Saudi reforms: reading, writing, and tolerance

The pages of the Islamist Internet website scroll across the screen, showing street maps of this capital city, and issuing protest instructions.

This call to arms by Saudi hard-liners is to protest the merger of the women's education department with the Education Ministry, which previously managed only men's education. The merger was ordered by King Fahd, after 15 schoolgirls died in a fire in Mecca last March.

In a flurry of unsubstantiated rumors that sparked a public outcry, uncompromising religious police were said to have added to the death toll by preventing immodestly dressed girls – who left their black abayas in the burning building – from escaping.

The tussle is a sign of how the ruling family – a staunch ally of the US – is trying to moderate religious hardliners, who exert strong influence over the education and justice systems. Officials say they are trying to invest the antiquated education system – charged with perpetrating hatred of Jews and Christians – with tolerance and critical thinking.

But the Internet gives voice to other views. The website calls for activists to visit the house of the mufti in Riyadh during the afternoon prayer time, then move their protest to the house of the chief justice during sunset prayers, "to remind them to reject the merger of women's and men's education."

"I don't want to exaggerate their numbers," says Jamal Kashoggi, deputy editor of the English-language Arab News, based in Jeddah, who surfs such websites daily. "Our hard-liners ... are not visible, and have hardly any newspapers or magazines. But they still play an important role in education and the judiciary."

That influence, Saudi educators say, has meant a curriculum that uses some intolerant texts – some from the Islamic holy book, the Koran – that one US official calls "objectionable."

Other critics charge that young Saudis are taught a harsh worldview based on an extreme Salafi strain of Islam, which is the ideological cousin of Al Qaeda and Taliban thinking. That worldview holds that Muslims are waging a clash-of-civilizations-type war against crusaders and Jews – the same words used by Osama bin Laden – and must return to the pure religious life exhibited by the prophet Muhammad 13 centuries ago.

Koranic verses taught here include this one, according to a Saudi official: "O you who believe! Take not the Jews and Christians as friends/protectors, they are but friends/protectors of each other. And if any amongst you takes them [as friends], then surely he is one of them."

But Saudi officials argue that such Koranic quoteshave been plucked out of context by the Western press.

"We see Islam as a way of life, so we can give our students meaning based on religious values, to direct our children to behave in a certain way," says Khalid al-Awwad, the well-tailored, Western-trained deputy education minister. "We are a unique society – we have the Islamic holy places here. We should be an example of behavior for all Muslims."

Learning, not politics

Deputy Minister Awwad says that schools should teach broadly, without concern for politics. He says the Koranic quote is taught in its historical framework, particular to its own era. He points to one counter-balancing example, also from the Koran, which he says is also taught in Saudi schools. "Allah does not forbid you to deal justly and kindly with those who fought not against you on account of religion," the verse reads. "Allah loves those who deal with equity."

"When you see it in this context, it is clear," Awwad says of the education system here. "Tolerance is the key."

But conversations with students and recent graduates show that some tougher – and often wildly ill-informed – views have taken root. Anti-Jewish rumors are widely believed here, for example. One holds that 4,000 Jews did not show up for work at the World Trade Center buildings on Sept. 11. A variation has it that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself called all 4,000 people to warn them. Some Saudis say they believe that the Sept. 11 attacks were orchestrated by the CIA and Israel's counterpart, the Mossad. Others ask if it is true that Jews cheered the World Trade Center destruction from the roofs of their New York homes.

"Jews hate us and control the whole world," says one American-born Saudi businessman who asked not to be named. "They are using the Russians, Americans – all Christians – to fight Muslims, to kill each other, so only Jews are left."

But there are also more compromising views, which incorporate the mainstream view that Islam is a religion of peace and that killing or even hurting any innocent creature is wrong.

"If one [you are fighting] surrenders, you must treat them well," says another young businessman. "Even if he is a Jew."

Those at ground zero of Saudi Arabia's school system say that part of the problem is that education lags behind more dynamic, modern-leaning aspects of this society, like business.

"I have never been exposed to anything creative," says a Saudi educator in Jeddah, who asked not to be named. "Critical thinking is nonexistent. This is a 'banking system' of learning: You put all the information in a safety deposit box and leave it there. Our youth are not prepared for globalization."

While the need for reform is widely recognized, not enough attention is being given to content, this Western-schooled educator says.

"There are 64 new colleges, but the curriculum has not changed in 40 years. Some teachers can't read," the educator says. "It's like a building being eaten by termites and rotten on the inside, while outside it is all polish and marble. It can't last."

But change may be difficult to achieve, not least because fundamentalist religious institutions organize education. While their framework is not as extreme as the Taliban and Al Qaeda worldview, their Salafi roots are the same.

"Salafis regard the Islam that most Muslims practice today as polluted by idolatry," an analysis in the journal "Foreign Affairs" noted earlier this year. "The Wahhabi ideology of the Saudi state, for example, and the religious doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt [adherents of which shaped the Saudi curriculum decades ago] ... are all Salafi ... [and] share the belief that Muslims have deviated from God's plan and that matters can be returned to their proper state by emulating the Prophet."

For Saudi leaders – who forged an alliance with the puritanical Wahab sect 250 years ago to unify this nation – that translates into fighting what one Western diplomat calls an "uphill battle to rein in" hard-liners, like those ready to protest the education merger.

Among them are the religious police, known as Muttawain, which were strongly criticized after the Mecca fire. "This is an alliance, not a theocracy. The imams do not run this country," says the Western diplomat.

'Created a monster'

But the problem with the religious police mirrors a deeper education gap, the diplomat says. "You can't argue with them. They are ignorant. Just like the Taliban, they rote learn, and know nothing about the context of the Koran and Islam."

"Saudi Arabia needs to recognize they created a monster, by keeping religion and education in the hands of extremists," the diplomat says.

Spreading the word couldn't be easier. "The Internet is playing a major role, it shapes people, and rumors go everywhere," says Saleh al-Khathlan, a political scientist at King Saud University in Riyadh. "An Islamic discourse is dominating it. Everything is seen through the Islamist prism – they are the most active on the internet."

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