ALGIERS — First, Abdel Malek Outas’s teachers taught him to write math equations in Arabic, and embrace Islam and the Arab world. Then they told him to write in Latin letters that are no longer branded unpatriotic, and open his mind to the West.Malek is 19, and he is confused.
“When we were in middle school we studied only in Arabic,” he said. “When we went to high school, they changed the program, and a lot is in French. Sometimes, we don’t even understand what we are writing.”
The confusion has bled off the pages of his math book and deep into his life. One moment, he is rapping; another, he recounts how he flirted with terrorism, agreeing two years ago to go with a recruiter to kill apostates in the name of jihad.
At a time of religious revival across the Muslim world, Algeria’s youth are in play. The focus of this contest is the schools, where for decades Islamists controlled what children learned, and how they learned, officials and education experts here said.
Now the government is urgently trying to re-engineer Algerian identity, changing the curriculum to wrest momentum from the Islamists, provide its youth with more employable skills, and combat the terrorism it fears schools have inadvertently encouraged.
It appears to be the most ambitious attempt in the region to change a school system to make its students less vulnerable to religious extremism.
But many educators are resisting the changes, and many disenchanted young men are dropping out of schools. It is a tense time in Algiers, where city streets are crowded with police officers and security checkpoints and alive with fears that Algeria is facing a resurgence of Islamic terrorism. From 1991 to 2002, as many as 200,000 Algerians died in fighting between government forces and Islamic terrorists. Now one of the main terrorist groups, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or G.S.P.C., has affiliated with Al Qaeda, rebranding itself as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
There is a sense that this country could still go either way. Young people here in the capital appear extremely observant, filling mosques for the daily prayers, insisting that they have a place to pray in school. The strictest form of Islam, Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, has become the gold standard for the young.
And yet, the young in Algiers also appear far more socially liberal than their peers in places like Egypt and Jordan. Young veiled women walk hand in hand, or sit leg to leg, with young men, public flirtations unthinkable in most other Muslim countries.
The two natures of the country reflect the way in which Algerian identity was cleaved in half by 132 years of French colonial rule, and then again by independence and forced Arabization. Once the French were driven out in 1962, the Algerians were determined to forge a national identity free from Western influence.
The schools were one center of that drive. French was banned as the language of education, replaced by Arabic. Islamic law and the study of the Koran were required, and math and science were shortchanged. Students were warned that sinners go to hell, and 6-year-olds were instructed in the proper way to wash a corpse for burial, education officials said.
There is a feeling among many Algerians that they went too far.
“We say that Algeria’s schools have trained monsters,” said Khaoula Taleb Ibrahim, a professor of education at the University of Algiers. “It is not to that extent, but the schools have contributed to that problem.”
Over the years, the government has pushed back, reintroducing French, removing the most zealous religious teachers and trying to revise the religious curriculum. Seven years ago, a committee appointed by the president issued a report calling for an overhaul of the school system — and it died under intense political pressure, mostly from the Islamists and conservatives, officials said.
But this year, the government is beginning to make substantive changes. The schools are moving from rote learning — which was always linked to memorizing the Koran — to critical thinking, where teachers ask students to research subjects and think about concepts.
Yet the students and teachers are still unprepared, untrained and, in many cases, unreceptive.
“Before, teachers used to explain the lesson,” Malek said. “Now they want us to think more, to research, but it’s very difficult for us.”
Malek says he hopes to graduate from high school next year and now wants to join the military, just like his father. He is a long way from being the person who had accepted what he says the terrorist recruiter told him — that soldiers, like his own father, are apostates and should be killed. His resolution lasted for three days, until his imam found out and persuaded him not to go.
But the call to jihad still tugs at him. In his world, jihad, or struggle, is a duty for Muslims, but as Malek explains, the challenge is who will convince young people of the proper form that struggle should take “They really convince you,” he said of the extremists.
Then later, with great sincerity, he asked: “Can you help me? I want to go to New York and rap.”
In Algeria, your sense of identity often depends on when you went to school.
Hassinah Bou Bekeur, 26, enjoys watching the Saudi satellite channels and the news in Arabic. She watches with her mother and four younger sisters in one room. But her father, Nasreddin, 60, stays in another room so he can watch in French, the language of his education.
