Ma’an, Jordan: When Jordan’s school year began last month, educators began noticing tweaks in the curriculum.
Along with the images of women wearing head scarves were a few who went without them. Clean-shaven men appeared alongside drawings of devout, bearded ones. And references to Islam, once sprinkled liberally throughout textbooks and other class materials, were scaled back.
The 70 or so tweaks to Jordan’s textbooks for first through 12th grades are small. The books are still laden with Islamic references: The 10th-grade science text, for example, encourages students to marvel over God’s creation as it discusses evolution.
But they are one of the Middle East’s first noticeable efforts to moderate the school curriculum in hopes of preventing youth from drifting to extreme ideologies.
“It could be a test case for the region,” said Musa Shteiwi, a sociologist who sat on an Education Ministry committee for six months last year to change the textbooks. “All of us in the Arab world have the same problems. We are all entering this battle.”
So far, this modest effort has not gone well. Islamists see it as a threat to their traditional domination of the education system. And among Jordan’s mostly conservative Muslim population, many view the changes as a declaration of war on Islamic values.
“Obama and Clinton’s schools are not for us!” shouted Mahmoud Abu Rakhiya, an Islamist in Ma’an, a desert town in southern Jordan, at a rally on a recent Friday in late September.
In the capital, Amman, around the same time, teachers set a pile of textbooks on fire. A woman in a white face veil shouted: “We don’t need these textbooks anyway! We will teach them what we want!”
Even those who support changes to the curriculum say the government bungled the effort. Jumana Ghunaimat, editor-in-chief of Al Ghad, a liberal newspaper that campaigned for a new curriculum, said the changes, introduced without public debate, had antagonised conservative Jordanians.
“I fear that this will not bring positive change,” Ghunaimat said.
She added, “And today we are in a hard place,” referring to growing fears of extremist violence in Jordan.
The curriculum changes are part of the balancing act that Jordan’s monarchy has long attempted to appease its conservative citizens; the United States, a loyal ally that provides crucial aid; its noisy secular elite; and its influential Christian minority.
The problem with the previous Jordanian curriculum, advocates for change said, was that Islam dominated every subject, without teaching children about the shared humanity of non-Muslims, including other Jordanian citizens. For instance, Jordanians are taught, “You are a Muslim, and therefore you are moral,” said Oraib Al-Rantawi, director general of Al Quds Center for Political Studies, which argued for revisions. “So the question is, what of others? Non-Muslims? Are they moral?”
Pressure to change the curriculum came in 2015, after a Jordanian air force fighter pilot, 1st Lt. Mu’ath Al-Kasasbeh, was burnt alive in a cage by Daesh militants. Some leading Jordanians hesitated to condemn his killing, appearing to sympathise with the militants. At the time, hundreds of Jordanians were already in neighbouring Syria fighting for militant groups.
Government officials began to question how the education curriculum was influencing Jordanians, said Shteiwi, the sociologist. “We began feeling that what we are doing in our schools was an important factor,” he said.
Shteiwi, along with other academics and religious figures, was summoned by the Education Ministry in the spring. As they worked on the curriculum, a sense of urgency grew.
In June, three intelligence officers and two government employees were killed at a Palestinian refugee camp. In November, a police officer fatally shot five security officials, including two American trainers, a South African and two fellow Jordanians, at a compound in Amman, bringing fears of infiltration by Islamist militants into one of the Arab world’s safest cities.
The curriculum changes were meant to give students a better chance “to enter the labour market, and to make them more immune to extremist ideas circulating against them,” said Mohammad Momani, a government spokesman.
It is unclear how effective the new curriculum will be in a country with around 1.7 million students and 30,000 teachers working in 4,000 schools, many of them overcrowded.
Because of the protests, the Education Ministry has set up another committee to review the changes. The teachers’ union, for its part, has urged educators to ignore the new textbooks.
Atef Al-Numat, a union member in Ma’an, called the changes a “disaster for our children and our values.” He particularly objected to an image of a man vacuuming a house, a crucifix hanging on the wall behind him. Jordanian men do not sweep their homes, he said, and the cross is a “clear message” that “conversion is possible.”
“Why did they change the curriculum?” Numat asked. “There is no house in Jordan that isn’t angry.”
Some teachers appear to be heeding the call to boycott the new textbooks. At a girls’ school in a working-class neighbourhood of Amman, the principal said teachers were using the new curriculum. But her secretary interjected, “What the teachers’ syndicate is saying, we are doing.”
Hasan Abu Hanieh, a researcher on militant Islam, described the curriculum changes as “a disastrous experiment,” because Jordanian Muslims already believe that “there is an attack coming from the outside on Islam, and the government is kneeling to that pressure.”
Momani, the government spokesman, described those claims as “an extreme version of a conspiracy theory.”
But it is something many Jordanians believe. In one Amman neighbourhood, Leila Hassan, a 40-year-old mother of six, said the government had changed the curriculum because “they don’t want us to follow the Prophet [Mohammad] (PBUH).”
Hassan’s neighbour interjected, saying Israel dictated the curriculum changes to weaken belief among Muslims.
“They want these changes so that people don’t think of [Occupied] Jerusalem,” said the woman, who gave her name as Umm Ahmad.
Hassan said that since the new curriculum was introduced at her children’s school, teachers had insisted on communal Muslim prayers, to make sure the children did not forget their faith. Some teachers are also giving extra religious lessons, she said.
“It’s not the result they wanted,” Hassan said, grinning. “It’s the opposite.”