Earlier this month, a video clip featuring a Saudi teacher violently punishing a young student with an electric cable caused sent shockwaves through Saudi society and prompted the Ministry of Education to investigate. Is the hapless student, seen crying and pleading for help, the only one being targeted by our educational system?
Unfortunately, the debate on education has become politicized and linked to the US involvement in the region which has increased post- September 11 th.
Those who mention the need to reform the educational sector are attacked and accused of being agents of the West. This lack of debate has stifled rational discussions and rendered the truth obsolete.
Education across the Arab world is in a critical state. In his analysis of education policies in the 20 th century across the Arab world, Ali Assad Watfa, indicated they “have led to cultural seclusion, a lack of rational thought in everyday life and degradation of the value of the individual.”
Indeed, rationality was defeated in favor of isolation as the Arab individual increasingly distant himself from the rest of the world; afraid, he became feared!
A discussion of educational curricula is crucial, independently of American involvement, until the sector rids itself of all oppression, extremist, and backward ideas.
Last month, the Saudi newspaper al Riyadh published an article in which a Saudi Chemistry teacher, Mohammed Salamah al Harbi, from the village of Fuwayliq, in al Qassim, claimed he was prevented from carrying out his duties because of a campaign by extremist colleagues.
Under the headline “He lectured about nationalism and combating terrorism and was tried, jailed and prevent from teaching as a result”, the article detailed how al Harbi was targeted by other teaching staff because of his anti-extremist views. While the truth remains to be established, it is important to consider the implication of such incident.
Calls to reform the education curricula in Saudi Arabia have invariably been rejected as happened when two Saudi researchers and students of religion presented a report at the second national dialogue conference proving that extremism exists in some curricula and calling for reform. Islamists rose in protest and 156 individuals published a statement warning from the “dangers” of reforming school curricula, especially those teaching religion. They also warned that any step the government took to modify the curricula would represent the first step towards “corruption”.
The conflict in Fuwayliq is not the first of its kind. Earlier in the year, a teacher was targeted for stating that love was sublime and music was religiously permissible. In other case, a number of extremist teachers in Zulfi province refused to play the national anthem. Parents complained and publicly distanced themselves from such opinions.
A few weeks ago, Ali al Moussa, a fellow Saudi journalist, criticized an article I authored, published by Asharq al Awsat two weeks ago, where I quoted an extract from a textbook teaching Hadith (the sayings of Prophet Mohammad) and demonstrated it encourages extremism. He wrote in the daily al Watan, “Al Zaydi should have quoted the text in full to enable us to judge fairly.” He went on to quote from another scholastic text which gives students seven close but slightly different definitions of the word “hatred”. “What is the benefit to Saudi teenagers from repeating the world hatred seven times”, he asked? I cannot but concur.
It is true that many voices continue to speak of a “culture of hatred” in the Middle East taking for examples schools and the media. If Arab sources are to be believed, the US administration has conducted a study that demonstrated that more than half of Pakistan’s university graduates attended religious schools.
Protests about the state of religious education have also emerged in Morocco, where according to the writer Mohammad Boudhan, a state of mad human disease has spread amongst many religious school graduates. “While mad cow disease can be blamed on animal fodder, the attacks in Casablanca on 16th May 2003 can be explained by the ideology fed to those young suicide bombers whilst attending religious schools.”
In this situation, it is no use for Arab apologists to point out that education in the West also suffers from extremism, especially in America, and that 350 thousand Zionists currently study in Israeli religious schools. Quite simply, this does not concern us so long as we remain dormant and inactive.
Of course, the extremism present in education is not solely responsible for religious fundamentalism. The issue is much more complex and numerous causes such as foreign and internal policies, the regional situation from Iraq to Palestine and now Syria as well as individual and social causes. However, I have chosen to focus on the role of education in this instance.
Our education has suffered for over half a century, according to the Arab Human Development Report from a lack of critical thinking and emphasis on repetition and memorization.
The violence against the young student, discussed above, is but an example of this sorry state of affairs.