“He is not very strict,” she said of her father, with a touch of affection and disappointment in her voice. “We have more awareness of religion now.”
She took the veil when she was 20; one sister did so at 17, and another sister at 15. The youngest, Zeinab, is only 12 and does not yet wear the veil. The veil is a symbol of the distance between father and children. While Mr. Bou Bekeur studied the Koran, Islam was not the cornerstone of his identity. He says he even drank alcohol — which is prohibited by Islam — until 1986. “I never knew that,” said Amal, his 17-year-old daughter, and then with a smile, she waved her fist at her father and said, “I will kill you.”
The Bou Bekeur family illustrates the outcome of Algeria’s school-based Arabization project. The family is close but the generation gap is extraordinary. It is not solely the result of schooling — but the history of the education system here helps explain the distance between the generations.
It begins with occupation and schools designed to train people for a French-run system. Even after independence, the schools needed to continue to train in French because the government needed managers and experts to replace those French citizens who had left the country, officials here said. In 1971, officials said, the Arabization project began in earnest, when French was prohibited as a language of education.
But there were not enough educators qualified to teach in Arabic, so Algeria turned to Egyptians, Iraqis and Syrians — not realizing, officials say now, that many of those teachers had extreme religious views and that they helped plant the seeds of radicalism that would later flourish in a school system where Arabization became interchangeable with Islamization. In the Bou Bekeur house that meant children far more religious than their father — and their mother.
“The foundation of religion, I learned in school,” said Mr. Bou Bekeur’s son, Abdel Rahman, 25. “We pray more than them and we know religion better than them,” he said of his father’s generation. “We are more religious. My father used to drink. I never drank. My father asked me if it was O.K. to take a car loan. I told him, no, it is haram,” forbidden in Islam.
So his father did not take the loan. His father is a quiet man in a house of strong-willed people. He can barely help his children with their homework, because his Arabic is poor. And he worries about their future, and the future of his country.
“Now they are at a crossroads,” Mr. Bou Bekeur said of his children and their generation. “Either they go to the West, or stay with this and become extremists.”
The children do not respond to such remarks. They often give their father a kind of sad, knowing smile, as though they have done the best that they can with him, and are pleased with the progress he has made.
The family lives in a small pink villa, inherited from Mr. Bou Bekeur’s father, who was killed fighting the French.
Mr. Bou Bekeur’s wife, Naima, is 48, and of a different generation altogether. She was among the first to go through the state-sponsored Arabization process. She said she remembered having a teacher from Egypt who was supposed to teach academic subjects in Arabic — but provided her first real lessons in religion.Mrs. Bou Bekeur started serving lunch, homemade couscous. The family was sitting in the main living room on big brown couches, as Mr. Bou Bekeur scratched away at one of his French crossword puzzles. Hassinah wore orange velour pants, an orange velour top and a large pink scarf that covered her head and was pinned beneath her chin.The conversation shifted, with Hassinah complaining that men were treated better at home than women. “The boys don’t have to wash the dishes. Why?” she said. “Why the difference? If I had a boy or girl, I would treat them equal.
“Women are supposed to work all day and come home and clean and cook — no way,” she fumed, her hands firmly on her knees.
Mr. Bou Bekeur seemed pleased. “Women have more opportunities today than they used to. Women can participate in sports and still be respected,” he said in his naturally soft voice.
“No,” Hassinah said, gently, shaking her head at her father. “My way of thinking is more influenced by religion. My religion tells me ‘no, that’s not right.’ ”
Zeinab, the 12-year-old, was seated in the corner, headphones on, humming a song by Beyoncé, and smiling as she did homework.
Malek and Friends
Four years ago, Amine Aba, 19, one of Malek’s best friends, decided it was time to take his religion more seriously, to stop listening to music, to stop dancing, to stop hanging around with Malek — most of which he accomplished most of the time.
“Muslim countries have been influenced by the Europeans,” Amine said, explaining why he thought he had not been religious enough for most of his life. “We have neglected our religion,” he said.
