In one of the Algerian capital's better high schools, breaks between classes are poignant examples of the crisis tearing this country apart.

Some students discuss the latest rock video they saw on satellite-beamed French TV the night before. Another group, all boys, kneels on a section of schoolyard asphalt, foreheads to the ground, deep in prayer.

As microcosms of Algerian society, many high schools have become battlegrounds in the confrontation between Algerians aspiring to a Western-style way of life, and those supporting a strict Islamic state.

"By creating a program that causes so many dropouts, by developing courses that discourage the ability to think, by allowing religion to stand at the heart of every decision made, the educational system has made the [Islamic fundamentalists'] bed for them," says Leila Chikhi, a veteran Algiers elementary school teacher.

The seeds of the current turmoil were planted in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the country accelerated an "Arabization" of historically French instruction. Algeria had to import teachers - many of them Egyptians who were members of the Islamic Brotherhood.

"Now we have schools where boys are routinely passed with lower grades than girls, who are kept back," says Mrs. Chikhi. Religion classes have also changed, she adds: "Today, the emphasis is on guilt, condemnation, and a very strict, traditional view of women."

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