Ask Brian: Why does Leaving Cert Arabic assume students will have knowledge of the Koran?
Authorities overlooked the fact that someone fluent in Arabic might not be Muslim
“Your daughter currently has no option other than to study the Koran if she wishes to take Arabic for the Leaving Cert.” Photograph: Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters
PROBLEM: I am a Christian Syrian who has recently been forced to leave Damascus because of violence and, in particular, the bombing of the school attended by my three teenage daughters. My eldest daughter is sitting her Leaving Cert in June and intends taking Arabic as one of her subjects. In reviewing past papers, she has discovered that questions on the Koran are mandatory. She, as a Christian, has never studied the Koran. This is very unfair. What can we do about this?
ADVICE: It may seem strange that it never occurred to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment when drafting the syllabus for Leaving Cert Arabic in 2003 – subsequently approved and published by the Department of Education – that not everyone fluent in Arabic would be a Muslim.
The fact that there are Christian, Yazidi and Buddhist communities throughout the Arab world that have no knowledge of the Koran clearly did not cross the mind of anyone involved in signing off the content of the exam.
To find yourself as a refugee in Ireland forced to answer questions on an Islamic religious text as part of a language exam in Arabic is, to use Charlie Haughey’s phrase, grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented.
I have brought this matter to the attention of the State Examinations Commission, which indicated to me that you are correct. Your daughter currently has no option other than to study the Koran if she wishes to take Arabic for the Leaving Cert.
In the appendix to the syllabus, extracts from the Koran – as well as classical Arabic poetry and modern Arabic literature – are cited as prescribed text material for all candidates.
The requirement for questions to be presented based on an extract from the Koran is explicitly stated, as is the requirement for these questions to be answered by all candidates.
Candidates are expected to show a reasonable understanding of, and be able to comment on, a number of set texts, including the Koran. Your daughter is in a very difficult position, as the State Examinations Commission is not at liberty to deviate from the syllabus and assessment specifications put in place by the department.
I contacted the commission on your behalf and it indicated that the syllabus for Leaving Cert Arabic is being reviewed by the NCCA. It said it will bring your concerns to the attention of the council and the department.
I hope that bringing your daughter’s circumstances to the attention of the Minister for Education through this answer will help. I hope some arrangement can be put in place this year whereby your daughter and other candidates taking Arabic in the Leaving Cert who are not of the Islamic tradition could possibly be allowed to skip that question and be examined on a pro-rata basis against the remaining questions. We will see.
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