December 13, 2016 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1288

Saudi Education Ministry Project To 'Inoculate' Schoolchildren Against Liberalism And Secularism Causes Furor In The Country

December 13, 2016 | By E. Ezrahi*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1288

On October 28, 2016, the official Saudi daily Makkah reported that the Saudi Education Ministry is planning to launch an educational project called "Immunity" in the schools aimed at "inoculating" schoolchildren against intellectual currents that, according to the ministry, threaten the children's "ideological security." First on the list of such threats are Westernization, atheism, liberalism, and secularism; only after these come threats like extremism such as that espoused by the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda.[1]

The news of the project brought a storm of reactions, both in the Saudi press and on Twitter, from media figures and Saudi citizens alike, protesting against the ministry perception that there is more to fear from liberal thought than from extremist, violent Islamist thought. However, many Saudis tweeted, under the "#Liberalism is a dangerous group" hashtag, against liberalism and against individuals in the country whom they consider its representatives.[2]

This report will review reactions in the Saudi press and on Twitter to the Saudi Education Ministry's Immunity project:


The Saudi Education Ministry's Immunity Project

As noted, the ministry's Immunity project is aimed at protecting Saudi schoolchildren against what the ministry defines as the dangers of various ways of thought. In its October 28 report on the project, which was headlined "The Education Ministry Is Inoculating Its Students against Liberalism and Secularism," Makkah wrote that this "inoculation" would be carried out with "inculcation of national values, tackling extremist ideologies and destructive principles, and early detection and treatment of all extremist behavior among the students." According to the report, the schools would also, as part of the project, operate "units for imparting thought awareness" comprising ministry employees charged with implementing the project goals.

The report also enumerated "the currents that threaten national security: a) the contemporary intellectual schools of thought – Westernization, atheism, liberalism, and secularism; b) the extremist takfiri streams; and c) the partisan and sectarian streams and the fomenters of schism and conflict."[3]

The October 28, 2016 report in Makkah headlined "The Education Ministry Is Inoculating Its Students against Liberalism and Secularism."

It should be noted that in March 2015, the Education Ministry had launched a project called "Fatin ('being smart') – A National Project for Protecting Schoolboys and Schoolgirls from Deviant Behavior." Senior ministry officials emphasized that its objective was to "provide spiritual inoculation for schoolboys and schoolgirls, and to protect them from drugs, dangerous behavior, and deviant ideas, by reinforcing religious, social, and moral values by means of programs involving training, lectures, workshops, and more." It was further reported that the project would protect from "security, social, cultural, health, and economic threats."[4] For this project, the ministry did not list ideologies, but did hint at ISIS – in contrast to the "Immunity" project.

Twitter Debate On The Project

The Makkah report sparked immediate reactions to the project, both pro and con, on Twitter, from Saudi media members, public figures, and citizens.

Against The Project: It Is Not The Liberals Who Blow Themselves Up

In a series of tweets, media personality Nadine Al-Budair protested against the project, remarking in one of them: "If only our highly intellectual education minister would tell us what his very personal definitions of 'liberalism' and 'secularism' are."[5] In another, she wrote: "Have you ever heard of a liberal who committed murder? Or of a secularist who blew himself up? Answer me, Ministry of... of... [three dots in the original]."[6] In more tweets against Education Ministry officials, Ms. Al-Budair wrote: "[Such] strange officials [in the ministry]. It is not the left that assassinated Sadat. It was the extremists – whom Sadat used to fight the left – that assassinated him. Have you forgotten history? The Tehran street [named after the assassin, Khaled] Al-Islambouli is proof of this."[7] She also tweeted harsh criticism of the ministry: "Women are the devil, Shi'ites are infidels, liberals are atheists, and Sufis are infidels. The Education Ministry is a danger to security and is leading the citizens to slaughter [other citizens] in the streets."[8]

Nadine Al-Budair tweet

Also in a series of November 29 tweets, senior Saudi journalist Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh protested against the Education Ministry. He wrote: "Comprehensive development is possible only with liberalism. If I am wrong, Education Minister, come clarify to me what method you think will lead to development."[9] He added: "The UAE has based its development on economic freedom – that is, on the Western liberal method. Does our Education Minister have a method [that will lead to] development that is not liberal, that has been found to work?"[10]

Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh tweet

Another Twitter critic of the project was the well-known Saudi actor-comedian Nasser Al-Qasabi,[11] who tweeted: "If the Education Ministry follows this path... [it will be] a disaster."[12]

Saudi twitter user @rr_III posted a photo of Saudi men who had been arrested on terrorism charges next to a photo of the Makkah report on the project, and commented: "This is the latest list of wanted [Saudis who were arrested]. The photos show that they were influenced by liberal ideology and blew themselves up in our country."[13]