“Like us,” said Malek, who was nearby with a new buddy, Muhammad Lamine Messaoudi, a baby-faced 18-year-old with a bit of a paunch and a constant smile. The two burst into nervous laughter.
Malek, Amine and Lamine are each dealing with the forces shaping their world in slightly different ways. Amine has chosen religion; Malek, who has gelled hair and a slight stutter, has taken a middle road of religion, girls and rap; and Lamine appears a sentry of the left, interested in beer, girls and, he hopes, a life in France.
Each has felt the push and pull of the political-ideological fight going on in Algerian schools, between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who hope to reopen a window to the West. The messages the young men receive through teachers and the curriculum are still, almost uniformly, aimed at reinforcing their Arab-Islamic identity. But that is changing, slowly, and not without a fight.
“We would never have imagined Algeria could one day be faced with violence that would come from Islam,” said Fatiha Yomsi, an adviser to the minister of education.
Students go to school amid subdued tension because many educators do not like the changes that are coming.
“He is an Islamist. He would not shake my hand before,” Ms. Yomsi said as she introduced an Arabic teacher during a morning tour of Al Said Hamdeen high school here. Then as she walked around, she pointed out the front line in the struggle, keeping boys and girls together in class.
“You see, all these classes are mixed,” she said. “It is very important. We fought for this. That is why I am targeted for death.”
At stake are the identities of young people like Malek, Amine and Lamine — and their futures.
The young men focused on trying to pass their exams, because Algiers is full of examples of those who have not. More than 500,000 students drop out each year, officials said — and only about 20 percent of students make it into high school. Only about half make it from high school into a university. A vast majority of dropouts are young men, who see no link between work and school. Young women tend to stick with school because, officials said, it offers independence from their parents.
Algeria’s young men leave school because there is no longer any connection between education and employment, school officials said. The schools raise them to be religious, but do not teach them skills needed to get a job.
This is another cause for extremism, and it is one reason the police do nothing to stop so many young men from illegally selling everything from deodorant to bread at makeshift stands.
“These stands are illegal, but they let them do it as a matter of security and because of unemployment — instead of them going out and carrying weapons,” said Muhammad Darwish, a social studies teacher in the Muhammad Bou Ras middle school, as he passed masses of young men selling on the street.Malek, Amine and Lamine are all trying to avoid ending up like a vast majority of their friends — selling on the street. Lamine and Malek try to study. But they say that is only because if they fail the exams, they cannot get into the military — and if they cannot get into the military, they will have no status in Algeria. They have focused on the science curriculum. But their hearts do not seem to be in it. “They don’t let you like education here,” Lamine said.Malek met Amine when Amine’s family moved into the walled and guarded compound for military families where Malek already lived. It is beside the Casbah, the old Arab quarter, where streets wind up and down hills that fall from the mountains to the sea. That was four years ago, and the young men became friends, going together to the mosque where they practiced the traditional way of reciting the Koran aloud.
But as Amine grew more religious, Malek began to drift away from him, in part out of concern for his father. “The military and a beard don’t go together,” he said. Malek shaved his beard and started to spend all his free time with Lamine, a very quiet young man with a shaved head. One of their favorite spots to relax is the monument to those killed in the war against the French. The concrete monument soars more than 300 feet into the sky, with three ramps sweeping up to an apex.
The sky was blue, the wind heavy and the clouds white on a May day when Malek dropped to the pavement and began to break dance, his feet in the air, his shoulders pressed to the ground. Suddenly Algerian rap played from Lamine’s cellphone as they danced and laughed — until they stopped.
Amine wrapped his arm around Malek’s shoulder and they recited the Koran, their voices carrying through the wind. Lamine stood by, silently.
“I only have 25 days until the test; I have to go home,” Amine said. “My mother will be mad at me if I don’t study.”
After he left, Lamine was asked how he felt about Amine. He has frequently teased him, suggesting that they go together to the bar for a beer. Lamine does not go with Malek to pray, talks often about drinking alcohol and said that two years ago he was arrested trying to sneak onto a ship to get to France.
“He’s O.K.,” Lamine said. “I’d like to be like him. I’d like to be religious someday, too.”