institute of Education, co-author with Fasli Jalal of a 2009 book on improving schools in Indonesia, said that according to its constitution, the country was tolerant of all faiths.

"However, there have been many instances of attacks on the Christian Church," he told TES. "There are also concerns about the spread of fundamentalist groups and there have been an increasing number of controls introduced to ensure that the country follows more Islamic patterns of life. The hope that the emphasis on religion will lead to greater harmony between communities is laudable."

But the decision has meant that science has been dropped as a stand-alone subject in the early years of schooling. And the primacy of religious and moral education has led to some moralistic proposals for science teaching, which have been mocked by activists who oppose the new curriculum.

For example, in 10th-grade lessons for 15-year-olds, students are invited to study the regularity of atoms, elements and molecules as an example of discipline for them to follow in their own lives. "The new curriculum states that a 10th-grade student must learn to be disciplined like an electron, which always moves within its orbit," Retno Listyarti, secretary general of the Indonesian Teachers Union Federation, told The Jakarta Post. "How can my students behave like electrons?"

Students are also invited to demonstrate an awareness of rights and obligations, as well as tolerance in a pluralistic society, by studying mathematical equations and linear inequalities. "How is that even possible?" Ms Listyarti asked.

A report published this year by Human Rights Watch, In Religion's Name, says that, despite its reputation for tolerance, the Indonesian government frequently overlooks the harassment of religious minorities and has even introduced discriminatory laws.

But the report adds that while perpetrators of serious crimes against minorities are often given "ridiculously lenient" sentences, the government deals severely with acts of terrorism.

"In numerous instances documented in this report, harassment and intimidation of minority communities by militant Islamist groups has been facilitated by the active or passive involvement of Indonesian government officials and security forces," it states.

The main concern of teachers, however, is how to introduce a new curriculum quickly in a country with more than 30 million children in primary school alone, and with nearly 3 million government-employed teachers and a further 1.7 million employed locally.

Approving the budget to implement the curriculum, the government reduced its funding by two-thirds, acknowledging that only a small proportion of schools were ready to receive it. Originally, more than 102,000 schools were to teach the new curriculum in the next school year, but that has been reduced to about 6,300. The number of teachers to be trained has been cut from about 550,000 to about 55,000.

"The existing curriculum is still relevant to fulfil the needs of the students and flexible enough to adjust to the needs of local content," education consultant and teacher trainer Itje Chodidjah told TES. "The problem with the curriculum is in the implementation. Teachers will not have had enough training before the curriculum is applied, so they will not have a clear idea of how to translate it into the teaching and learning process."

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