Saudi Arabia is launching a programme to “inoculate” children against Westernisation, atheism, liberalism and secularism.
The education ministry’s plans were announced in the Makkah newspaper, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) said, sparking a storm of debate and an Arabic hashtag translated as “Liberalism is a dangerous group” on Twitter.
It follows another government project announced in March 2015 to “protect schoolboys and schoolgirls from deviant behaviour” by enforcing religious and moral values.
Saudi critics labelled the latest initiative “danger to security” and a “disaster” for religious freedom and intellectual debate in Saudi Arabia.
“Have you ever heard of a liberal who committed murder? Or of a secularist who blew himself up?” Nadine al-Budair asked on Twitter, while columnists at other Saudi newspapers accused the government of seeking to prevent free thought and prioritising a witch-hunt against “liberals” over the real terror threat from Isis and al-Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia’s constitution enshrines Sunni Islam as the foundation for its governance and law, opening with the clause: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God's Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet, God's prayers and peace be upon him, are its constitution.”
It states that Saudis must be brought up on the basis of Islamic faith and that the state will accordingly strive to maintain the country’s Arab and Islamic values and “protect Islam”.
The constitution stipulates that education will “aim at instilling the Islamic faith in the younger generation” and mould children to be “useful” in society.
Human rights organisations have long raised alarm over Saudi Arabia’s repression of liberal thought with prosecutions and arrests, including the imprisonment and lashing of secular blogger Raif Badawi.
Human Rights Watch’s 2016 world report said the state’s adherence to the fundamentalist Wahhabist branch of Sunni Islam generates wide-ranging constraints on freedom of religion.
It does not tolerate public worship by non-Muslims and systematically discriminates against Islamic religious minorities, including Shias and Ismailis
“Immorality” laws are additionally used to crack down on pro-LGBT, feminist and reformist writing and social media posts, while "blasphemy" is a capital offence.
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