Not all Koran schools are alike. A unique media literacy program in Kyrgyzstan teaches students the practice of analyzing both news reports and Islamic teaching.
Nargiza Muratova, 21, who is studying Arabic at Kyrgyz Islamic University, says lessons in media and information literacy made her think about who is producing articles and why
Across the Magreb as well as South and Central Asia, madrassas – the Arabic term for any educational institution –offer Islamic teachings but also vary widely in Islamic interpretation and practice. In the West, however, the idea of a madrassa has often led to the misconception that they offer only the study of religion.
DW Akademie began supporting media and information literacy (MIL) in some of Kyrgysztan's madrassas in 2022. Supported by Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development's Global Crisis Initiative, the idea is to encourage an analytical approach to news, disinformation and social media.
Among Kyrgysztan’s more than 100 madrassas, nine institutes and one Islamic university offer an Islamic education, according to Aichurek Usupbaeva. She directs the Kyrgyz NGO Media Sabak Foundation and has been working on MIL projects in public schools for the past several years. Islamic thought varies across the country, she added, which is comparatively open to the world, and MIL training is a novel approach in a largely rural and traditional region.
"This is all absolutely new," said Aichurek. "We saw that it would be good to pilot short trainings to try and understand how students interpreted media in general. Most of them are limited in terms of smartphone usage and are not quite literate. Many don’t have access to the internet."
In the autumn of 2022 and early 2023, the Media Sabak Foundation offered MIL classes for 71 young men and women, mindful all along of Islamic customs such as modest dress, halal foods, separate restrooms and corresponding gender for teachers and students. The courses also allowed for prayer five times per day.
"We really wanted to be compliant and respectful," said Aichurek.
Nursultan Raimberdiev, a third-year student at Kyrgyz Islamic University, said that media literacy made him think critically about propaganda and stereotypes
While this helped, it was a difficult start. Students appeared confused at applying media literacy to world events. Instead, instructors broke down the concept of analysis and questioning what one reads to everyday experiences like communication with school instructors, school rules, gender roles, how genders are portrayed in the media, and how Islam, as well, is portrayed and understood by outsiders.
Nursultan Raimberdiev is a third-year student at Kyrgyz Islamic University in Bishkek and is studying Shariah law. He also takes secular courses. Training in media literacy, he said, focused his attention on how one overcomes prejudice.
"It wasn't just media literacy," said Raimberdiev, who is 22. "Trainers also talked about stereotypes, propaganda, hate speech and critical thinking in general. I find I'm now fact-checking everything I read: news, photos, video. I've even started making my own short videos for social media."
Similarly, Baktygul Mamasadyk kyzy, who is 19, said that she found the overall instruction on how media produces messages helpful.
"The interesting thing for me is that after the training, I could recognize not only fake news but material that was badly edited," she said. "And I could even suggest how it could be improved."
Baktygul Mamasadyk kyzy, 19, said media and information literacy courses taught her about how stories are prepared and to even consider how reporting could be improved
Participants also learned media literacy in terms of civics and elections and even held a mock election replete with videos, articles and social media posts.
"I learned about sources," said Nargiza Muratova, age 21, who is studying Arabic at Kyrgyz Islamic University. "I found this especially interesting in terms of financial news."
All three said that through media literacy, they and their fellow participants have found a way to understand both their education and media messaging.
"They are receptive," said Aichurek, "especially when it comes to [analyzing] ideas like radicalization or some teaching related to the Koran. They see the usefulness of it all."