Schools are widely recognized as being on the frontline of countering violent extremism. And a campaign is now underway to push the Jordanian government to reform the nation’s education system. Its principal target? A curriculum that has, for years, been taught in the kingdom’s schools—but now faces growing criticism.
In June 2015, at a gathering held in Amman, a group of politicians, educators and students came together to reach a decisive conclusion. They were unanimous: the current curriculum in Jordan’s schools, from primary to secondary levels, was in need of a serious overhaul. The education system is suffering; it is beset, they believe, with extremist ideas that stunt the nation’s growth. Jordan’s former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Al Muasher and education expert, Dr. Thogan Obeidat were among those present, and at the forefront of the campaign, Tajammu (Coming Together) that was launched as a result of the meeting in August 2015.
Approaches to combating the scourge of extremism have had mixed results. It’s not just Jordan that is facing this battle against violent extremism in schools—it is a global challenge. But a widespread international consensus has developed on the need to do something about it. “Combating extremism must start in the classroom. Education must play a decisive role and children must be taught compassion, diversity and empathy,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a summit for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Washington early last year.
In Jordan, things are at a crossroads, with a strident public debate underway as to the nation’s schools. According to Tajammu, Jordan is undergoing a religious and sectarian struggle with thousands of young people exposed to extreme ideas. A key contributing factor in the tension is Jordan’s education system, which some say has been inculcating extremist ideas into impressionable minds, unchecked for some time. “Jordan currently has around 10,000 people with extremist ideas and 24,000 of them with ‘takfeeri’ (rejectionist) ideas,” former Prime Minister of Jordan, Maarouf Al Bakhit said as he chaired a panel at the event on “Curriculum and School Books”.
Tajammu aims to provoke change and urge the government to amend its current curriculum. The campaign is also being promoted by other leading politicians and educators, including Safwan Al Masri, the executive vice president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University, former Jordanian Prime Minister Adnan Badran. Former Minister of Education, Ibrahim Badran and thought leader Hosni Ayesh are also on board, Obeidat added. “We are around 20 members working tirelessly to develop a plan to reform the education system in Jordan and present it to the government,” he said.
“I believe this campaign is extremely important and with our work, we are not only challenging the Ministry of Education but also layers of the Jordanian society whose ideas and beliefs reflect extreme ideologies,” Jordanian writer, poet and an avid advocate for education reform, Zuleikha Aburisha said.
The need for the campaign was clear. “When I was in the council, the books that were taught back then were very different than those taught today. There has always been an Islamic influence but never to the extent we see today. Unfortunately, these days most of our mosques, schools and universities have the Wahhabist ideology controlling them,” said Obeidat.
Obeidat insists that the campaign is not against religion, but rather against using religion in a way that does it no good within the curriculum. “It is important that religious verses are well evaluated and carefully picked, even in parts where they are necessary as they are being taught to young children of a very malleable age,” he said.
Jordanian sheikh and imam of Sohaib bin Sinan Mosque, Mostafa Abo Romman is also concerned at the spread of Wahhabism in the region. “Certain sects and their ideologies prevail depending on the overall political direction. Right now, it is the Wahhabi ideology that is spread out in the Muslim world and such ideology is extremist in its nature.”
“Current [curricula] promote ideas that deny the ‘other’ as well as women,” Obeidat said. He also believes that the curriculum does not celebrate differences. Obeidat’s words pack a punch; a former secretary-general at the Jordanian Ministry of Youth and Sports, he also used to oversee the curriculum whilst at the Education Council in Jordan from 1991–1998.
“I do not believe that the government [has] taken enough measures to change that,” he said, having been vocal about the “Daeshiyyeh”—the infusion of Daesh-related or indeed, intolerant ideas—into curricula that are currently being taught.
They have a tough battle on their hands. The “Daeshiyyeh” (or Daesh ideology) elements of the curriculum—as described by Obeidat—manifests itself in the curriculum in more than one way. “There is a negative “Daeshiyyeh” and a positive one,” he said, at times at risk of conflating ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam with Daesh’s ideology in general. “The negative Daeshiyyeh is the absence of anything that reflects beauty, music or the appreciation of them from the [curricula]. If you ask most secondary school students from most of Jordan’s public schools whether music is forbidden or not, they would say that it is ‘haram’ (forbidden).” He gives an example of the Arabic language and how it offers 38 meanings for the word love, none of which appears in the curriculum. Other important elements that are absent in the curriculum—though present in orthodox readings of Islam—include philosophy, free thinking, human rights, citizenship and the idea of equal opportunities. Positive “Daeshiyyeh”, according to Obeidat, signifies the presence of ideas that “support” the extremist ideology of Daesh. “Twenty-five percent of the Arabic language textbooks taught in Jordanian schools include religious phrases excerpted from either the Quran or the ‘ahadeeth’—sayings of the Prophet, while 80 percent of the book’s exercises are religious in essence and are taught to all students regardless of their faith,” he said.
“It is therefore safe to say that between 40-70 percent of Arabic textbooks include Islamic and archaic texts,” he said, citing several examples from the curriculum where this holds true. “In the Arabic book for fifth graders for example, there is a verse from a poem which urges people to perform “zakat” (compulsory charitable giving) or burn in hell,” he said. But this doesn’t reflect mainstream—and more compassionate–interpretations of Islam itself.
