The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood has been a turbulent one. Formally listed in 2014 as a terrorist organization, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood began to be actively challenged. However, their power over the education sector is considered the most problematic. Ahmed Al-Issa, Minister of Education, expressed in March that “the invasion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the education system is an indisputable fact.”
The Sahwa and the Muslim Brotherhood
Parallel to its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia is also engaged in another fight against Sahwa thinking. Sahwa is believed to have adopted and promoted the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood and is considered the reason for religious extremism in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, is seen as a political and ideological movement with aspirations inside the country and the whole region. In September 2017, the arrest of a number of Saudis considered sympathizers with the Muslim Brotherhood sent a clear message of the country’s firm stance.
The Sahwa Conference
The campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood caused a strain on the education sector that soon had to demonstrate its allegiance and support to the government. The University of Al-Qassim, a city that fostered and promoted Sahwa figures and thinking for decades, hosted its first conference on Sahwa earlier this week. The opening video of the conference is a four-minute documentary on the rise of Sahwa, and how it “gave birth to extremism”.
The papers presented in the conference dealt with issues related to Sahwa’s origin, aspirations, implications and flaws. One of the papers presented in the conference was by Dr. Hisham Al-Alsheikh, professor at al-Imam University. Al-Alsheikh attempted to provide an alternative religious framework to Sahwa by highlighting its differences with Salafism. Al-Alsheikh pointed out a number of Salafi principles that contradict with Sahwa thinking, such as use of the Quran and Sunnah as the only religious references and the obligation of obedience to the ruler. He argued that “true Salafism is not a movement” but a “lifestyle followed by the majority of Muslim”.
The conference was criticized by a number of Saudis on social media, arguing that it is still largely influenced by Sahwa figures. The Saudi writer, Abduallah Al-Alweet, argued that the conference must point out the flaws of Salafism that gave birth to Sahwa. Others saw the attack on Salafism as a proof of Saudi liberals “continuous fight against Islam”.
#موتمر_الصحوه هل تناولوا السلفية في هذا المؤتمر ؟
لابد أن نكون صرحاء مع أنفسنا ومع الناس ونعترف بأخطاء السلفية التي بسببها قامت الصحوة ، فلا يوجد أمر تحرّمه الصحوه وتبيحه السلفية التقليدية ، بل أحيانا هي أكثر تحريما منها
— عبدالله العلويط (@abdullah_alweet) April 10, 2018
The Muslim Brotherhood Dilemma
Launched in 2015, the “Faten” program meant to protect students from extremist views. However, the program’s head was dismissed last year, as reports suggest that Muslim Brotherhood influences led to the decision. In September last year, Suleiman Aba Alkhail, director of the Imam Muhammed bin Saud Islamic University, recommended not to renew work contracts of faculty members considered sympathizers with the Muslim Brotherhood.
In March 2018, the Riyadh International Book Fair banned books that deals with issues related to the Muslim Brotherhood. Also in March, Al-Issa stated that the ministry is working on revamping school curriculum and eliminating any references to the Muslim Brotherhood. In April, the Ministry of Education decided to end all contracts of faculty members considered followers of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In light of all the changes affecting the education sector, one wonders what will replace themes and ideas that were promoted in textbooks for years. The trans-nationalism of the Muslim Brotherhood might be replaced with more Saudi nationalism. Relaxing social restrictions and introducing more social reforms will eventually weaken the conservative structure, especially since the majority of youth is supportive of reforms.
The decision by Ahmed Al-Issa to include Ghazi Al-Gosaibi’s book A Life in Management as a textbook in high school is a positive step. The late former Minister of Labor was a constant victim of harassment by conservatives who criticized his views, writings and work. Introducing his books in school is an important step towards acknowledging figures who strive to modernize regardless of the criticism they face.
Earlier this week, Haya Al-Awad, Deputy Minister of Education, attended the International Exhibition and Forum for Education without wearing her face veil. Al-Awad’s decision caused a wide backlash among Saudis on social media who were critical of her action. Supporters considered it a “personal choice”, and hoped that this will allow a more lenient dress code for Saudi female students who are required to cover their faces by some universities. Al-Awad can be seen as setting a positive example, as the highest female official in the education sector, to other female students in the country.