Guljigit Sooronkulov has worked for over 40 years in the sphere of education, for a long time occupying the post of Deputy Minister of Education and Science. He is currently the chief scientific officer at the Chinghiz Aitmatov Institute of Language and Literature at the National Academy of Sciences and teaches at the Kyrgyz-Russian University. Today, Guljigit Umarovich talks to us about the main problems facing education in Kyrgyzstan, and how it is being influenced by religious movements.
– Guljigit Sooronkulov, what are the main problems with the Kyrgyz education system today?
– Unfortunately, our national education system is suffering from a range of problems, the number of which is increasing by the year. This is due to the rapid succession of Ministers, none of whom have been able to complete their promised plans for reform. The issue of education, in turn, merits particular attention as it is directly linked to national security: if we cannot give children enough attention from infancy, how can we raise responsible citizens? Recently, some people from our country have gone off and joined the terrorist group ISIS, and we should consider this our fault, as we have failed to offer them a decent education and good upbringing. Consequently, our citizens have fallen victim to recruiters and even agree to become suicide bombers. Psychologists say that from the ages of 2 to 5 children are like sponges which absorb and retain everything they experience. We gain 70% of our knowledge and education and skills at this age, whereas the remaining 30% of our life experience is gained in our subsequent years. Based on this, the education of children should begin in earnest from kindergarten. It’s a great shame that half of our kindergartens have been sold, whilst the other half have been ransacked. The government’s attempts to buy back these kindergartens have been unsuccessful, whilst the number of private ones is increasing. Even so, 80% of children stay at home with their parents or relatives. By comparison, Belarus has managed to preserve all of their kindergartens that were built in the Soviet period, whilst Kazakhstan, with a similar situation to our own, has nonetheless built enough kindergartens for 60% of their child population.
– What’s your take on the problem of providing children with necessary learning materials?
– All children should have access to the books they need. Until 2006, learning materials were available to rent, and parents would pay 15–20 som for a book for their child. Ten years later, we have moved away from this practice, and only 40% of our schools are provided with educational materials. However, the Ministry of Education is trying to cover up this deficiency and reports that 70% of schools have all the books they require. In reality, the use of any one textbook should not exceed five years, after which it is necessary to reissue the book. One of the reasons for this is to stop the spread of tuberculosis via learning materials which are stored in damp conditions. It is also important to supplement the books with new methodological and didactic material. Every schoolchild should have access to specialized activity books and atlases in their classroom. Another major problem is the quality of teaching in schools. In order to nurture qualified teachers, we must standardize opportunities for all school leavers, setting a threshold score of over 200 points.
– What has the impact of Islamisation been on the sphere of education, and how much of a risk does it pose?
-I recently visited my hometown of Bakay-Ata. In the centre of the Bakay-Ata district, there are three secondary schools and a local mosque. On Fridays, the primary and secondary school students are not allowed to go to school because of Jumah Namaz (Friday prayer). From an early age, girls are forced to wear hijabs and long clothes, and even teachers have to cover their heads at school. If the President, the Ministry of Education and society as a whole do not pay more attention to this issue, there could be grave consequences. Having been more susceptible to Islamisation, Uzbekistan has introduced some extreme measures, for example, men with beards have been forced to shave. In Dushanbe, you will rarely see anyone with a long beard or wear Asian-style trousers, as is common in our country.
– Is it possible to protect our literary and cultural knowledge from religious radicalisation?
– This depends on the quality of education and qualifications of our school teachers. Sadly, Mullahs at Jumah Namaz have greater influence than teachers. Some African people have an informative saying: “The child is the father of the man” (it is a quote from a poem by William Wordsworth (My Heart Leaps Up). Even after thousands of years, every educated person remains a descendent of their ancestors, and this will continue throughout succeeding generations. We boast that we have preserved our national traditions, but if we don’t pay enough attention to the problem of Islamisation, we may lose these very traditions.
– What’s your opinion on the construction of a greater number of mosques than schools?
– I am not against the construction of mosques; the problem lies in who is building them. There are some currents of radical Islam in Kyrgyzstan, and the government should be able to tell them apart. We should have information on the sources of funds for the construction of these mosques, such as which countries are donating money to them. Some mosques are publishing books written by local radical Islamists; Some mosques are publishing books written by local radical Islamists who intend to recruit our citizens to fight in Syria.. The state should strictly control such actions. After the recent attack on New Years Eve in Turkey, international media outlets were saying that the perpetrator was a Kyrgyz citizen. Only a small number of people were aware that there were reservations about this information, whilst the majority further entrenched this view. I am in favour of Russia’s approach to Islam and mosques: there, traditional Islam dominates and Russian Muslims primarily adhere to it, whilst not recognizing other movements.
– Do you support the view that parents send their children to Madrasa instead of school because of poverty? For example, in the summer holidays, mosques organize summer camps which parents send their children to.
The state should control these Madrasa camps because they are used to indoctrinate children. Another problem is the fact that thousands of parents are leaving the country as labour migrants. Their children are often left in the care of relatives who are unable to provide the necessary upbringing and supervision for these children. Ultimately, they grow up on the streets, and radicals take this opportunity to lure them into their religion and mosque. Every citizen should remain at home in his country and earn money there, helping raise his children.