June 11, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 730

Educators and Parents Protest Against 'The Culture of Death' Taught In Saudi Schools

June 11, 2004
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 730

In Saudi Arabia, criticism has recently been voiced regarding the intensive focus on death in Saudi schools. Columnists, university lecturers, and parents have addressed the emotional damage suffered by schoolchildren as a result of this focus, and have called on the Saudi Education Ministry to put a stop to it.

Two articles that appeared approximately a year apart in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, by Hamza Qablan Al-Mozainy, a lecturer at the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, examined the "culture of death" in Saudi schools and the role that teachers play in disseminating it. [1] The following are excerpts from both of Al-Mozainy's articles, and from two other articles on the subject:

'The Culture of Death In Our Schools'

On March 27, 2003, the Saudi daily Al-Watan published Al-Mozainy's first article on the subject, titled "The Culture of Death in Our Schools:"

"Last week, the King Saud School in Riyadh held an [educational] function called 'The Beginning and the End'… One of the events was an exhibit in the form of a large tent, divided into two: One [part] presented the righteous path, and it included adherence to the commandments of the religion, [keeping] good company, and so on. The other [part] presented the path of evil, and it included deviation from the religion, drug use, and [keeping] evil company. Up to this point, the matter [seemed] natural, and perhaps was aimed at motivating the schoolchildren to take the righteous path and stay off the path of evil.

"The strange thing was that these two paths did not end here. On the contrary; it seemed that they were not the point [of the exhibit]. Both [paths] led to another tent, in which there was a model of a dead man wrapped in a shroud and a pit that looked like a grave. This was accompanied by a film about washing the dead, and a wailing sermon weeping about the [physical] state of the dead person and the horrors of the grave.

"… Some [of the girls] pointed out to me that they were terror and panic-stricken, and that they had avoided looking at these sights, [and added] that some of the [educators] in charge demanded that they not avert their gaze. These pupils also noted that that night they were gripped by great horror, and feared going to sleep lest they have nightmares.

"We must not forget that this activity took place in a junior high school, and that schoolchildren under the age of 15 were taken to [the exhibit]. [Children] at this young age have the greatest potential for falling victim to fear and imaginary fright. There is no doubt that this kind of preaching exposes these young pupils to scary sights to which they are unaccustomed, [and that these sights] arouse horror among adults - let alone youngsters.

"At this exhibit there were several 'lectures,' the content of most of which was not far from a call to these schoolchildren to join the stream called 'The Islamic Awakening [movement]' or 'The Da'wa [movement],' which usually turns into 'The Jihad [movement].'

"This is not the first time such an exhibit was held. The establishment of similar exhibits is common in many schools… Likewise, many teachers preach on this matter during the lessons. One female teacher brought [to class] a mannequin [that looked like a dead body] and washed it before the schoolgirls. She involved [the schoolgirls] in washing [the body] and wrapping it in a shroud. Some of the girls stated that [following this] they were stricken by a certain anxiety.…

"It seems to me that displays of this kind are only an example of the culture of death that has recently become widespread in our society. There is a bizarre insistence by some preachers on going overboard in including in their sermons frightening [statements] about the torments and horrors of the grave. This is developing to the point where the sermons include many words about the [physical] state of the dead, based on stories by those who prepare [the bodies] for burial, who usually tell fantastical tales about how signs of the good or bad end of the dead person they are washing appear on the bodies, and so on. This is also seeping into the activities within the schools…"

'Many Youths Are the Victim of Some Extremists'

"A possible reason for this method of preaching is that it is the beginning of the path that leads to the recruitment of supporters. A youth's absorption of the idea of death makes them abstain [from the pleasures] of this world and apply themselves more to religious activity, which can be managed by people with hidden goals. The distance is short from absorbing the idea of abstention from the life [of this world] and adapting to the idea of death, to the youth's becoming convinced that as long as he is going to die [anyway], this death must be 'for the sake of Allah?'

"Thus, many youths are the victims of some extremists who exploit them for the purpose of carrying out certain operations which [the extremists] make them believe are Jihad [operations]."

'The [Saudi] Education Ministry Is Directly Responsible for the Continuation of These Activities'

"The question to be asked now is: Does the Education Ministry really know about the activities taking place in its schools? Does it approve them? Did it approve them after asking the professional opinion of psychologists and sociologists regarding their benefit and effect?

"The [Saudi] Education Ministry is directly responsible for the continuation of these activities. If it is unaware of them, it must act immediately to stop them, because they are likely to lead to outcomes that are not very far from those that made us, Islam, and the Muslims suspect in the eyes of the entire world." [2]

'The Culture of Death Still Lives'

One year later, on May 6, 2004, Al-Mozainy published another article on the subject, also in Al-Watan, titled "The Culture of Death Still Lives:"

"A year ago, the daily Al-Watan my article, titled 'The Culture of Death In the Schools.' This was an article criticizing the widespread use in the schools of the subject of death, in activities outside the classroom… It was my hope that the Education Ministry would establish a committee to investigate this phenomenon and announce its findings, so that the citizen will know the official position. But this did not happen, and the ministry has kept silent until today.