Other Tweets: The Liberals Are Indeed A Dangerous Group

On the other hand, some Saudis tweeted criticism of liberalism and its proponents in the country, under the hashtag "Liberalism is a dangerous group." Following is a selection of those tweets:

@mohammad1343m tweeted images of Saudi liberals such as journalists Khalaf Al-Harbi, Turki Al-Dakhil, Turki Al-Hamad, and actor-comedian Nasser Al-Qasabi, writing: "Oh liberals, may Allah castigate you! You are those who have corrupted our conservative societies and made us submissive to your Western master."[14]

@faizalnameri tweeted: "Liberalism is a dangerous group because it constitutes a true danger to the country's Islamic religion and identity. The most dangerous part is that some among them are traitorous spies for international organizations."[15]

@abdaleleh tweeted: "Liberalism is a dangerous group. They share the same ideology as ISIS. One wants to control in the name of religion, and the other yearns for foreign tanks to invade its country in order to rule."[16]

@saadmegren posted tweets by several liberal Saudi journalists criticizing the project and wrote: "These [liberals] – who is behind them, what do they want, and who funds them?????"[17]

In Saudi Press, Criticism Of Education Ministry For Ranking Danger Of Liberalism Over Danger Of ISIS

Saudi Journalist: Immunity Project – Based On The Reasoning Of The Forces Of Darkness, Aimed At Intimidating People, Preventing Them From Thinking Freely

The Saudi press too published criticism of the Education Ministry's Immunity project. For example, senior liberal Saudi journalist Khalaf Al-Harbi wrote in his column in the official Saudi daily 'Okaz that the ministry had not even given the students enough information about liberalism before coming out against it as dangerous. The aim of those who came up with the project, he wrote, is not to stop young Saudis from espousing terrorist ideologies, but to prevent free thought among the citizens, and to inspire them to fear liberalism. He said: "Several elements at the Education Ministry, both unknown and well known, have realized that they could not get out from under their vital national and human obligation – to keep young people away from the terrorism and the takfiri streams that are sowing death and destruction across the homeland, and that are badly damaging the image of Islam around the world. [But,] because they have abandoned their true professional responsibility to provide clear and reliable information to their students, these elements used a silly ploy [aimed at] confusing the young people...

"[These elements] are in no way providing [the students] with actual scientific content that explains the essence of 'Westernism, atheism, and secularism.' Instead, they are settling for presenting the superficial opinions [about these] presented on online forums. In such a situation, there is clearly no intention to inculcate primary-source information, or to protect the country's young people from lurking dangers; thus, a student will [necessarily] reach the obvious conclusion that 'while terrorists and ISIS activists pose a danger to the country, they are better than the others [i.e. liberals]'!...

"The liberalism and secularism referred to by the Education Ministry 'experts' is shorthand for anyone who supports women driving cars, or who sees a need for movie theaters... or who opposes the religious police force's lawbreaking, or who doesn't like the proposals of some of those who trade in the religion.

"In short, if you refuse to be dictated to, as a freethinker and not as a small cog in a huge system, the people associate [you] with liberalism, secularism, and Westernism. Even if you are a respectable sheikh who guides worshippers at the Al-Haram Mosque [in Mecca], like ['Adel] Al-Kalbani,[18] or a former director of a branch of the religious police branch, like Ahmed Al-Ghamdi,[19] or a moderate shari'a judge, like 'Issa Al-Ghaith, or many others – you will face these dubious allegations.

"In short, 'all those who disagree with us or who point out one of our flaws are liberal, secularist Westernizers; before that, they were modernists.' This is the perpetual logic of the forces of darkness when they come to frighten people about things they know nothing about, so that they cling even more tightly to the darkness."[20]

Saudi Columnist: Terrorism Comes From Political Islam – Not Liberalism And Secularism

Saudi journalist 'Aqel Al-'Aqel wrote in his column in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat that the project was one more failed attempt at combatting terrorism. He stressed that the only way this can be done is by highlighting the danger of the political Islam streams – especially the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which, he stated, has dragged Arab societies towards extremism and terrorism and created terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Hizbullah. This, he added, should be done instead of highlighting the danger posed by liberals, who themselves are targets of this terrorism.

He wrote: "In some Arab societies, we read and hear about projects that are bizarre and strange – [so much so that it is] as if those who define which streams are 'dangerous' for our society do not live among us and do not know which streams lead [Arab] societies towards zealotry and extremism, and later towards terrorism. [This terrorism is] led by the political Islam movement, chiefly the MB and its clandestine operation, which in the early 20th century carried out many political assassinations in Egypt...

