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Kenyan school offers Somali refugees a modern – and moderate – education

Fathu Rahman Primary School is a rare source of moderate Islamic values in a community riven by war.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 2009

Tolerant: Somali boys and girls at Fathu Rahman Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya, study secular as well as Islamic subjects.

Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science Monitor


Nairobi, Kenya

Nestled in a quiet little compound in the gritty, noisy streets of Eastleigh – a suburb of Nairobi – Fathu Rahman Primary School looks like any other public school in Kenya.

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Its students – all Somali refugees – learn a mixture of secular subjects like math, science, and English, along with a more traditional dose of spirituality, including classes on the Koran. In a refugee community displaced by war and famine, divided by clan identity, and preyed upon by brutal warlords and radical Islamists alike, Fathu Rahman is a gentle reminder of what Somali society used to be like – tolerant, peaceful, pragmatic – and what its founders hope it can be once more.

"This is a battle for the minds of Somali children," says Sheikh Mohammad Moallem Hussein, a moderate Islamic cleric and principal of Fathu Rahman. As an Islamic scholar and practitioner of Islam's Sufi sect, which emphasizes a deeply emotional and personal love for God, Sheikh Hussein worries that Somalia's Sufic culture is fast being replaced by alien teaching, particularly the Salafist teaching espoused by militants like Osama bin Laden.

"We are trying to pull back the students from the Salafist-sponsored schools, which used to be the only education that poor Somali children could afford, but we are small and we have little money," he says. "This is just one school, and they [the radical Islamists] have so many madrassas. That is why we have to expand. To save our culture."

With millions of Somalis living outside of their country, forced out by war and famine, it's hardly surprising that the same contentious issues that have torn their country apart for nearly 20 years would follow them into exile, and even into their schools. Today, a looming clash between radical and moderate Islamists seems all but inevitable, as radical Al-Shabab militias take town after town throughout southern Somalia, and as a newly elected president espousing moderate Islamic values returned to Somalia last week. But no matter what happens on the battlefields of Somalia, educators and preachers are already fighting for dominance with the minds of the next generation of Somalis.

"People are clearly disquieted by the terrible version of Islam these people [the Salafists] want to impose," says Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert for International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "Al Shabab had a 13-year-old girl stoned for adultery after she had been raped. No Somali wants to have an al-Shabab regime."