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MP proposes ethics classes replace religious instruction in Finnish schools

Chair of the parliamentary committee on constitutional law MP Johannes Koskinen says Finland should consider changing religious instruction in schools to more closely resemble ethics courses in future, so representatives of various religions can all participate in the same instruction. The proposal also finds support in Helsinki’s Muslim community, as some Muslims already conduct their own religious tuition in mosques.

The constitutional law committee of the Finnish Parliament struck down a proposal by the government in November that would have increased the minimum number of students required for separate instruction of minority religions. The government sought to save 1.2 million euros by increasing the minimum class size from three students to ten. The move would not have affected instruction in Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox religions, as their national church status provides them with special legal status.

“The main problem from a constitutional law perspective was the difference in the way adherents to different faiths would be treated because of the class size requirements,” explains committee chair Johannes Koskinen.

The education and culture committee did not give an opinion on the government proposal, so the matter has been laid to rest for the time being. Discussion on the future of interfaith instruction in Finnish schools continues, however.

“In the future, we should open up the instruction of religion to encompass a more general understanding of ethics and religion, so all members of different faiths can participate in the same class,” says Koskinen.

Shortage of teachers a problem

Koskinen says a shortage of properly trained religion class instructors is behind his suggestion. In Finland school teachers are not required to be a member of the religion they teach. Several minority religion adherents nevertheless wish that teachers teaching Islam are Muslims themselves.

“When the qualifications to teach religion do not include one’s own convictions, many feel that these kinds of teachers are not qualified to teach. Our religion is based on a comprehensive knowledge of the Koran and our traditions,” says Hamza Peltola, chair of the Helsinki Muslims association.

At present, Muslims arrange religious instruction for children at their mosque in the Helsinki district of Roihuvuori. This instruction has been deemed an acceptable replacement for Finland’s compulsory religious education in primary school. Dozens of boys and girls study together in the same group, despite the mosque's otherwise separate facilities for men and women.

Although the Muslim group’s teachers are not officially qualified, Peltola believes it is more important that they are Muslims and the community trusts them.

“We have one teacher who has worked as a religious instructor in a school, an older person with years of experience in religious instruction. We consider this person qualified according to our standards,” says Peltola.

Should religious instruction be made optional?

Peltola has long wondered whether compulsory relgious studies in schools are necessary.

“When there aren’t enough qualified teachers of Islam that are Muslims themselves, it is a problem for both the schools and the Muslim community. Would it be appropriate to change the study of religion into an optional course? Those persons who are devoted to their religion will surely find the proper instruction from within their own religious community or parish.”

Peltola also supports Koskinen’s proposition to incorporate a more general ethics approach to religious instruction.

“It could be a good alternative, because it doesn’t venture into areas that are too sensitive. There are fears that religious instruction founded in deep convictions could influence children’s perceptions of faith in the wrong way. General tuition on cultural differences and religious traditions could be beneficial. It wouldn’t do any harm for Muslims to learn about other religious practices or ways of existence. But I think religious instruction could be perceived as a danger, if it interferes with children’s understanding of their faith.”

Researcher: Teaching of Islam could reduce radicalisation

The majority of Muslim children in Finland participate in religious instruction at primary school all the same. Tampere University researcher and practicing school teacher Inkeri Rissanen completed her dissertation on the teaching of Islam in Finland.

She found that the teaching of Islam in Finnish schools can be a significant deterrent to youth radicalisation, as it supports the identity of young people.

“World-wide studies have shown that that the leading factor contributing to religious radicalisation is the feeling of being an outcast, when one feels deprived of a share in society. Studies in minority religions can bolster young people’s identity and create a foundation for youth to feel as if they belong to FInnish society and are capable of influencing it from the inside.”

Society sets the bar for religious education

Rissanen understands that many followers of minority religions can be prejudiced against teachers that do not belong to their religious community. Rissanen points out however that in Finland, it is responsibility of the wider society and schools to decide upon the objectives of religious education and oversee the quality of its implementation.

“One of the main findings of my dissertation is how the integration of Muslim students is strengthened by religious education. Here we can engage in a dialogue about the intricacies of Finnish and Islam values, where teachers strive to represent both sides to their students. There needn’t be any contradictions: if you want to be a good Muslim, you don’t need to be a bad Finn. The two can support each other,” she says.

Rissanen does not oppose religious instruction in mosques. She still considers it important that Finland provides supervised religious instruction in schools that further the school’s set objectives.

Helsinki Muslim’s chair Hazma Peltola says there is no risk of radicalisation in Finland's mosque instruction today.

“I don’t believe that radical teaching is a problem in Finland - at least it doesn’t exist in the mosques. If it exists at all, it is in small circles. There is no attempt to radicalise children.”