"We have never heard of any case in the Arab world in which a secular or liberal stream called for violence and zealotry in its books. On the contrary: These streams are legitimate targets for murder and slander in our Arab societies. It would be no exaggeration for me to say that political Islam streams, in their drive to attain the seat of power, have fought against the liberal streams, depicting them as linked to foreign [elements], accusing them of espionage and treason, and arguing that they oppose the religion. This discourse is welcome in the conservative culture that is common in Arab societies. [The Arab] regimes, for their part, have leveraged the political Islam movements in order to damage the liberal streams that preach that secularism is the answer for societies with a variety of ethnicities, faiths, and religious schools of thought and that it is dangerous to use religion in politics. But this [i.e., the mixing of religion and politics] did happen, and now we are paying the price for it...

"As for the issue of Westernization: Although we are closely tied to the progressive West and its cultural and ideological products, we see that Islamist streams oppose this West. We remember that the leaders of the MB lived peacefully and pleasantly in the Western capitals, operating from there against their own countries, while their disciples in the Arab countries fought against other ideological streams, arguing that they were agents of this infidel West... This discourse is unfortunately common in Arab public opinion, and accusing people of liberalism has become akin to accusing them of total apostasy...

"I am not even talking about the thousands of our students who studied abroad at Western universities – [but having mentioned it, I will ask:] Are such enlightened programs a Westernization plot? I believe that we have adopted a policy that runs counter to the views of globalization and the technological revolution – [and] this is because want to be part of that world only on the economic level, while retreating to a culture that is obsolete and not in line with the [modern] age unless it reforms itself and takes on new interpretation that is appropriate for the [modern] age.

"In my opinion, it is the extremist religious ideology that needs to be reexamined, so that is will not be leveraged by the political Islam movements. This is because the ones who blow [things] up and murder in the name of the religion are organizations like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Hizbullah.

"When will we realize that we are making a mistake in how we are tackling terrorism, in all its forms[?]"[21]

Saudi Columnist: Terrorists In Saudi Arabia Are Influenced By Al-Qaeda And MB – Not Modernists

In his column in the official Saudi daily Al-Watan, Saudi journalist 'Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa criticized the Immunity project and other, similar Education Ministry projects for, he said, turning schools into a battleground of ideologies, rather than disseminators of knowledge. The list of those arrested on terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia clearly shows, he said, that they had been influenced by Al-Qaeda and the MB, not by modernist thought: "Such shaky [education] projects, from [the one called] 'Fatin' to [the one called] Immunity... are nothing but a systematic inculcation of [the intention] to transform our schools into arenas of struggle and war between different sects and ideologies. Unfortunately, we appear to have learned nothing from four decades of experience in which the schools have been robbed of their natural role as bastions of education, where only learning takes place...

"The Ministry... has spent, and will continue to spend, millions on such projects, but it could have followed a much shorter path [by going to] the Interior Ministry and asking it some of these questions: What is the source of ideological and religious authority to which the dozens of young men on the lists of those [wanted] on security charges are adhering? Are those who blow up facilities, mosques, and state public and security buildings being influenced by sick, despicable liberalism, or by the brainwashing carried out by elements that even the most ignorant layman on the street can recognize? [And] at what age did these teens set out on their path of extremism and terrorism?...

"[The Education Ministry can further ask the Interior Ministry:] Did the attempt to blow up the Interior Ministry succeed because of people who were influenced by Gustave Le Bon[22] or by the books of [Al-Qaeda leader Ayman] Al-Zawahiri, [Al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Muhammad] Al-Maqdisi, Faris bin Shuwail,[23] and [radical Islamic thinker] Sayyid Qutb?

"There is not enough space here to answer these outrageous questions in detail, but the answers to them are known by all fathers who have lost a son, and all mothers [who have lost a son] know who is to blame and who caused it, that the perpetrators are still roaming free and can return at any time for her second son – and that they take the form of an emissary or a volunteer in an 'Immunity' or 'Fatin' [project].

"In conclusion: We are asking you [at the Education Ministry]... to leave our schoolchildren alone to simply learn... You cannot possibly care more for a child than his own father does."[24]

Saudi Columnist: The Education Ministry's Projects Fail At Their Goals – And Are Not Even Implemented Properly

Also criticizing the project and the ministry's policy was Saudi writer Lamia Bashan, who wrote in her column in the official Saudi daily Al-Madina that the ministry's frequently launched programs ae not implemented properly and fail to attain goals such as protecting children from extremist ideologies and strengthening national values, but are not even. How, she asked, is the ministry unable to tell the difference between extremist ideologies such as that of ISIS – which damages anyone who espouses it as well as their families, their societies, and Islam's image worldwide – and modernist streams, that at the most will harm only the individual who freely adopts them. She wrote:

"At first, it was decided [to include] 'national education' [in the curricula] in order to arouse nationalist sentiments in the students' hearts, so that they can withstand the attraction of terrorist streams that harm the national interest. This was decided in reaction to the situation that we saw as a [temporary] emergency, but that has now become permanent, and keeps growing to this day. Does this indicate national education's failure to inculcate the true meaning of citizenship?... So we saw a need to try again, and then-education minister Dr. 'Azzam Al-Dakhil launched the '[Fatin – The] National Project for Protecting Schoolboys and Schoolgirls from Deviant Behavior'...

