ABU DHABI: Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the world, could benefit from a modified education system, said Irina Bokova, honorary president of the Alliance for Hope International and former director-general of UNESCO.
“Like any other country, I think Saudi Arabia could benefit from implementing knowledge about religions, history in general and other cultures into their curriculums,” she told Arab News. Bokova said that the problem globally was that many educational systems and universities have removed humanities from their curriculums, resulting in a lack of knowledge of ethics and history.
“It all starts on the benches of schools at a very young age, and nobody’s born an extremist or racist — you have to use (this) early age to instill this kind of empathy and respect toward your own civilization and culture and others’ as well,” she said.
“Young people should also educate themselves more about their own religion and culture. There are people who talk on behalf of a religion but they don’t know it nor do they understand it.”
“It’s really important to teach students about different religions and cultures, not just Islam, to combat stereotypes and prejudices.”
“Particularly with Islam, nowadays, with extremists who manipulate Islam, they destroy human life and prosecute minorities, destroying common heritage of humanity in the name of Islam.”
Bokova recalled the words of the Djingareyber mosque imam in Timbuktu whom she met after a terrorist attack there: “They don’t know Islam, they’re ignorants who pretend to know it,” he said.
“Knowing what Islam has contributed to all of human civilization throughout the centuries is vital to achieve cultural literacy and the continuity of the dialogue between different faiths and cultures,” she said.
She stressed the importance of exchanging culture, and how it is passed through the generations. “Islamic scholars and merchants were passing their knowledge on of algebra, medicine, philosophy, architectural and cultural achievements to the Europeans and this precisely shows that they’ve had a dialogue,” she said.
Bokova met the grand imam in 2016 and again on Monday, and described him as highly spiritual and having deep respect for promoting moderation, tolerance and fraternity.
She told Arab News that the meeting between the two religious figures is “highly important and so symbolic and courageous. It is opening up opportunities for new kinds of relations, fraternity and humanity.” Bokova said that she hopes that the strong message will continue and that the challenge lies in finding ways to deliver it to different communities.
Bokova’s speech at the Human Fraternity Conference in Abu Dhabi focused on protecting humanity against extremism and the role education plays in creating interfaith dialogues and mutual respect.
In a conference hall with religious figures from around the world, she said: “It is through dialogue and creating connections that we can prove that diversity is our strength. Conflict begins when dialogue ceases.”
The former UNESCO director-general previously visited Saudi Arabia — Effat University in Jeddah — for a conference in 2011. She said that she was proud to have had Historic Jeddah join UNESCO’s World Heritage sites during her time with the educational, scientific and cultural organization.