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Niger is moving quickly to integrate more than a half-million students enrolled at Islamic schools into the national education system to avoid perceptions that Qur'anic institutions are breeding grounds for radicalism and terrorism.

With more than 50 000 locations, Islamic schools have become heavyweights on the Niger education scene, grabbing students, attention and now international funds from formal French-language education.

"We learn about who we are and how we must behave," said 10-year-old Haoua, shyly toying with the filmy veil that leaves only her face bare, a battered chalkboard scribbled with Qur'anic verses in her hand.

"Everyone I know goes to Qur'anic school."

The Islamic Bank of Development (IBD) has pledged $84-million to assist with the integration of Qur'anic schools, or madrassas, into the general education system of the overwhelmingly Muslim country on the edge of the Sahara desert in north-western Africa.

"Two systems have developed since colonisation and independence, completely separate from one another: the formal French school and the informal Qur'anic schools," Khalil Enahaoui, regional co-ordinator for the IBD programme, told reporters.

"Our goal is to bring these two together by emphasising bilingual, Franco-Arabic teaching."

Almost all of Niger's children follow some form of Qur'anic instruction in a formalised environment at some point in their lives, which could leave them open to teachers committed to pushing an agenda, not teaching the Muslim holy liturgy.

Some of the schools are informal while others are more structured, loosely supervised by the Ministry of Basic Education, one of three ministries handling education issues in Niger.

Qur'anic schools, traditionally free of charge and with flexible schedules more suited to children working in the fields, have long constituted an essential way for much of the population of this country, one of the poorest on earth, to learn how to read and write.

Enahaoui suggested that the influence of these schools reached far beyond basic literacy, and that to pretend they play only a peripheral role in today's Muslim societies is damaging to the delicate social fabric of countries like Niger.

"If we leave the Islamic schools to develop wildly, we won't be able to control them," insisted Enahaoui.

"Pushing these schools out to the edge of society only radicalises students and teachers and feeds prejudices and assumptions," he added.

"To ignore these schools is to sow the seeds of violence and ignorance."

Despite government support, the IBD programme is meeting with reservations, which highlight tensions between a thriving informal education sector and the struggling national system.

Faced with only 7 600 formal schools and an illiteracy rate cresting above 84 percent nationwide, Niger is in the first year of an ambitious decade-long education plan that aims to boost literacy and numeracy and create a stable and most of all employable population.

Critics say the problem with the IBD programme is that it groups formal madrassas, where students receive a balanced secular and religious education, with informal Qur'anic schools, where only the Qur'anic is studied, which could artificially inflate school attendance figures and literacy rates.

"The eagerness of the government to approve this program and the motivations of its backers in the context of increasingly radical Islam in some parts of the country leads to serious doubt over (its) positive aspects," a Western diplomat in Niamey said on condition of anonymity.

Such criticisms seem unfounded to Oumaru Kiassa, a teacher at the Chateau Un Qur'anic school in the capital which, under the IDB programme, will also offer basic hygiene and health classes, French and numeracy.

Teachers will be reviewed according to standardised guidelines and those deemed unqualified to teach will be offered positions as classroom assistants.

"We've never depended on money from outside to survive, but we would be happy to be more formally integrated into the school system," said Kiassa.

"Our religion teaches young people to live in faith, honesty and simplicity; isn't this a good thing for our society?"

Natasha BURLEY (Independant Online)

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