King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s speech on education to the top officials in the sector from around Saudi Arabia on Sunday was important, direct, and honest, as is the habit of our monarch.
Speaking to a delegation including the Minister of Education, his two deputies, other deputy ministers, and administrators from boys and girls schools, the King stressed the importance of preventing the spread of extremist ideologies amongst students of all ages. He called on the men and women employed in education to multiply their efforts to isolate hate and fanaticism saying, “We do not want false interpretations of Islam” and appealed to their sense of civic duty and responsibility.
King Abdullah has never hid his concern about education. He realizes only to well that fighting terrorism depends primarily on eradicating the culture of extremism which molds militants and teaches them hate. Without exception, terrorists start off as extremists and then become violent. Give me a young fundamentalist and I will give you an older terrorist.
The latest royal speech with leaders of the education sector was not the first to occur and nor will it be the last. As long as extremism exists, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz will remain committed to eradicating it from the Kingdom’s schools and universities. He will continue to chair meetings for as long as the culture of fanaticism spreads through educational institutes.
As was the case in neighboring Jordan and Kuwait, education sector in Saudi Arabia has been corrupted by a certain ideological current, which has tried to control it and win over consultants in the Ministry of Education.
Of course, the educational curricula are determined by the dominant beliefs of any given society and do not, on their own, shape the character of the students.
Whilst children are influenced by their parents and home environment, education plays an important role in molding the leaders of tomorrow.
A number of Saudis who attended school three decades ago have complained to me about changes in the education system. They said, “We weren’t extremists. We accepted opinions our children no longer accept. We used to draw, sing, and play together.” Back then, “We led a carefree life and were never troubled about religion. We lived ordinary lives and practiced our religion without affectation.”
They are right, as much has changed in the Kingdom in the last few decades; extremist ideologies have emerged and taken hold of the education sector.
Ever since young Saudi men have attacked their own country and murdered innocents in the name of Islam, people have been asking question: Where did these men come from? Who is responsible?
It is easier to ask questions than to answer them. In this case, a comprehensive answer demands honesty and a critical outlook.
No one denies that reforming the education sector and ridding it of all forms of extremism is essential to protect new generations from the poisoned ideologies. Those who have courageously called for the improvement of school curricula have been accused of treason and bias.
A group of researchers who have analyzed the Kingdom’s education programs revealed the problem lies in the religious curricula that promote exclusivity and shuns tolerance. Sheikh Abdulaziz al Qassim, a personal friend and a former judge and well-known lawyer, co-wrote an important report on the subject with Ibrahim al Sakran and presented it during a workshop on national dialogue.
A number of recommendations, al Qassim told me, “were included in the final proposal at the conference on national dialogue and submitted to the Saudi leadership. Many of the errors we pointed out have been corrected”, he added.
I took part in a seminar in Abha, the capital of the Asir, in the South of Saudi Arabia, about the hidden aspects in education programs, under the patronage of the governor Prince Khaled al Faisal, in July 2004. He attacked those who had infiltrated the sector and promised, “The situation will change.” His words were not welcomed in all quarters and some men even criticized the governor!
It is no longer unusual to hear children in primary school accuse their parents of failing in their religious duties. A friend told me her son confronted her one evening and accused her of not being good mother. Astonished, she asked why. “Because my teacher asked me: Did your mother wear the veil whist traveling abroad?” The young child didn’t understand the question but was convinced his mother acted badly.
Across the Arab world, political Islamists have tried to control the education sector. A former Jordanian minister and parliamentarian informed me that the Muslim Brotherhood realized the importance of education some time ago. A leading Islamist in Jordan, Ishaq al Farhan became minister of education in the 1970s in the wake of the clashes of Black September pitting Palestinian fighters against Jordanian forces, supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. During his 14-year tenure, al Farhan tightened the Brotherhood’s hold on education and provided assistance to the group’s members. Amongst those who benefited where Abdullah al Akayla who later held the same post. The government was not alerted about the takeover until 1989.
In Kuwait, the minister of education Ahmad al Rabei did not escape being attacked and heckled in parliament by Islamist representatives such as Mufraj Nahar. “They united against me because of my position on the veil for female students in medical laboratories. I wanted to outlaw it in labs and, instead, allow the students to wear medical masks. They were also opposed to my efforts to limit the teaching of religious education in high school.”
Their campaign did not abate until a law was issued forbidding mixed classes in universities. The former minister said, “I oppose this law and did not vote for it but had to comply with the will of the majority.”
Saudi Arabia needs to win the battle on education if it is to avoid its schools and universities resembling the secondary school in the Zalfi region which, according to the al Riyadh newspaper, outlawed the national anthem, under the influence of Islamist extremists.
The fight must start with an increased sense of responsibility and a determination to protect our children’s minds who are not the property of one ideology or another but the entire Kingdom. Their youthful minds should be taught to investigate and criticize instead of being filled with superfluous notions that divide society into the good and the bad.
Problems are bound to arise when schools and universities become platforms for extremist ideologies under the pretext of religion. Our educational establishments ought to remain free of intellectual bias. I call on everyone involved in the matter to return education to its rightful owners away from the poisoned hands of Islamist extremists.