Studying in a Saudi Arabian state school as a child in the late 1990s, I encountered the strangest things. While we were encouraged to visit the library to read, the books in my school library were unlike anything one would suggest for a little girl.
The one that I will always remember was a book about Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, with a dramatic picture on the front titled, “Li-mādhā aʻdamūnī” or “Why did they execute me?”
There were many other similar books.
Since then, I have always wondered what happened to the recommended reading list about extremist practices inside Saudi Arabian schools.
From the ultra-conservative curriculum, to the teachers who never seemed to raise an eyebrow about what the students read, the Kingdom has come a long way – especially considering today’s social, economic and educational modernization program.
Years after my school days in Saudi Arabia, and now armed with a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from the UK, I found answers that had come into my head as a child, through a commissioned report for the King Faisal Centre “Vision 2030: Religious Education Reform In Saudi Arabia.”
My research looked at Saudi Arabia’s religious education under Vision 2030, and it became clear that Saudi Arabia’s present leadership has taken a different approach toward reforming the system compared to previous administrations.
The current education reform program runs parallel with reforming the religious establishment and religious discourse. By taking this combined approach, Saudi Arabia is at long last turning the spotlight on the causes of extremism in education.
Since the establishment of the first Saudi Arabian state in the late 18th century, the clerical classes have wielded enormous social and religious power. Traditionally, Muslim Brotherhood members have been allowed to monopolize the education system through its involvement in the education bureaucracy, writing influential textbooks that were included in the state syllabus. The group exercised total control over women’s education until 2002 when a fire broke out at a Mecca school where 15 girls died after religious police would not allow them to leave the building because they were not wearing their headscarves and abayas.
The Mecca fire sent shockwaves through the educational establishment, resulting in the immediate dissolution of the cleric-dominated Directorate General for Girls’ Education after 42 years of work. Control over women’s education was subsequently given to the Ministry of Education and placed under the supervision of the Kingdom’s then first female undersecretary.
It was only four years ago that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman addressed the problem head on. He oversaw the first major step to curb the power of religious elites by eliminating the power of the formidable mutawwa’een, or the religious police. Since then, the influence and visibility of the religious police, in society and on campus, has waned considerably.
Diminishing the role of the religious institutions has helped eliminate many of the more extreme practices in the girls’ educational system today.
Last year for instance the Ministry of Education (MoE) waived the religious police’ mandate that female students in public school should veil their faces and conceal their hands under black gloves. Although hijabs, which cover the hair, are still obligatory, the trajectory is clear.
It has taken a long time – but change is happening.
The MoE also recently approved a proposal from Princess Noura University, the Kingdom’s largest all-female university, to allow students to leave campus in case of an unplanned event, such as a medical emergency or canceled class, without being escorted or securing permission from a male relative, as had long been required under the Kingdom’s guardianship laws.
After reining in the religious police, the Crown Prince began in 2017 a sweeping crackdown on clerics allegedly tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. The clampdown extended into the education sector, with the government banning 80 Brotherhood publications from school libraries; teachers linked to the transnational group were also sacked.
This latest move is especially significant as Saudis have long accused Brotherhood-allied educators of radicalizing students by propagating unsanctioned, politicized, and extremist interpretations of religious texts – which Saudis commonly refer to as “the hidden curriculum.”
The move was further accompanied by efforts to empower moderate religious clerics to join in the new approach toward education reform and to promote humanistic and moderate Islamic notions.
Riyadh has also chosen to revise the content of many key extremist religious texts to contextualize and explain controversial subjects – such as takfir, or declaring another Muslim an apostate – to prevent teachers from twisting religious concepts to serve political ends.
Over the past nine years, Saudi Arabia has removed some 2,000 teachers from its education system. Teachers expelled were said to be either sympathetic to al-Qaeda and/or have propounded extremist viewpoints to their students.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia also introduced a national teacher accreditation program, including a teacher certification license.
Weeding out extremist practices and those who promote those ideals was one thing. Amending the curricula to decrease emphasis on religious modules and develop more market-oriented classes, with emphasis on technical and creative skills, is a longer process. But new modernized curricula is beginning to take shape to help Saudi Arabians eventually play an active role in implementing economic reforms, which seek economic diversification and employment for young people.
Beginning this fall, secondary schools will introduce choice into their curriculum and reduce the number of required Quran courses from three to two. Until recently, secondary school students spent nearly one-third of class time on religious education. Now they will be able to elect market-oriented subjects they wish to pursue.
The Kingdom is also set to introduce philosophy and critical thinking modules to address the country’s dearth of ability in these areas after decades of curricula built on rote learning.
In addition, Saudi Arabian secondary and tertiary schools will begin offering Chinese language training, to prepare students to work in a globalized economy and to forge closer relations with Asia. The Kingdom has also decided to include arts subjects, including music and theater, in public and private schools and universities.
It is a far cry from the education of my childhood. And finally, Riyadh is addressing its overall education policy in a bold and progressive way.
At the heart of this is the realization that education reform has to walk hand in hand with addressing the wider issue of extremism within religious institutions and that there is a real need to realign the system with economic, not just religious, imperatives to support plans for the future. Certainly, the current approach is more likely to succeed than all the others.