Samsam Ahmad’s children, eight and 12, were inconsolable. They had just found out that their school in the Swedish capital Stockholm was closed down, leaving their mother at a loss of how to explain why they would no longer be with their friends in the new school year.
In July, Ahmad, like other Muslim parents, was notified in writing by the Swedish Schools Inspectorate that Al-Azhar private Islamic school would be closed down due to “mismanagement”.
“We were only given one month’s notice… but I wasn’t given further details. Islamic teaching made up five percent of the school’s curriculum,” Ahmad told Middle East Eye over the phone.
‘My children cried for days when I told them that the school would be closed’
– Samsam Ahmad, mother of Al-Azhar school students
Ahmad and other Muslim parents had held several protests outside the education ministry challenging the move, but the decision was carried out.
Al-Azhar is now among 17 of Sweden’s 19 private Islamic schools that have been closed across Sweden since 2019, with most shuttered this year as the Swedish government cracked down on private religious establishments.
Two Islamic schools are currently challenging the decision in court and are still operating.
“My children cried for days when I told them that the school would be closed,” Ahmad said.
“When I asked them why [they were upset], they said they would miss their friends, classmates and teachers. They didn’t sleep well for several nights,” she said.
Ahmed said it had taken her a long time to encourage them to move on, but she is now worried about what the future holds for their Islamic education.
“I’m now forced to dig deep into my pockets to hire a teacher for private Islamic studies lessons at home since there are no alternatives. It’s expensive, nearly $200 a month, which I can’t continue to afford,” she said.
While Al-Azhar school was a two-minute walk away from the family home, Ahmad now has to travel a considerable distance to drop her children at the new school.
Private Muslim schools teach Sweden’s national curriculum, but also provide students with Islamic teachings, the space to practise Islamic rituals and offer halal food.
In a letter sent to Al-Azhar, and seen by MEE, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate informed the school, where more than 200 students were enrolled, that the management was deemed “unfit to conduct school activities after it was assessed that children are at risk of being exposed to radicalisation”.
Members of Sweden’s Muslim community believe the move only applies to private Muslim schools.
“If they are sincere and the issue is about the institution’s mismanagement, they should not have punished innocent young students but rather come up with other alternatives,” Fatma Abdullahi, another mother of an Al-Azhar school student, told MEE.
“They even had the option to replace the management with a new administration and allow the children to continue with their education, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
The closure of the Islamic schools, some of which were established as early as the 1990s, has affected nearly 10,000 Muslim students with origins from the Middle East, north and east Africa, according to Burhan Mohamed Ali, a member of Sweden’s Islamic Schools Association.
Parents such as Mohamed Issaq, a father of three, who can’t afford private Islamic lessons, has had to send his children to free Islamic schools.
“I used to believe that I was living in one of the best countries, where the government even funds [private schools], including ones that offer religious studies,” Issaq said.
“These schools were fulfilling our children’s need to have their Islamic and cultural values taught, but now they are no longer there.”
Issaq said that some parents had asked authorities if they offered alternative options for Islamic teaching, but they were left disappointed.
“We have now directed our children towards poor-performing schools that do not offer Islamic studies, and that leaves our children vulnerable to identity crises,” he said.
In mid-2022, Sweden issued rules, largely seen as strict, for religious institutions, drawing criticism from Muslim Swedes, with many describing the move as an Islamophobic attempt to target their community.
The Islamic Schools Association said that, since 2019, the Swedish authorities had been introducing new policies that dictated how private schools should be run.
“Excuses have been made for every school closure,” Mohamed Ali told MEE.
“For example, in July 2021, authorities closed down Al-Azhar school in Orebro arguing that a board member who had returned from a trip to Syria could be an Islamic State sympathiser and could radicalise the students, even though he had no criminal records.”
Earlier this year, then Sweden’s education minister, Lina Axelsson Kjellblum, told a press conference that the government had introduced a bill aimed at “banning the establishment of so-called independent religious schools”.
But the Islamic Schools Association argued that the decision to shut down Islamic schools was part of an “anti-Islamic rhetoric” and was not based on poor academic results or other teaching shortcomings, but had “political motives”.
Swedish authorities have rejected the allegations, saying they reserve the right to oversee private school activities.
“The reason why some of the schools with an Islamic profile have been closed has nothing to do with the orientation of the independent schools. It has to do with the fact that the owner hasn’t followed Swedish legislation,” Agnes Gidlund, Swedish Schools Inspectorate press secretary, told MEE in a statement.
“The Swedish Schools Inspectorate can make decisions that mean that an independent school must close when there are deficiencies that those responsible do not remedy.”
Following the closures, some schools were forced to end the lease on their buildings, while others sold them.
According to the MENA research and study centre, the spread of Islamic schools in Sweden began in the 1990s with laws allowing the formation of private schools fully funded by the government.
Since then, the Muslim community, which makes up eight percent of Sweden’s population, mainly from the Middle East and Africa, has benefited from those laws, which treated private schools like public schools in terms of financial support.
Some Muslims now believe that Sweden may no longer be the ideal place for their children’s education.
“Eventually, I will take my children to a country where they can happily learn Islamic teaching,” Samsam Ahmad told MEE.