Why you should care
Saudi Arabia’s success or failure in combating its domestic radicalization will impact the region, the world and the legacy of Riyadh’s new leader.
As the Saudi government sought to step up its efforts to counter extremism, it dreamt up a competition for schoolchildren to take photos and videos that showed “the kingdom’s work in serving Islam” or security forces’ fight against Islamist militants.
But the initiative has been suspended and its future uncertain following allegations that the project itself was hijacked by Islamists. The first head of the program was dismissed in October after media reports that his staff expressed sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that Riyadh designates as a terrorist group. His replacement lasted only 72 hours before she was dismissed for the same reason.
The government’s experience with the program, known as Feten, which means “astute” in Arabic, underlines the challenges it faces to reform the conservative education system. Its success will be pivotal to Riyadh’s ability to fulfill Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s pledge to turn a nation often accused of exporting extremism into a more tolerant society.
The education system has long been criticized for using a curriculum that promotes hatred of non-Muslims and creates a fertile ground for extremism. Scrutiny of the system and the influence of the powerful Wahhabi religious establishment, which preaches a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, intensified after it was discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. were Saudis.
The government’s own intolerant and discriminatory policies are a domestic factory for extremism.
Sarah Leah Whitson, an executive director at Human Rights Watch
Government officials insist a big effort has been made to modernize education and revise textbooks to rid them of intolerance. But recent reports by think tanks and human rights groups suggest that religious teaching material continues to include problematic elements.
A fifth-grade textbook, for example, contains a passage calling Jews, Christians and pagans “original unbelievers,” according to a review conducted by Human Rights Watch in September. Another textbook says “those who make the graves of prophets and the righteous into mosques are evil-natured,” an apparent reference to Shia and Sufi Muslims.
“The government’s own intolerant and discriminatory policies are a domestic factory for extremism,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, an executive director at HRW. “Saudi [Arabia] not only needs to reform its education system to end the open religious hatred spewed by textbooks and teachers alike, but needs to end the rampant discrimination against its native Shia and foreign Christian populations.”
Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Ahmed al-Eisa, the education minister, announced last year that the government planned to stop printing textbooks by 2020 as part of its efforts to overhaul the system. Instead, schools will be equipped with interactive tablets and digital curricula that can be updated in real time. That should mean they are open to scrutiny and that any material deemed offensive can be easily edited out.
But experts say a crucial issue is ensuring that teachers follow the curriculum and do not deliver a more fundamentalist message of their own. The ministry said this year it had taken disciplinary measures against some teachers who expressed extremist views in classrooms.
Fawziah al-Bakr, a professor of education at King Saud University, says progress has been made in reforming the system, particularly in large cities. But concerns linger over whether small towns and rural areas are receiving the same level of attention in a country where 70 percent of the population is under age 30.
“Society was changing in many aspects, especially in major cities. The problem was with government policies because they were backward. The government has now started moving forward in many ways,” Bakr says.
Still, she worries about extracurricular and after-school activities that have traditionally been organized and carried out by teacher-led “religious guidance” groups.
“Now there are far more restrictions [on activities taking place in schools]. Nobody enters the schools now without permission. But are they doing enough in the south?” she says, referring to the region where many of the Saudi hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks originated.
The Feten program will now be placed under the responsibility of a “Centre of Thought Security” that was announced by the education ministry last month.
Saad al-Moshawah, the program’s new supervisor, told the state news agency that the education ministry is reviewing its plans before relaunching the initiative in the spring semester.
Bakr says the fact that the program was quickly suspended after its head was linked to the brotherhood was a sign of progress. But others are more skeptical about the effectiveness of such schemes.
“The issue of extremism cannot be solved by Feten or any other programs,” says a school counselor in the Eastern Province. “These programs are almost always just flashy shows that the ministry promotes as achievements, but in reality their impact is weak.”
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