"It quickly became clear that these activities are not limited only to a [particular] school, and that they are also not limited to one-time activities outside the classroom, such as exhibits. Furthermore, these [activities] are almost daily [occurrences, and are held] in schools the length and breadth of the land.

"At the time, the daily Al-Watan published letters from readers from various regions attesting to, and even complaining about, these activities. Al-Watan reported an incident that took place in the Al-Jazan region, where a schoolgirl fainted and spent two weeks in the hospital after viewing these sights…"

Schoolgirls Are Taught How to Wash Dead Bodies and Wrap Them

"Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Athian from the city of Al-Jawf sent a letter to the magazine Al-Yamama, which was published in Issue No. 1789 on page 16, under the title 'How They Educated My Daughter.' In this letter, [Al-Athian] relates that one teacher showed the schoolgirls a video 'so that they will see how a dead [body] is washed, and how it is wrapped in a shroud, by means of frightening pictures, with an even more frightening voice in the background.' He [also] tells what his daughter said: 'The teacher has already shown us this film a number of times. I intended to avert my eyes so as not to see what it shows. [But] today the teacher chose the girls who are most frightened [by the film], including me, and sat [us] in the front and forced us by various means to look at the screen, saying, 'Look, oh… Look, this is your end, and that of all your friends.'

"Mr. Al-Athian related that his daughter 'started to sleep only when all the lights in the house were left on until morning. She slept for very short intervals, which were filled with nightmares, some of which she woke up from frightened and horror-stricken. She has no desire to study, and she is distracted all the time'…

"Reality proves … that 'the culture of death' is still alive… This is not one-time behavior by an enthusiastic teacher, but a culture that is widespread among many teachers and in many schools in the different regions…

"The film about washing the dead is accompanied by a combination of Koran readings, 'Islamic' poems, and extremely emotional and frightening audio passages." [3]

'[The Education Ministry] Cannot Claim That Showing this Film Is a One-Time Occurrence'

"One of the teachers pointed out to me that this film and others like it are being shown to schoolchildren in many schools. As long as this film is shown in public at an official exhibition that is sponsored by the [Education] Ministry, which schoolchildren of different ages come to visit, [the Education Ministry] cannot claim that showing this film is a one-time occurrence, or an interpretation by enthused [people] who mean well…

"These phenomena and activities prove yet again that our schools are, whether intentionally or not, enabling the dissemination of extremism. This can pave the way for the creation of a disturbed and enthused personality, that is easy to recruit to the ranks of the extremist and violent groups, and can ultimately be led to carry out crimes of killing and bombing, from which our country is suffering." [4]

Female College Students Are Also Taught About the Culture of Death

Keinan Al-Ghamdi, former editor of the Saudi daily Al-Watanwho was recently fired because of his political commentary, also discussed the matter in an article called "Disseminating the Culture of Death: Thank You, College Teachers." [5] He said: "Ahmad bin Ali Al-Asmari, the father of a female student, [wrote to me]: The science department at the Faculty of Education at Al-Malz included among its activities this semester a lecture on wrapping [the dead] in shrouds. Imagine the intensity of the girls' hysteria and fear as a result of this unnecessary culture. I ask you, what use does a girl [studying] at the science department, whom the state pays millions to educate and train, have for this culture of death? Is the faculty training her to work in the departments of the dead and the graves?

"Because I have no answer to Al-Asmari's question, I am passing it on to the Ministry of Education, where those in charge stated and distributed circulars that they were banning these strange activities. But all this has failed." [6]

Dr. Abd Al'Aziz Al-'Omar, dean of the Faculty for Education in Riyadh, wrote in an article in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah titled "Studying Death:" "Last week my son called me from the principal's office at his school, to tell me that that morning his class had decided to visit the place where the dead are washed, and that the previous week they had visited a convalescent home…

"The question arises: Can we ensure the child's emotional and mental balance if we teach him about death? Must the school teach its pupils about death? Is it necessary to take our children to mourning and burial ceremonies? Is it necessary to take them to the rooms for medical treatment, so they can watch the moments between life and death? Aren't we afraid that the schools are diligently showing the schoolchildren the phenomenon of death, at a level that makes them abstain from and flee the life [of this world], and be contemptuous of the innovations and achievements of this world?" [7]

[1] For more on Al-Mozainy, see:

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 27, 2004. This article aroused harsh reactions, and the author's son was harassed by his religion teachers, Yahyah Al-Ma'ajami and Abdallah Al-Qal'i, who cursed his father and called him an apostate.

[3] Al-Mozainy writes that a similar film was shown at a book fair at the King Abd Al-'Aziz Lecture Hall in Riyadh: "The first thing to greet the people entering the fair is a film on washing the dead. It is a truly frightening film, because it includes long scenes of a man lying on a bed. [The film] includes pictures of graves, some of them open. Perhaps the aim of the movie is to frighten the viewer [into thinking] that this is the grave that awaits him." Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 6, 2004.

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 6, 2004

[5] Al-Ghamdi was recently askedto resign by the Saudi authorities, following Al-Watan's publication of a news item on the deployment of U.S. forces in the Arabian Peninsula, and on the building of a military base in Qatar, and also following an article he wrote on the need for self-criticism by the Saudi ministers because of the mistakes they had made.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 17, 2004.

[7] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), May 2, 2004.

Share this Report: