January 4, 2005 No.

Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Extremism in the School System

Recently, some senior Saudi education officials have called for a ban on the dissemination of extremist views in schools, and launched activities to increase teacher awareness of the issue. At the same time, education ministry officials, editors, columnists and TV critics insist that the Saudi government is not doing enough to eradicate extremism in the schools. The following are excerpts from discussions about the issue:

New Guidelines for the Educational System as School Begins

With the beginning of the Saudi school year in September 2004, senior Saudi officials called upon teachers not to disseminate extremist views among their pupils, and warned that any teacher found doing so would be fired.

On September 5, 2004, Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd Al-'Aziz told senior education officials: "Watch your teachers. We want to serve the religion and the homeland, not terrorism…" [1]

Saudi Education Minister Muhammad Ahmad Al-Rashid said in a September 10, 2004 address marking the opening of the school year: "The criminal and insane events to which our country has been witness will not in any way shake our trust in Allah and our belief in the skills and worthiness of the security personnel… Saudi Arabia will not in any way be defeated by apostasy, going astray, and deviance from the righteous path that threaten the security and stability of society…

"Criminal deeds are the result of criminal thoughts… Teachers must understand the great difference between the teacher and the mufti. They must teach the pupils, in the best possible way, what is in the curricula, without issuing religious rulings [ fatwas ] and without deviating from the curriculum and force-feeding the pupils with issues that have nothing to do with them…

"The school is an enterprise [for creating] a human being, and nothing is more important than it except the home. Everyone must oppose every deviation, because most fires break out from the smallest of sparks, and thus every deviation must be taken care of and eliminated before it appears." [2]

On another occasion, Al-Rashid said that: "the Education Minister will in no way accept a teacher who holds misguided views that influence the younger generation," [3] and that "any element implementing an extremist policy will be uprooted from the educational system." [4]

During a September 7, 2004 visit to the General Education Administration, Prince Jalawi bin Abd Al-'Aziz said: "There is no room for personal commentary by a teacher who sets the curriculum aside. He must not deviate from it – even if he has spare time during the lesson." [5]

Tabouk District Governor Prince Fahd bin Sultan said in a September 12, 2004 speech to members of the Tabouk Educational Council: "The teachers are responsible for preserving the way of thought of the young generation at the beginning of its crystallization… It is unacceptable for one of us to disseminate extremism, fanaticism, terrorism, and apostasy. We must not allow anyone who identifies with the group holding a dangerous and deviant view to [remain] among us… The weapon to which we must cling in fighting the deviant view is faultless adherence to faith, free of extremism." In his speech, he also called upon teachers to encourage the pupils to implement the principle of dialogue and to accept the view of the "other." [6]

The Fourth National Forum, organized by the King Abd Al-'Aziz Center in Zaharan and focusing on "Problems of Youth… What is Desirable and What Exists," recommended "developing the curricula" so as to cultivate among the pupils "a capacity for critical thought and creativity, [and] to educate them to good behavior and inculcate in them the values of moderation, the middle path, and respect for others – and to make them accustomed to conducting discussion and debate." [7]

Guidance and Punishment in Saudi Education

A number of measures have been enforced in the Saudi educational system to prevent extremism in the schools and to increase awareness of the issue among teachers.

Some Saudi schools have held awareness activities. The "Homeland Security – Everyone's Responsibility" project was initiated, with the aim of "emphasizing the teacher's role in protecting the homeland and its security, protecting the younger generation from destructive views, and rectifying mistaken ways of education." [8]

The Mecca Education Administration organized information campaigns in all the city's schools, with the aim of "increasing awareness regarding the danger of terrorism and the extremist view, and [for encouraging] the middle path in Islam." [9]

According to a report in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, the Al-Ta'if Region Education Ministry fired an English teacher after it is revealed that he had deviated from the curriculum and had devoted classroom time to reading from the Koran instead of to English studies. The special committee that investigated the matter determined that the teacher could no longer be allowed to teach, and that the decision was made "in order to protect the pupils from [the teacher's] dubious views." [10]

