Saudi Curriculum Reforms Ignore Content Inciting Violence Towards Christians
The Saudi government insists that they are reforming the country’s educational system as part of its counterterrorism efforts, but rather than eliminating content inciting violence against religious minorities, the government hosted a failed photo competition. Last year, the government announced its intention to stop printing textbooks by 2020 as part of its educational reforms. Meanwhile, teachers continue to use textbooks which encourage violence and discrimination against Christians. Says one Saudi teacher, these kinds of curriculum reform programs in reality have only a weak impact.
01/25/2018 Saudi Arabia (OXY) – 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.
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.
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