King Abdullah slaps down Saudi cleric criticial of co-ed university
(Photo: Visitors view model of KAUST campus at opening, 23 Sept 2009/Susan Baaghil)
Well, that didn’t take long.
Last week, a senior Saudi Islamic cleric criticised the country’s first mixed-gender university, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), and suggested an Islamic committee to make sure it followed Islamic principled and didn’t teach “alien ideologies” such as evolution.
Late on Sunday, the state news agency SPA reported that King Abdullah had removed Sheikh Saad Al-Shithri from a top council of religious scholars.
Al-Shithri’s comments sparked angry reactions from liberals who saw the new university as a beacon for research that will eventually produce Saudi scientists, spearheading modernity in the conservative Islamic State. For those of you who read Arabic, here’s a sample of several op-ed pieces that ran in the daily Okaz.
“This is a strategy for the conservatives to control the university. Or at least to have a major say in it. This is the old trick for them to have the upper hand to sabotage reforms,” said Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of Alwatan daily newspaper, about the clerics comments on the university.
Saudi Arabia follows an austere version of Islam and religious police patrol the streets ensuring that the country’s strict segregation laws are implemented. Clerics like Al-Shitri have a major influence on school curricula as well as the judicial system and some have issued fatwas against co-education (here in Arabic).
Since coming to power in 2005, King Abdullah has reshuffled the cabinet, replacing some hardline clerics with more moderate ones, and promised the overhaul of the education system with an aim of focusing more on sciences rather than religion. He has also pledge to reform the judicial system.
“This university has become a reality, and it is for the good of the nation as the King had wanted it to be. It is not a cake that the two ideological streams [liberals and conservatives] can compete over,” wrote columnist Khaled Alsulaiman in Okaz after the controversial statements placed KAUST in the centre of the battle between liberals and conservatives.
“This university is not a project for Westernization, as some hope it would be while others fear it might be. It is a genuine scientific project that came at a sensitive and crucial time in this nation’s age,” he added.
(Photo: King Abdullah at KAUST ground-breaking ceremony, 21 Oct 2007/Ali jarekji)
KAUST is located near the Red Sea village of Thuwal, north of Jeddah, away from the prying eyes of the religious police. The government has promised academic freedom for the university but diplomats predicted — and Shithri has demonstrated — that clerics would try to obstruct the project.