Deputy Education Minister Dr. Muhammad Bin Sa'd Al-Asimi sent a memo to all Education Administrations in Saudi Arabia, in which he instructed the removal of the Commentary and Exegesis of Koranic Words textbook, written by Hasanein Muhammad Makhlouf, from the school curricula and from the school libraries. According to an educational source, the instruction was given in order "to protect the pupils' thoughts." [11]

Education Ministry Official to Columnist: There's Extremism in the Schools

Former editor of the Saudi daily Al-Watan,Qeinan Al-Ghamdi, quoted in an article a letter sent to him by a senior Education Ministry official: "In my capacity as a senior Education Ministry official who is adopting the idea of change in the curricula in accordance with the interests of the state, I confirm to you that there is an organized ideological stream that includes key [Education] Ministry members, and that it poses a concrete danger to the ideological security in the educational environment. The danger of this extremist stream lies in its distortion of the perception of nationalism, in its dissemination of ideas supporting violence, and in its sabotage of the plans of the moderate national leadership within the ministry."

In the same article, Al-Ghamdi referred to Prince Abdallah's statements to educators on September 5: "We all know what 'this thing' is to which Prince [Abdallah] is referring with such heavy bitterness and sorrow. 'This thing' is the extremism of some teachers and officials in the Education Ministry, and perhaps among those present here there is someone to whom the Crown Prince was referring.

"[In his speech Abdallah used the word 'some' in reference to teachers who disseminate extremist views.] The word 'some' means 'a minority' – but this minority is influential. The extremist teacher influences a large number of pupils; the extremist instructor supports this kind of teacher; the extremist director supports such instructors and teachers; and the extremist school principal supports, promotes, and encourages all of them, and gives them authority. Their extremism, and not their skill, becomes the first and perhaps the only criterion for their promotion… Thus, the 'minority' becomes the most influential – not only in the Education Ministry, but also in the [other] ministries and in the universities. Although the Education Ministry is not the only elements responsible for uprooting this disease that exists in our midst, it is one of the most important elements." [12]

In another article, Al-Ghamdi wrote: "Extremism is the incubator from which the ideology of Takfir [accusing other Muslims of apostasy]emerges, which leads to terrorism… Extremism is more dangerous than armed terrorism, because the latter is carried out by known individuals or groups that can be resisted by force and quickly uprooted. But when the extremism remains, similar groups quickly appear, because the incubation continues." [13]

Saudi TV Program on Extremism in the Schools

For years, during the month of Ramadhan Saudi television has broadcast the Tash Ma Tash comedy series, which deals primarily with domestic Saudi affairs. [14] This year, one episode dealt with extremism in the Saudi state schools: The program talks about a teacher of religion who teaches tolerance and acceptance of the other and another teacher of religion who brainwashes pupils and teaches them Takfir [accusing Muslims of apostasy] and hatred of non-Muslims – and even calling for harming them when possible. The principal is aware of the latter teacher's extremist views but does nothing to stop him. Further, when it becomes known to the principal that the moderate teacher is educating his pupils to tolerance, he goes berserk and calls in Education Ministry superintendents to investigate the teacher – knowing all the while that they too hold extremist views.

When the moderate teacher decides to complain about the extremism, he is surprised to discover that the official committee that is meant to discuss the matter includes these same superintendents, as well as the school principal and the extremist teacher of religion. Here the episode ends. [15]

This episode prompted many reactions by senior Saudi education officials and by Saudi columnists. The Central Committee for the Ideological Security Program in the Riyadh district, which is headed by Abdallah bin Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Mueili, director of the Riyadh Educational Administration, discussed this episode of the series. The committee members concluded: "After discussing this episode, it was found that it was far from reality and that [extremism] is not a phenomenon that is spreading in the schools, and that it was presented [in this episode] in an exaggerated manner."