Page 28 of the national education book for fourth graders, initially published to inculcate values that nurture good citizenship, states that Jordan’s citizens are Muslim, excising the existence of indigenous Jordanian Christians, who number around half a million, or three percent of the population. “Such a presentation of ideas is quite similar to the way Daesh fails to acknowledge those from other religious backgrounds,” said Obeidat. In the same book, all positive societal and human values are considered solely Islamic, discouraging Muslim children from viewing those of other faiths or views as equals. “For example, family life is described based on the way Islam sees it, with no mention of families from other faiths. Such is also said when addressing generosity, which in the textbook is portrayed as a Muslim trait. It neglects people from other faiths who are also generous, especially when a famous generous historic figure like Hatem Al Ta’ee was a Christian. However, very few people know about that because they never include this information in the curriculum,” he said.
“Religion is brought in where there is no need for it. Every chapter in the book of science begins with a Quranic verse,” he said. “Jordan’s Constitution promotes both equality and equal rights among citizens so we need to apply that to our curriculum, but most of the scholars that write or supervise the creation of these books come from a Muslim background and therefore try to promote their own ideas.”
One of the worst offenders, in Obeidat’s view, was the book Thaqafa Ammah (General Knowledge) by Dr. Mohammad Ghazi Talal, which was recently banned as a result of his criticism of the work. “The book blatantly states that science ruins the life of people and increases the rates of divorce and unemployment with around 15 of its pages citing 80 Quranic verses and promoting ideas against the evolution of science.” This has nothing to do with an authentic interpretation of Islam—or with Jordan’s schools, he argues. The book has been taught in secondary school levels for the past 22 years and the recent ban comes as a result of “the government not finding enough excuses to defend it. The official explanation behind the eventual ban was that the level of its content was very high deeming it more suitable to university students,” he said.
In August of last year, the Jordanian Al Ghad newsapaper published a research article written by Obeidat on the topic of “Daeshiyyeh” in the schools’s curriculum. The article received the gamut of responses ranging from support to opposition, with the majority rejecting his views. “The Ministry of Education responded to my piece in the same newspaper, presenting very weak and highly personalized arguments.” Further opposition came in from the Jordanian Teachers Syndicate in the southern governorate of Madaba, and the Jordanian minister of Awqaf (Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs Ministry), who stated that Obeidat was denigrating the nation’s scholars.
Abo Romman agrees with Obeidat. “The government has been taking measures to minimize the widespread of such ideas but I believe that there needs to be a proper campaign to create new schools built on the notions of love, acceptance and tolerance,” he said. “Funding needs to be available to such moderate schools of thought in the same way it has been available for the Wahhabi ideologies.” Abo Romman added that a number of Jordanian universities, along with their scholars, promote such hatred and extremist ideas among the youth. “There needs to be a strong campaign to change the way religion and other ideas are being delivered to students,” he said.
Abo Romman, known for his moderate approach to Islam, has been the mosque’s imam for 40 years. He preaches love, acceptance and peace, and promotes inter-faith dialogue in Jordan—but he has also had to face local opposition as a result. “Jordan has always been the land of peace, openness, dialogue and coexistence between different faiths as preached by its ruler King Abdullah II,” he said. In Jordan, a number of imams who have been spreading both the Salafi and Wahhabi ideologies have been stopped and questioned by the government.
Some believe that it is not only the curricula that must change; teachers and institutions under the purview of the Ministry of Education must also open up. “Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been active and working over the span of 60 years to spread their ideology among teachers and instill such ideas into the curriculum,” Aburisha said. “The result has been dire and we can now witness its effect on Jordan’s security. An example of [this] was what happened in the northern governorate of Irbid last week,” she said, referring to the planned terrorist attack which the Jordanian Intelligence was able to stop at the last minute.
Aburisha, who is also a member Tajammu, believes that in order for change to successfully happen, it needs to begin with members of the education body. “Alongside changing the content of the curricula, teachers need to also be trained,” Aburisha believes. She says that the Ministry of Education is the body responsible for managing reform and so far the work it has done hasn’t been satisfactory. “Despite changing the curriculum, the percentage of content with extremist ideologies has increased. It doesn’t offer respect to women—portraying them only in hijabs—lacks the encouragement of free thinking and is filled with texts and verses that carry violent messages,” she said.
Obeidat is now engaging in regular seminars as the curricula change has become a hot topic in the kingdom. But he remains positive that the next generation of books will be better versions of what is already available, and believes that the ministry will find it difficult to fight the campaign that he and his peers have launched against it. “This change needs to begin with children in their early years of education where ideas and values of forgiveness, acceptance of the other and moderation are promoted throughout. Classes such as drama need to be added to the overall curriculum to help promote such values.”
The campaign in itself is a bold and promising move to nip extremism in the bud and to prepare a future generation open to diversity and tolerance. But without the support of religious institutions or even the government, its success is uncertain.
Correction: In the print version of this article a quote by Dr. Thogan Obeidat was inadvertently attributed to Zuleikha Aburisha. It has been rectified in this web version and the error regretted.