"We do not know how the 'Fatin ' project spawned the next project, Immunity... but clearly this new project is a replacement for [the ' Fatin ' project], or a merger of two previous [projects] that share the goal and vision of the national education program – that is, protecting young minds from sliding into the darkness of deviation from the straight path – and ISIS is an example of this [slide into darkness]as well as from extremist ideology and behavior that deviates from the moderate Islamic faith, and to protect their thoughts and strengthen their national unity by inculcating national values...

"Had the previous projects been implemented professionally, they would have achieved magnificent results that would have spared us the evil of ISIS and the attraction of its deviance. Furthermore, it became clear that we are still dealing with these challenges with the same weapons and methods – as we keep hoping that this time our plans, under new names, will succeed.

"In truth, the current [Education] Ministry has surprised us with something original it came up with. It believed that ideological inoculation demands protection of schoolchildren's minds from [additional] dangerous streams that threaten their safety as much as ISIS extremism does. As a result, it has for the first time defined 'contemporary' streams, including Westernization, liberalism, secularism, and atheism, [as dangerous], and warned against falling into their destructive hands.

"The ministry may not see the difference between deviation from the straight path that leads to actual destruction, bloodshed, rifts in the social and familial fabric, distortions of the image of Islam, and global antagonism towards it and ideological streams that are nonpartisan and non-organizational that, if they harm anyone at all, it is only the individual [who espouses them] as part of their individual choices in life..."[25]

* E. Ezrahi is a research fellow at MEMRI


[1] Makkah (Saudi Arabia,) October 28, 2016.

[2] See hashtag:

[3] Makkah (Saudi Arabia,) October 28, 2016.

[4], 1, November 18, 2016; Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), October 21, 2016; Al-Hayat (London), April 16, 2015.

[5], October 29, 2016.

[6], October 29, 2016.

[7], October 29, 2016.

[8], October 29, 2016.

[9],October 29, 2016.

[10],October 29, 2016.

[11] Al-Qasabi starred in the TV show "Selfie," broadcast during last year's Ramadan, which focused on extremism in Saudi society, and ISIS and its recruitment of Saudi youth. The show caused a stir in the kingdom, and Al-Qasabi was harshly criticized by Saudi citizens, one cleric even going as far as to call him an apostate. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1176, 'Selfie' – Satirical Saudi TV Show Sends Shockwaves Through The Kingdom, July 16, 2016.

[12], October 30, 2016.

[13], October 29, 2016.

[14], October 30, 2016.

[15], November 5, 2016.

[16], November 5, 2016.

[17], October 31, 2016.

[18] 'Adel Al-Kalbani is a former imam at the central mosque in Mecca who was harshly criticized in 2010 for saying that no Islamic text explicitly forbids singing and music. He also criticized martyrdom attacks and called to reform Salafism. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3728, Saudi Sheikh: One Who Kills Himself and Others in Order to Win the Virgins of Paradise Is Not a Martyr but a Suicide; Only the Truly Virtuous Will Gain Paradise, April 1, 2011; and Special Dispatch No. 5872, Senior Saudi Salafi Cleric: 'ISIS Is A True Product Of Salafism', November 4, 2014.

[19] Ahmed Al-Ghamdi previous served as the head of the Religious Police in Mecca. Statements he made regarding the permissibility of gender mixing, and his wife's appearance without a niqab caused a stir in the kingdom. See MEMRI TV Clip #4689 – Former Top Saudi Religious Police Official Ahmed Al-Ghamdi Confronts Criticism for Allowing Women Not to Wear Veil, December 19, 2014.

[20] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 31, 2016.

[21] Al-Hayat (London), November 1, 2016.

[22] Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), French psychologist and sociologist best known for his work on crowd psychology.

[23] Faris bin Shuwail Al-Zahrani (1977-2016), prominent Al-Qaeda ideologue operating in Saudi Arabia in 2003-2004 who was executed by Saudi Arabia in January 2016 for involvement in terrorism.

[24] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 31, 2016.

[25] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), November 3, 2016.

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