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SAUDI EDUCATION: WHERE TO?

The Saudi higher education is under attack these days. It was rated poorly by the Academic Ranking of World Universities filed on Feb. 16, 2006 by the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities at www.webometrics.info. Only three of the seven leading Saudi universities were qualified enough to be included in the evaluations and they came at the very bottom of the list of 3000 universities throughout the world. The issue was hotly debated during the last session of the Center for National Debate held last month in the city of al-Jawf. But even before that, many voices were raised in Saudi Arabia demanding that the whole educational system on all levels must be revised. The crux of the debate is that the curriculum in our educational system encourages fundamentalism and it does not qualify graduates for the job market, which means the country ends up with thousands of unqualified and unemployed university graduates. Unemployment, discontent, and ideological indoctrination during their school years make of these unskilled, naive, young graduates potential recruits for the Islamists. The general impression is that the educational system was hijacked by the Islamists, who diverted the educational curriculum and all other educational activities from the main objective of development and modernization of the country and tailored them instead to serve their own purpose of entrenching themselves and consolidating their power and tightening their grip on the country and its institutions.

This is not the place to review the complex history and the variegated shades and colors of the Islamists movements in Saudi Arabia. But we must remember one peculiarity of the country and three particular events in its history, which made of it a fertile breeding ground for the Islamists. The peculiarity I am referring to is the fact that Saudi Arabia includes the region of al-Hijaz with the two holy cities of Mecca and al-Madinah, wherein lie the two holy mosques. Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca where he started his call before he migrated to al-Madinah to spread the faith. He died in al-Madinah where he was buried in the holy mosque there. In Mecca lies the Kabah, the most sacred place where Muslims make their annual pilgrimage. This religious distinction of these sacred places invests whoever rules them with special position and responsibility in the Muslim world as the custodian and protector of the holy places and the advocate and defender of the Islamic faith. This means Saudi Arabia cannot afford to look lax, in the eyes of other Muslims, in conforming strictly to the tenets of the Islamic faith. It must provide a model to look up to by all other Muslims.

If we look back to the history of Saudi Arabia, three events are of special significance to the issue under discussion here. Saudi Arabia was established in 1744, when the religious reformer Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab concluded a pact with Muhammad b. Saud, the baron of ad-Diriyyah, a town in central Najd. The town of ad-Diriyyah, then, launched its wars of expansion under the pretext of bringing back the heretical Najdi towns to the fold of true faith as it was understood and interpreted by the religious reformer. This means that the legitimacy of the regime was based on its strict upholding of the Islamic precepts and its unflinching application of the Islamic shariah law. This stand was reinforced further by the annexation of the holy places in al-Hijaz.

The invasion of the Peninsula and the destruction of ad-Diriyyah in 1818 by the armies of Muhammad Ali of Egypt put an end to the first phase of the Saudi State. After a brief recess a second but week phase was started by Prince Turki b. Abdullah who was assassinated by one of his cousins and succeeded by one of his sons, Faysal. After Faysals death, the bickering between his two sons, Abdullah and Saud, put an end to this second phase.

The third revival of the Saudi regime was launched by the late King Abdulaziz at the beginning of the 20th century. Again, King Abdulaziz resorted to religious appeal to ensure the success of his project of regaining his ancestors realm and, therefore, he established the religious movement of al-Ikhwan. The premise of the movement was that nomadic existence is anathema to proper religious practices, which need fixed places of worship and schools for learning religious sacred texts and permanent source of water for ablution to perform prayers, etc., etc. But the real purpose of the movement was to settle the nomadic tribes into agricultural villages to make them more productive and easier to control by the state, and also to utilize their energy for raiding and channel it into wars of conquest. The movement was successful but one of its outcome, however, was the breeding of real zealots who waged serious battles with King Abdulaziz himself, accusing him of religious laxity. The reverberations of the zealotry side of the movement never subsided.

The last historical event I want to bring to the attention of the reader is the reaction of the late King Faysal, the third King of Saudi Arabia and second son of King Abduaziz, to the Arab Nationalistic movement of President Nasser of Egypt. Faysal saw in this nationalistic movement an attempt by Nasser to dominate the Arab World through the manipulation of popular feelings and sentiments. To combat this movement Faysal appealed to religious sentiment and established the Muslim World Organization. Once again, Saudi Arabia resorted to playing the religious card. Faysal Made of Saudi Arabia a political refuge and haven for all Islamist splinter groups from Egypt and other Arab countries, mostly from al-Ikhwaan al-muslimuon. Eventually, these Islamic political activists infiltrated into key positions in the media, educational, academic and even economic institutions of Saudi Arabia. Their position was solidified and their influence was enhanced during the reign of King Khalid and King Fahad when Islam was enlisted as a factor in the war against the expansion of communism in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries.

This rather extended historical retrospection is meant to show how entangled is the Saudi history with religion. Religion has become firmly embedded in the minutest details of our day-to-day life. The Islamists have thoroughly penetrated our various government institutions and practically all activities in our public life.

Under such political milieu, the clerical class gains immense power and influence and the religious discourse becomes the dominant discourse in the media and education, to the detriment of true academic and scientific discourse. In religious discourse, creativity, innovation, novelty and all forms of secular thinking and independent intellectual exercise are banned. You are supposed to imbibe and memorize texts by religious authorities, whom you submit to without ever challenging their authority or subjecting their pronouncements to any sort of critical examination. The most you can do is clarify or explain or comment on such pronouncements. There is not much room for true objective research or exercising of the mind. Traditional faith stands as a bulwark against independent reason and the sacred word takes precedent over empirical observation and scientific experimentation. Philosophy is taboo. The only place to look for answer for any question is religion, as understood and interpreted by organized, official religious clergy. Even the good meaning attempts of some independent thinkers and exegetists to adapt Islam to the exigencies of modern life are not allowed without the blessings of the official theologians. The only knowledge that is worth pursuing is that which prepares the soul for the hereafter. All extra curricular activities throughout the various educational levels are activities that attempt to make of the individual student not a scientist or an explorer or a technician but a better Muslim who can give good passing answers on the day of judgment; to insure the avoidance of torture in the grave and the going to heaven and not to hell.

The seriousness with which religious studies are viewed in Saudi Arabia is indicated by the fact that a student could pass from one grade to the next even if he flunked one or two secular subjects such as math or physics, but if he flunks one subject in religious studies he cannot pass. In Saudi Universities, many faculty members felt that their academic mission is not the pursuit of true scientific research but the Islamization of scientific knowledge, whatever that might be. There are topics which no professor dares talk about in his classes. Actually, a student could easily write a report to religious authorities against the professor who dares touch upon taboo topics. The only voices that are heard and that can speak with immunity in the universities are those of the Islamists. Every other voice is smothered. Every result of scientific experimentation or conclusion of academic research that goes counter to the dictates or vested interest of the Islamists will simply not be allowed to see the light or to find a place to be published.

Without the semblance of academic freedom, the minimum of freethinking, how can university education prosper? This is the real issue which was dodged by the discussants at the last session of the Center for National Debate in al-Jawf. They dwelt instead on bureaucratic and financial matters and the lack of infrastructure without daring to address the real crux of the problem. This very fact in itself is a flagrant testimony to the power of the Islamists whom no one dare challenge in public.

 







  

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