Education appears as a major flashpoint in competing visions of a future Muslim world. The rival concepts instilled in the next generation are likely to shape what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam.
Reports released earlier this year by the Israel Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE) illustrate the divergences in educational approaches.
On one end of the spectrum are Pakistan and Turkey, two of the most populous Muslim countries whose claim to rule the Muslim world is rooted in conservative, if not ultra-conservative, interpretations of Islam, which increasingly shape plus their education systems.
Read more: Can we decolonize education in Pakistan?
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reside on the other end with their reduced emphasis on religion in education and the emphasis on science as well as religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
Straddling the two approaches is Qatar, the only other Wahhabi state in the world alongside Saudi Arabia, although it embraced a more liberal interpretation long before the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. .
The different educational approaches of Saudi Arabia and Qatar
Since coming to power, Prince Mohammed has dramatically reduced the role of ultra-conservative religious figures and institutions, reduced global funding for Wahhabi activities, strengthened women’s rights, and built a Western-style entertainment sector.
Sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar sees global support for political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as its best defense against Saudi and Iranian models of governance.
Read more: “Personality of Global Influence”: Pakistan Ulema Council awards special title to Saudi Crown Prince
Qatari textbooks reflect the tightrope on which the Gulf State walks between professing its adherence to the concepts of democratic freedoms, human rights, tolerance and pluralism, while refusing to break with anti-Semitic and anti-Christian notions as well. than the philosophies of jihad and martyrdom prevalent in political life. Islam.
What the different approaches have in common is what makes them both problematic: an endorsement of an autocratic regime or strongman by explicitly propagating absolute obedience to the ruler or the increasingly authoritarian environment. in which Islamized education systems are deployed.
Underlying the different approaches to education are divergent interpretations of what Islam stands for and what constitutes a moderate form of faith, as well as seemingly haphazard definitions advanced by various leaders.
Read more: Islam and science: the truth about this unexplored relationship
Prince Mohammed’s point of view on Islam
To be sure, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, contrary to the values propagated in Turkish and Pakistani school curricula, are tackling issues that are widely seen as likely to foster the development of radicalism and extremism.
These include supremacist concepts, discriminatory representations of minorities, the emphasis on rote learning and attitudes towards violence.
In an interview in early May, Prince Mohammed expressed seemingly conflicting definitions of what his version of moderate Islam entailed. On the one hand, the crown prince suggested that it was a liberal application of Islamic law guided by the principles of tolerance and inclusiveness.
Read more: Does Saudi Crown Prince Still Encourage Moderate Islam?
Yet at the same time, when asked about the fight against extremism, Prince Mohammed cited a hadith or prophetic saying that urges worshipers to kill extremists. Saudi dissidents have accused the crown prince of justifying targeting those who criticize him, such as Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
“Today we cannot grow, attract capital, offer tourism, or move forward with the existence of extremist ideology in Saudi Arabia. If you want millions of jobs, lower unemployment, economic growth and better incomes, then you must uproot this project… Anyone who espouses an extremist ideology, even if they are not a terrorist, remains a criminal who should be detained. accountable to the law, ”said Prince Mohammed, arguing that the days when religious ultra-conservatism served a purpose are over.
Read more: Jamal Khashoggi is changing the Middle East at potentially horrific cost – James M. Dorsey
Saudi promotion of ultra-conservatism
The divergence in educational approaches takes on added significance because countries vying for leadership of the Muslim world such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey as well as Iran, export their visions of what faith stands for. in various ways. These include funding for religious, cultural and educational institutions in third countries and lobbying for policies that strengthen their approach and thwart that of their rivals.
While dramatically reducing its overseas funding and harnessing the Muslim World League (MWL), once a primary vehicle for Saudi promotion of ultra-conservatism, to spread the country’s most recent interfaith message of tolerance and outreach. Kingdom, Saudi Arabia has sometimes not hesitated to employ those it now denounces as extremists.
Indonesia is an example. The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), another government-sanctioned non-governmental organization once used to promote Saudi ultra-conservatism, is proud of funding mosques in Indonesia built by the prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or PKS), a group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Read more: Sultan of Malaysia stands up against Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism
When MWL General Secretary Mohammed al-Issa visited the Jakarta headquarters of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim movement, he chose to take Hidayat Nur Wahid, a leader of the PKS with him. and a staunch rival of the National Awakening Party (or PKB) associated with NU.
The Saudi display of his Indonesian Islamic political associate appears designed to counter Nahdlatul Ulama, the most serious challenger to the various concepts of Islam put forward by powers in the Middle East, including the kingdom.
Nahdlatul Ulama promotes a concept of humanitarian Islam that is rooted in a reinterpretation of religious texts, recognizes the need for reform to revise or remove what the group calls “obsolete” concepts such as that of the kafir or the infidel , and is supported by a large base of Islamic scholars.
Read more: Is Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism leading to worsening Shia conditions in Malaysia?
Religious soft power
For its part, Turkey’s religious authority Diyanet, who resides in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office, has seen its budget increase 23 times over the past two decades, making it by far one of the government agencies. the best funded.
Diyanet financed the construction of mosques from the former Ottoman countries neighboring the Balkans to Africa and even Cuba. The Maarif Foundation, a vehicle used to gain global control of schools once operated by followers of Fethullah Gulen, uses school materials provided by Diyanet.
Turkey accuses Mr. Gulen, a preacher who lives in exile in the United States and a former ally of Mr. Erdogan, of organizing a failed military coup in Turkey in 2016. Turkey has since arrested thousands of alleged supporters of Gulen and expelled many of the suspected supporters of the government bureaucracy and the military.
Read more: Turkey celebrates first anniversary of failed military coup
Several countries donated local schools run by Gulen to the Maarif Foundation. At the last count, the foundation managed 323 schools, 42 dormitories and a university in 43 countries.
Likewise, the Saudi-backed UAE used its religious soft power and commercial and economic influence to push for a stricter French policy towards political Islam before the crackdown initiated by President Emmanuel Macron.
The lobbying focused on common interests in the fight against political Islam and Turkey, with which France disagrees in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as on the issue of political Islam. He gave the French leader cover to target political Islam and Turkey as he prepares for an election in 2022 in which Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, nationalist and anti-immigration National Rally, occupies an important place.
Read more: Angry Twitter as France tries to ban hijab for women under 18
As part of the repression of political Islam, France has forced children to go to school from the age of three. It has also virtually eliminated options for home schooling or the operation of privately funded schools.
Mr Erdogan took the leap by declaring in 2018 that “the common goal of all education and our education system is to raise good people with respect for their history, culture and values “. Mr. Erdogan spoke of a “pious generation” which “will work for the construction of a new civilization”. It is this new civilization that is at stake in the battle for the soul of Islam.
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Dr James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and senior researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the Middle East Institute at National University of Singapore, as well as a Senior Non-Resident Honorary Member to Eye on ISIS. The article has been republished with permission of the author. The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.