April 15, 2009 / 9:07 AM / 9 years ago

ANALYSIS-Saudi speeds up education reform, clerics resist

By Asmaa Alsharif

RIYADH, April 15 (Reuters) - Accused of promoting the religious radicalism that inspired the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to reform its school curriculum, but clerical opposition means change will be slow, analysts say.

King Abdullah appointed a new team to lead the education ministry this year in a surprise reshuffle in the conservative Islamic state, where reformers say promises of change when Abdullah took the throne in 2005 have amounted to little.

Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, a former intelligence official, took over as education minister with Faisal bin Muammar, who headed a body set up in 2003 to promote social and economic reforms, as his deputy.

"We have been calling for such changes for a long time," said Mohammed Youssef, a professor of education at King Abdulaziz University who wrote a book in 2004 on restructuring the Saudi education system.

The United States zeroed in on Saudi schools after it emerged that 15 of the 19 attackers who killed some 3,000 people there on Sept. 11, 2001 were Saudi. They acted in the name of an Islamist group, al Qaeda, headed by a Saudi, Osama bin Laden.

Foreign and Saudi critics said Saudi educational material permitted the killing of non-Muslims and promoted the idea of cleansing Muslim countries from Western cultural influences.

Saudi government concerns deepened after al Qaeda-linked militants launched a campaign to destabilise the kingdom in May 2003, targeting government buildings, energy installations and foreign residential compounds in suicide bomb attacks.

Youssef said "national dialogue" discussions presided over by new deputy education minister bin Muammar had helped the government mobilise support for a new approach.

"It became clear that one of the most important causes of terrorism is the monopoly of a certain group of people ... over building the curriculums in the kingdom," he said. In 2005 King Abdullah launched a 9 billion riyal ($2.4 billion) project for "education development", laying the ground for bigger changes in the Islamic Studies curriculum.

The curriculum changes will rephrase certain principles depicted in the textbooks, allowing for a more moderate interpretation, said Ahmed Modi, a Sharia expert and writer.

"There are certain individuals who have extremist views in Islam. The changes (to textbooks) have ushered in a realistic view, that Islam is a hospitable religion," he said.



CLERICAL RESISTANCE

Analysts say reformers in government have faced resistance over changing textbooks at the behest of foreigners, and as a result the changes so far -- to sections on jihad and Muslims’ relationship with non-Muslims -- are not enough.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, imposes a strict version of mainstream Sunni Islam and the ruling Al Saud family accords the powerful religious establishment wide powers in the justice system and education.

"The current (Saudi) schoolbooks are still laying the ideological foundations of terrorists and suicide bombers, foundations that have produced thousands of Saudi suicide bombers in September 11, Iraq, and Afghanistan," said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi opposition figure in Washington.

Many Saudis and other Arabs have gone to Iraq to fight U.S. forces and the Shi‘ite-dominated Iraqi government.

"Our concern about these books is that the interpretation is very conservative and a narrow understanding (of Islam) which is promoting intolerance in some cases," said Dwight Basheer, senior policy analyst at the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, which visited Saudi Arabia in 2007 and produced a report on the Saudi schoolbooks.

He said some Koranic verses required explanation lest they be seen to promote violence. "We are just saying it should be clarified, we are not saying remove it," he said, referring to passages that discuss the concept of jihad, or holy war.

Critics are concerned not just by the nature of religious material but the amount of it, since it creeps into other subjects taught such as Arabic and History. They say the focus on religion means the education system does not prepare Saudis for life and work in the modern world.

Many influential clerics and their supporters are angry about the changes so far and fear what could come next. They say the changes are the result of Western political pressure.

"What is happening is unjust to Islam. They are changing the principals in Islam and presenting things in an incorrect way," said an Islamic Studies teacher at a Saudi public school who declined to give his name.

While curriculums are moderated and textbooks are replaced, the teachers in Saudi schools remain the same.

"We need to train them and teach them how to accept change," said Naif Al-Roumi, deputy education minister for planning and development and director general of the project.

Change will have to be slow in order to avoid provoking opposition, Youssef said. "Reform must happen in stages because sudden reform could have adverse effects. We are dealing with extreme ideologies and we can not change that overnight. We need time and patience. It will be a struggle." (Editing by Andrew Hammond)

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