Changing the Way Saudis Learn

Angry Teachers and Empty Libraries
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 9 2009 9:34 AM

Changing the Way Saudis Learn

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Saudi girl. Click image to expand.
A girls walks to school in Saudi Arabia

Back in Saudi Arabia, some changes have been made to the curriculum in recent years—changes similar to, but not as far-reaching as, those at the Islamic Saudi Academy outside Washington, D.C.

Now any passages relating to Walaa wal Baraa (the question of whether Muslims should associate with non-Muslims) and jihad have been removed from all Saudi textbooks. But Saudi analysts say these deletions have done little to address how the curriculum might have led to violence in the past.

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"You can't just remove a section of a book and call it change," says Yehya al Amir, who himself once followed the strict Wahhabi-salafi line and recently wrote a book on the origins of modern Saudi extremism. "If you want to change the curriculum, you have to put forward an entirely new way of life, a new ideology."

One impediment to this kind of change is the fact that Saudis doubt their leaders really want it. Instead, they believe the Saudi royal family is merely paying lip service to critics in the United States.

When President Barack Obama visited Saudi Arabia in June, a group of U.S. lawmakers staged a press conference to complain that Saudi textbooks still promote hatred of non-Muslims.

It's precisely these kinds of actions that provoke defensiveness and even resistance back in Saudi Arabia—most notably from those who could have the most influence over any future reform: the teachers themselves.

Hesitant to speak at first, an Islamic-studies teacher in his 30s sits in a cafe attached to a Western-style hotel in the Saudi city of Jeddah. Wearing a shin-length thobe, the style favored by most religious men in Saudi Arabia, the teacher—who does not want to give his name—says he's angry about the changes to Saudi textbooks.

"All teachers are under stress about this issue," he says. "This is all due to political pressures from the West. They ordered that these changes be made. This is wrong."

The concept of al Walaa wal Baraa simply means that Muslims should not go out of their way to befriend non-Muslims, the teacher says—more specifically, that Muslims should be "emancipated" from non-Muslims.

Removing this idea from the curriculum will "open doors," the teacher says. "The new generation will ... think that it is OK for [non-Muslims] to enter Mecca" and spread other religions, he says. As for non-Muslims who already live in Saudi Arabia, "These people are here under our protection. It is forbidden to kill them."

In fact, the only time a Muslim can attack a non-Muslim is in self-defense, like in Iraq or the Palestinian territories, the teacher says. The al-Qaida attacks on 9/11 and in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006 were not jihad, he says, because they targeted innocent people. Yet, he wonders, how will his students ever be able to learn the difference—if he isn't allowed to discuss the subject?

In Riyadh, another teacher, Said Mohammad, says the more officials make sweeping deletions from the Islamic curriculum, the more likely it is that teachers will ignore the mandate.

"The teachers have researched these deletions, and we know why the government made them," Mohammad says.

"This is the dangerous point: Maybe it makes the teachers more angry. Maybe it makes them teach these subjects even more strongly."

Naif al Roumy, who heads an independent corporation charged with reforming the Saudi education system, hears this warning from the teachers loud and clear.

"We need these teachers to understand that there is not only one way to think about ideas like jihad," he says. "There are other ways.

"I'm not an Islamic scholar, but I know that jihad is not just about making a decision of whether to go and fight. No. It's a number of things. You have to start with yourself ... not to be a bad guy. In other words, one form of jihad is to jihad yourself."

Al Roumy says that so far, some 10,000 teachers have been retrained to work in dozens of model schools around the country. Eventually, he says, all the country's more than 500,000 teachers will undergo some kind of training.

Yet who is to say this retraining will incorporate a nuanced reconsideration of Islamic concepts—one that reconciles Saudis who see a need to soften the Wahhabi-salafi line with those who think that doing so is a menacing challenge to their core beliefs?

Jamal al Khashoggi, editor of Al Watan, a leading daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia, says officials need to make changes more thoughtfully. And the religious establishment needs to understand that these changes are not direct attacks on Islam.

"This is not a question of a secular education versus an Islamic education," he says. "The Islamists, they are on the defensive. So everybody who comes to them with a practical idea—they see him with a great amount of skepticism and paranoia. And that is delaying reform.

"We need to start a serious debate ... on this paragraph, that paragraph, of the textbooks. We need to start comparing our students' performance with students in, say, Jordan. We in the media have to be part of this debate. It's not just a question of making my sons and daughters good Muslims. It's making sure they can get a job in the future."

Saudi student Fatima al Khabbaz never thought she would be part of any debate. But then one day she brought an Arabic translation of Hamlet to school to read during a break. A teacher told her that "no books from outside are allowed."

"But I'm already finished with my work," Fatima told the teacher.

No exceptions, the teacher said.

So Fatima tried to find books inside the school—books that were not part of her everyday assignments. She eventually discovered that her school had a library. But the door to the library was kept locked.

After weeks of cajoling, Fatima convinced the school principal to unlock the door. Inside, the library was empty—save for a few religious pamphlets. But Fatima didn't give up.

Now she says she's working with teachers to bring in chairs, tables, and, eventually, books.

"What else can we do but try?"

Kelly McEvers is based in Riyadh and covers the Middle East for National Public Radio. Reporting for this story was supported by the International Center for Journalists

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