By James M. Dorsey
Education is emerging as a major flashpoint in competing visions of a future Muslim world. Rival concepts being instilled in a next generation are likely to shape what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam.
Reports earlier this year published by the Israel-based Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE) chart the divergence in educational approaches.
At one end of the spectrum are Pakistan and Turkey, two of the more populous Muslim countries whose claim to leadership of the Muslim world is rooted in conservative, if not ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, that increasingly shape their education systems.
Straddling the two approaches is Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state alongside Saudi Arabia even if it adhered to a more liberal interpretation long before the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Since coming to office, Prince Mohammed has significantly reduced the role of ultra-conservative religious figures and institutions, cut back on global funding of Wahhabi activity, enhanced women’s rights and built a Western-style entertainment sector.
Sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar sees global support of political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as its best defense against the Saudi and Iranian governance models.
Qatari textbooks reflect the tightrope the Gulf state walks between professing adherence to concepts of democratic freedoms, human rights, tolerance, and pluralism, yet refusing to break with anti-Semitic and anti-Christian notions as well as philosophies of jihad and martyrdom prevalent in political Islam.
What the different approaches have in common is what makes both problematic: an endorsement of autocratic or strongman rule by either explicitly propagating absolute obedience to the ruler or the increasingly authoritarian environment in which the Islamicised education systems are being rolled out.
Underlying the different approaches to education are diverging interpretations of what Islam represents and what constitutes a moderate form of the faith as well as seemingly haphazard definitions put forward by various leaders.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in contrast to the values propagated in Turkish and Pakistan school curricula, tackle issues that are widely seen as potentially contributing to breeding grounds for radicalism and extremism.
These include supremacist concepts, discriminatory portrayals of minorities, emphasis on rote learning and attitudes towards violence.
In an interview in early May, Prince Mohammed expressed seemingly contradictory definitions of what his version of moderate Islam entailed. On the one hand, the crown prince suggested that it involved a liberal application of Islamic law guided by principles of tolerance and inclusivity.
Yet, at the same time, when asked about tackling extremism, Prince Mohammed cited a hadith or prophetic saying that urges the faithful to kill extremists. Saudi dissidents charged that the crown prince was justifying the targeting of those who criticized him, such as Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was killed in 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, decline of unemployment, economic growth, and better income, then you must uproot this project… Any person who espouses an extremist ideology, even if he is not a terrorist, he is still a criminal who must be held accountable before the law,” Prince Mohammed said, arguing that the days in which religious ultra-conservatism served a purpose were in the past.
The divergence in educational approaches takes on added significance because countries that vie for leadership of the Muslim world like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey as well as Iran, export their visions of what the faith stands for in a variety of ways. These include funding of religious, cultural, and educational institutions in third countries and lobbying for policies that bolster their approach and counter that of their rivals.
While cutting back significantly on its overseas funding and harnessing the Muslim World League (MWL), once a prime vehicle in the Saudi promotion of ultra-conservatism, to propagate the kingdom’s more recent message of tolerance and inter-faith outreach, Saudi Arabia at times does not shy away from employing those it now denounces as extremists.
Indonesia is a case in point. The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), another government-sanctioned non-governmental organization once used to further Saudi ultra-conservatism, prides itself on the funding of mosques in Indonesia built by the Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or PKS), a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated group.
When MWL secretary general Mohammed al-Issa visited the headquarters in Jakarta of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim movement, he opted to take with him Hidayat Nur Wahid, a leader of the PKS, and a staunch rival of the National Awakening Party (or PKB) that is associated with NU.
The Saudi flaunting of its political Islamic Indonesian associate appears designed to counter Nahdlatul Ulama, the single most serious challenger to the various concepts of Islam put forward by Middle Eastern powers, 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 infidel, and is supported by a broad base of Islamic scholars.
For its part, Turkey’s religious authority, Diyanet, that resides in the office of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has seen its budget increase 23-fold in the last two decades, making it by far one of the best funded government agencies.
Diyanet has funded mosque construction from the nearby formerly Ottoman countries in the Balkans to Africa and even Cuba. The Maarif Foundation, a vehicle used to take control globally of schools once operated by followers of Fethullah Gulen, uses school materials supplied by Diyanet.
Turkey accuses Mr. Gulen, a preacher who lives in exile in the United States and an erstwhile ally of Mr. Erdogan, of engineering a failed military coup in Turkey in 2016. Turkey has since arrested thousands of alleged Gulen supporters and removed large numbers of suspected supporters from the government bureaucracy and the military.
Multiple countries have handed local Gulen-operated schools to the Maarif Foundation. At last count, the foundation operated 323 schools, 42 dormitories and one university in 43 countries.
By the same token, the UAE supported by Saudi Arabia, has employed its religious soft power and commercial and economic sway to lobby for a tougher French policy towards political Islam prior to the crackdown initiated by President Emmanuel Macron.
The lobbying emphasized common interests in countering political Islam and Turkey, with which France is at odds in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean as well as on the issue of political Islam. It gave the French leader welcome Muslim cover to target political Islam and Turkey as he gears up for an election in 2022 in which Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far right, nationalist and anti-immigration National Rally, looms large.
As part of the crackdown on political Islam, France required children to attend school from age three. It also all but eliminated options for home schooling or the operation of privately-funded schools.
Mr. Erdogan laid down the gauntlet declaring in 2018 that “the joint goal of all education and our teaching system is to bring up good people with respect for their history, culture and values.” Mr. Erdogan spoke of a “pious generation” that “will work for the construction of a new civilisation.” It’s that new civilisation that is at stake in the battle for the soul of Islam.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute as well as an Honorary Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Eye on ISIS.