As a teacher recently living in Saudi Arabia, it’s important to me to understand the complex education system and the reasons why I’ve been provided with such a good job here. After some research this is just some of the information I’ve come across.
On September 11th, 2001, nineteen men affiliated with Al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners and attacked the United States. Two planes were flown into the World Trade Center towers. A third hit the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed in a field. More than 3,000 people were killed in the attack, and costly efforts have since been implemented to combat terrorism.
Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The question is why? What causes a person to become a terrorist and what efforts are being made to stop it?
What causes terrorism?
“A close study of the country’s school system by Saudi professor Mohammad Zayed Youssef revealed that dialogue and respect for religious difference – whether directed towards non-Muslims or Muslims with different interpretations of Islam – was missing.”
To understand this issue we need to examine some of the causes of terrorism. There’s no doubt Saudi Arabia has had a bad reputation in regards to terrorism and extremist activity. Even before the 9/11 attacks there was a long history of Saudi Arabia’s participation in terrorist activity.
Much of the blame has been placed on the education system in the kingdom. Instruction was primarily steeped in rote learning and religious studies. Islamic studies dominated the curriculum, depriving students of general and technical educational skills. Furthermore, the nature of the instruction cast non-believers in a negative light and even served to foster hatred toward infidels and the west. According to a 2006 report by Freedom House:
“the Saudi public school religious curriculum continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the ‘unbeliever’ The Saudi religious studies curriculum is taught outside the Kingdom in madrasah throughout the world. Critics have described the education system as ‘medieval’ and that its primary goal “is to maintain the rule of absolute monarchy by casting it as the ordained protector of the faith, and that Islam is at war with other faiths and cultures”. For example, an eighth grade text reads, “The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus.”
This heavy emphasis on religious studies coupled with the lack of general education is considered by many as contributors to the rise in terrorist behavior in Saudi Arabia. Lack of proper education also leads to a rise in unemployment. This unemployment breeds boredom and unrest. With little else to do in the kingdom, it’s understandable how restless youths would be caught up in what they perceive as a noble cause. All of these issues were exacerbated by Osama Bin Laden’s declaration of war on America in the 1990s due to the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.
Post 9/11 Education Reforms
“In the past seven years, under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has spent lavishly on higher education. About a quarter of each yearly budget goes toward education and vocational training; this year’s allocations, amounting to $36.5-billion, represent a 12.4-percent increase over those of 2009. The King Abdullah Scholarship Program has sent more than 90,000 Saudis to pursue graduate studies abroad. The number of public universities in the country has risen from eight to 24; a few of them now appear in world university rankings.
In response to the problems of terrorist activity and unemployment, major reforms in the education system have been implemented by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud and the Ministry of Education. This ten-year plan aims to make changes to the current education system including:
- Instruction of more relevant geography and history
- Encouragement of moderation and cultural tolerance
- New courses in science and the humanities
- An increase in technical and vocational schools
- technical and health institutes of education for females
- Construction of the King Abdullah University of Science Technology
- Construction of Princess Noura University for Women.
- Organization of girls’ technical education
- Development of special needs education
- Teacher training and improvement
- Development of information and communication technology
These changes, in addition to the construction of numerous universities, were made as part of the Tatweer project. Most of the public school’s curriculum is still heavily steeped in religious rhetoric, and currently music and the fine arts are still heavily discouraged, but with the changes above, Saudi Arabia is going to see a huge change in mind set and productivity from future generations.
Not everyone is thrilled about these educational reforms. Fundamentalists and many religious leaders consider the reforms too Western or perhaps even detrimental to the well-being of girls and women. But despite these protests and concerns, changes are happening.
It’s too soon to see how much of an impact this new educational system will have on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in their efforts to progress and combat terrorism, but these changes are nothing short of miraculous when compared to the state of the country just 10 years ago, especially in regards to women’s rights.
With growing concerns of other terrorist activity happening nowadays as seen in Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia is a good reference to help combat these issues. Even now, measures are being taken to fight terrorist groups like ISIS and the destruction they bring to neighboring countries throughout the Middle East. The fight will continue, but perhaps in our examination of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to prevent terrorist activity we can ask ourselves:
Which is more effective, fighting terrorism with guns? Or with books?