The Reforms Flagship education scheme has been suspended after claims that it was hijacked by hard-liners.
As the Saudi government sought to step up its efforts to counter extremism, it came up with a competition for schoolchildren to take photos and videos that showed “the kingdom’s work in serving Islam” or the security forces’ fight against terrorists.
The competition was a flagship event of a government programme launched two years ago with much fanfare as the education ministry sought to bolster claims that it was serious about reform. But the initiative has been suspended and its future is uncertain after allegations that it was hijacked by hard-liners.
The first head of the programme was sacked in October after media reports that his staff expressed sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement Riyadh designates a terrorist group. His replacement lasted only 72 hours before she was dismissed for the same reason.
The government’s experience with the programme, 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 fulfil 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 criticised 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 September 11 attacks were Saudis.
Government officials insist that a big effort has been made to modernise 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 second 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 evilnatured”, 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, education minister, said last year that the government planned to stop printing textbooks by 2020 as part of its efforts to overhaul the system. Schools will be equipped with interactive tablets and digital curricula that can be updated in real time. That should mean that material deemed offensive can be edited out easily. 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 it had taken disciplinary measures against some teachers who expressed extremist views in class. Fawziah al-Bakr, a professor of education at King Saud University, says progress has been made reforming the system, particularly in large cities. But concerns linger over whether other areas are receiving the same level of attention in a country where 70 per cent of the population is aged under 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,” Prof Bakr says. Still, she worries about extracurricular activities traditionally organised by teacher-led “religious guidance” groups.
The Feten programme is to be placed under the responsibility of a “Centre of Thought Security”. Prof Bakr says the quick suspension of the programme after its head was linked to the Brotherhood was a sign of progress. But others are more sceptical. “The issue of extremism cannot be solved by Feten or any other programmes,” says a school counsellor in Eastern Province. “These programmes are almost always just flashy shows that the ministry promotes as achievements but in reality their impact is weak. “Religious studies should be taught in a critical thinking way so we can protect our children,” the counsellor says. “The rote learning method that we still see in religion classes is no longer convincing.