Teacher's royal pardon for 'mocking Islam'

Saudi Arabia's commitment to education reform and combating religious extremism in schools has been thrown into question by its treatment of teachers who encourage open discussion, human rights groups have said.

Chemistry teacher Muhammad Al-Harbi and Arabic teacher Mohammed Al-Suhaimi were pardoned by King Abdullah in December after receiving harsh sentences in November.

Al-Harbi's sentence of 40 days in prison and 750 lashes over 15 weeks for "mocking Islam and favouring Christians and Jews", was overturned by the King. The teacher had discussed the Bible with pupils and spoke highly of Jews. He said he was accused by fundamentalist colleagues and was shifted to an administrative post.

Al-Suhaimi's sentence of three years and 300 lashes for "encouraging homosexuality and adultery", was also overturned. He has said he angered conservative colleagues by telling students it was "better to love than fear God". His current job status is unknown.

Christoph Wilcke of Human Rights Watch welcomed the pardon but said until the teachers were reinstated in their old classroom jobs, the education reforms would be cosmetic and other teachers would be deterred from speaking freely. "The teachers were encouraging open discussion in class,"

he said. "They should not lose their jobs."

But deputy education minister Ibrahim Al-Sheddi told The TES that Mr Al-Harbi had "never been discharged from his job" and that it was "normal practice" to shift teachers from the classroom to admin posts.

Human rights groups say education reforms are slow despite official pronouncements. A new curriculum to encourage student participation and reduce the dominance of religious teaching in favour of science and vocational subjects will be tested in 42 secondaries this year, according to the ministry. The five timetabled Arabic and religious subjects will be integrated into one subject.

Al-Sheddi denied Islamists influenced the curriculum. "We consult them when we want to modify Islamic subjects but we do not ask them when we want to modify science." He stressed that all teachers are being trained in learning-centred education. "Students should not be passive listeners," he said.

Since 911, extremism in education has become an international issue. In an attempt to force the pace, the US House of Representatives on December 19 called on President Bush to monitor reforms and take them into account in determining Saudi-US relations.

"The (US) administration should no longer turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's failure to silence the extremist forces that have permeated the country's education system," said Democrat Congressman Jim Davis.

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