For a long time, on the agenda of Azerbaijan, it has been discussed a problem of teaching the basics of religion in schools. In March of 2002, Rafiq Aliyev, at that time a Chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO), pointed out that the study “Rudiments of religion” would be taught in the secondary schools in Azerbaijan starting from a new academic year. At the beginning, the teaching was going to be optional, or some schools should be chosen for this purpose. Then he added that SCWRO and the Ministry of Education would be debating that question.

However, the Ministry of Education, referring to the secular nature of the school system and the lack of qualified teaching staff in this area, did not agree with this initiative at the time.

  In 2004, this subject was again raised during the conference “Islam and Youth: Education, Science and Enlightenment” organized by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation in Baku. For this reason, the Minister of Education, M. Mardanov, did not dare to reject that idea and was therefore ready to include the teaching of religion in the school curriculum in the following academic year. In a meanwhile, he also mentioned that there was not enough teaching theology staff. The same situation was repeated in the period from 2007 to 2009 when the Minister of Education first assured that religious education would be included in the school education process from the first to eleventh grades. However, some time later the Ministry of Education issued a rebuttal of that idea.

After that, the leaders of the Ministry of Education and SCWRO have been changed many times, though teaching religion as a separate subject (but under different names, such as “History of Religion”, “Knowledge of the World” and “Religious Studies”) was raised again and again but decision had been postponed due to various reasons.

It seemed, that Azerbaijani society had already got used to all this. The authorities also believed so, but on April 29, 2019, the Head of SCWRO, Mubariz Qurbanly, quietly stated  in his speech at the Caucasus Board of Muslims (CBM) that the “Introduction to Multiculturalism” would be taught as the main discipline in higher education institutions starting from a new school year, which was previously studied optionally. He further specified that the textbooks on the mentioned subject are being compiled under the guidance of the Department of interethnic relations, multiculturalism and religious topics under the administration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan at the Baku International Multiculturalism Center in cooperation with the State Committee on Work with Religious Organizations. The textbook has two parts: a section discussing multiculturalism and a section covering religion and national moral values.

However, Qurbanly’s statement literally triggered an explosion in Azerbaijani society. As a result, the SCWRO press service urgently distributed a press release, in which they explained the statement of their head in details. It indicated that the objective of including the subject in the curriculum was to provide students with an overview of all religions, with an emphasis on Islam, the national moral values of the country, the need to protect such values and the policy of the State of Azerbaijan in this regard. Students will also be informed about religious radicalism, radical religious movements and their methods of propaganda. Particularly it was specified that among the authors of new textbook there were state structures’ employees, theologians, teachers of higher education and other authors of the relevant profile.

As for the secondary school, it was underlined that all necessary measures were undertaken to form the younger generation in accordance with the national and moral values of the Azerbaijani people. At the same time, for several years now, the subject “Knowledge of life” (in Azerb. Hayat bilgisi) has been taught at secondary schools. This discipline offers students knowledge of religion, among many other subjects. Nowadays, work is under way to expand the theme of religions in the curriculum of this subject. In other words, it is not a question of teaching religion in secondary school, but of broadening the horizons of schoolchildren in this field and obtaining primary knowledge about the religion.

However, this information did not have any impact on the public debate. And then a statement was made by the Ministry of Education’s management, which confirmed that starting from the next academic year, pupils in grades 4-8 will be taught on the basis of the new textbook “Knowledge of Life”, but that the issue of studying religion in secondary schools as a separate subject is not on the agenda.

With regard to post-secondary institutions, it was underlined that such disciplines as «Religious Studies” and “Islam Studies”, “History of Religions” have been already taught. At the same time, in accordance with the order of the Minister of Education, Jeyhun Bayramov, “On Amendments in Educational Programs of the Bachelor’s Degree”, the subject “Introduction to Multiculturalism” at the bachelor’s level will be included in the program “History of Religions” starting from the academic year 2019-2020. Later on, the SCWRO and the Ministry of Education representatives emphasized that these innovations were focused on preventing the radicalization among young people.

These announcements have caused even more controversy and debate in society. Secularists and politicians assured that there had been no problems with religion in Azerbaijan, but there were problems in radicalizing certain groups of believers. But in this case, the authorities should be working with them specifically to prevent their radicalization. And not make the entire society vulnerable to the authorities’ primitive perception of the situation. In society, the secularists declared that they opposed the teaching of religious subjects in schools. And they paid particular attention to the fact that Azerbaijan is a secular country and religion is separated from the state. Therefore, neither religion should interfere in state affairs nor the state should interfere in religious affairs. At the same time, many people were particularly outraged that the Ministry of Education terminated the teaching of astronomy in Azerbaijani schools back in 2010. And now it is decided to teach religion in a secular state!

These government intentions have reminded many people of the Soviet attempts to control religious ideology through their own form of official Islam. “As we know from the Soviet past, this approach does not solve the problems of radicalism,” said Altay Geyushov, the Head of the Baku Research Institute. ” In other words, we are going to repeatour previously unsuccessful experiment.”

Elmir Mirzoyev, a famous composer and historian, concluded “Congratulations to everyone, we are one step closer to the Middle Ages. The mandatory religious course will be taught at school. Good for us”.

They were objected to by believers who said that teaching religion would help to strengthen moral values in society and prevent radical forces from luring inexperienced youth into their networks. And it is better to teach religion than to teach promiscuity that flourishes widely in the media and on television.

Of course, the authorities paid close attention to these discussions. Over and over again, the politicians claimed that “talking about religion at school does not mean teaching the religion as such”. Moreover, they pointed out, religious studies have been included in the curricula of public schools in many secular Western countries and this does not cause any controversy.

The authorities are right about that. Indeed, the Council of Europe once studied the experience of religious education in secondary schools in many countries of the continent. According to the research results, the level of teaching of the subject was not in compliance with the European standards and did not contribute to the education of tolerant attitude to other people’s religious beliefs in majority of countries. Taking into account the importance and necessity of the subject, the Council of Europe decided to continue teaching religious studies at school but on the basis of the requirements.

However, it is not to propagate any particular beliefs but to facilitate better comprehension between members of certain faiths, as well as atheists. “Ideally, children should be taught a course of the history of religion, in which secular teachers will familiarize them with all the major world religions, their philosophy, culture and rites,” the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said in its report.