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Arab reforms urged to tackle Islamic extremism

Arab leaders in five countries have marked the start of term by demanding urgent educational reforms to help eradicate Islamic extremism.

Calls for action on such a wide scale are unprecedented. They reflect growing concern in regimes in the Middle East over the threat of fundamentalism and the need to take steps to address its social and economic roots.

In a public message read out to all Jordanian school students on August 22, the first day of the new term, King Abdullah said education had a vital role to play in combating extremism and promoting moderation and tolerance.

The king's statement, issued just days after attacks on US navy ships at Aqaba, condemned "sinful attacks by extremists and terrorists, especially those hiding under the shroud of Islam".

The king has supported efforts to modernise the curriculum and to promote science and technology to balance the influence of religious fundamentalism. In his address he alluded to the great Arab scientists of the Middle Ages and praised Islam's pioneer scholars and scientists.

The new ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, has also expressed his desire to modernise the curriculum and restrict the influence of religious teaching in schools.

A new syllabus for Saudi secondary schools to be adopted next month emphasises biology, chemistry and vocational courses, while reducing the amount of time spent on Arabic and Islamic studies.

According to one teacher the new syllabus "will prioritise computer science and other courses that are in demand in the job market".

The new Saudi ruler has underlined his commitment to curriculum reform by allocating some pound;370 million for technical and vocational training over the next five years.

The move forms part of a wider attempt to reduce high unemployment among the country's youth. Poor job prospects over many years have contributed to frustration and social discontent, which has helped to fuel Islamic extremism.

The introduction of a new curriculum in Saudi Arabia coincides with the announcement of a radical overhaul of Bahrain's school system.

Education minister Majid Al Nuaimi said that his ministry needed "a revamp in all areas that contribute to improving education in the country", adding that curriculum content, teacher training and teaching styles would all be subject to review.

Meanwhile, senior government officials in Syria and the United Arab Emirates have also marked the start of the academic year by demanding curriculum reform.

UAE ministers demanded education oriented towards "productive employment", while in Syria there have been calls for the introduction of "human rights and social participation" into the primary curriculum.

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