Committee head Al-Mueili noted, "The Riyadh Education Administration makes efforts to monitor those under the influence of extremist views, whether teachers or pupils. Many situations have been handled according to a particular program, with the cooperation of all concerned." [16]

Following the committee's decision, columnist Hamoud Abu Taleb wrote a harsh op-edtitled "Why Are We Misleading?" He criticized the committee's flawed handling of extremism in the schools: "This is the first time that I have heard of a so-called Central Committee for the Ideological Security Program in the educational system. Had it not been for the item published in the Al-Riyadh newspaper, I would never have known of this committee's existence, as not one of the educational officials in the other districts whom I asked had ever heard of it.

"It's good that there is a committee dealing with a sensitive matter such as ideological security in the educational institutions. Had there been no concerns about flawed [thinking] taking over, there would not be [a need for] such a committee…

"However, the honorable committee of the educators decided that there is no ideological and religious extremism in the schools. In one short sentence, it denied the existence of something that millions of residents and the [entire] country know about.

"After this total denial, the committee's tone suddenly changed, and it said that this episode [on television] is far from reality and does not reflect a phenomenon that is spreading in the schools.

"Although views are divided regarding the phenomenon and its significance, how can we come to terms with [the committee's] flat-out denial of any form of religious and ideological extremism [in the schools]?

"What is also surprising is that in the final part of the news item [published in Al-Riyadh ], the committee contradicted its own denial, by saying that it was monitoring teachers and pupils influenced by deviant opinions and that many [such] situations had already been handled.

"In the name of Allah, how can such a contradiction be resolved?... Obviously this denial is not strange, since we are a nation of denial, and [this] committee is nothing new, since we are a people of committees. But [perhaps we should] giving ourselves a new title, stating that we are a people of blatant, shameful contradictions.

"This connects to an important matter that is no longer a secret [i.e. extremism in the schools], whether a television series discussed it or not, because this matter is as clear as day. Moreover, we as a society … are already suffering from the regrettable damage and consequences [of this phenomenon].

"What is happening is dedication to and continuation of disasters that occurred in the past because of us. Now we are dealing with their results. We are beautifying matters – or, at best, making excuses for them, defending them, and praising those who caused them." [17]

Former Saudi Newspaper Editor: 'The Schools Brainwash Youth'

Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, former editor of the Saudi-based London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and director of Al-Arabiyya television, wrote: "I saw in one of the Saudi papers an item about two youths who wrote slogans supporting Saddam [Hussein] and bin Laden on the walls of homes in [one of the] neighborhoods, [and who were punished by] flogging…

"We are fighting bin Laden on the walls, while someone else is disseminating propaganda for him in the papers, claiming that there is a conspiracy against Islam, and that Saddam Hussein and bin Laden and others are innocent and that the Western media are conspiring against them so as to accuse Muslims of [things] that they have nothing to do with.

"Bad pupils cannot be countered before we counter bad ideas and those who disseminate them in the schools, in the media, on the Internet, in the Da'wa [Islamic propagation] circles, and in the youth camps. These [places] are the source of [these] ideas, and they brainwash the youth.

"When a youth scribbles [slogans] on a wall in a neighborhood, he is instinctively expressing the culture he has learned." [18]

[1] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), September 6, 2004.

[2] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), September 11, 2004.

[3] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), September 11, 2004.

[4] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), September 7, 2004.

[5] Al-Yawm (Saudia Arabia), September 8, 2004.

[6] Al-Yawm (Saudia Arabia), September 13, 2004.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 10, 2004.

[8] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), October 10, 2004

[9] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), October 16, 2004.

[10] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 29, 2004.

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 21, 2004.

[12] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 9, 2004.

[13] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 11, 2004.

[14] Al-Riyadh translates the title of the show as "Make It or Break It."

[15] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), November 3, 2004.

[16] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 12, 2004.

[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 16, 2004.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 11, 2004.