Saudi Arabia breaks taboos on critical thinking in first philosophy conference

The Arab and Muslim world has had long-standing influences on philosophical thinking

Saudi Arabia has hosted its first ever Philosophy Conference in the capital, Riyadh. Pictured here, American philosopher and author Michael Sandel and other panellists host a session. Courtesy: Saudi Ministry of Culture

The once-shunned study of philosophy has taken centre stage in Saudi Arabia, where social and legal reforms are sweeping the nation and long-standing taboos are being broken.

“Philosophy was once unwelcome in Saudi Arabia for long decades and ... was considered a danger to society,” Abdullah Almutairi, an associate professor at King Saud University and president of the administrative board at the Saudi Philosophy Society, told The National.

He was speaking during the first Riyadh Philosophy Conference, where scholars from around the world shared ideas and discussed questions about existence, free will and what it means to be human.

“Today, the Ministry of Culture is helping to develop the philosophy scene in the country and spark international interest. This is the result of a movement and a representation of society’s endeavours to communicate with the world,” Mr Almutairi said.

Last year, the kingdom’s Ministry of Education announced a revamp of its educational curriculums to include philosophy and critical thinking.

“This conference is just one element of a wider embrace of philosophy and critical thinking that includes integrating it into the curriculum for Saudi students … for young people to become exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking,” Mohammed Hasan Alwan, chief executive of the Ministry of Culture’s commission for literature, publishing and translation said.

“Engaging with philosophy will help our people – and especially the next generation – adopt a more analytical approach to what they read and hear and make them better equipped to navigate an increasingly complex world, not least the huge changes taking place within Saudi Arabia.”

Institutionalising philosophy can help keep difficult conversations respectful and moderate, Mr Almutairi said.

“Before 2000, Saudi society was overrun with religious thought and did not welcome new ideas,” he said.

From 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman introduced a series of reforms – including ending a ban on women driving.

“Social media and the internet has enabled Saudi society to become exposed to different issues. But by making these conversations institutionalised, we change them into a scientific discussion that teaches people to respect other opinions,” Mr Almutairi said.

“This helps curb extremism and radicalism, where provocative thoughts are used to push certain agendas.”

Luca Maria Scarantino, president of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies, told The National that the event has opened new doors for a cross-cultural exchange of ideas with Saudi Arabia and the wider Arabian peninsula.

“This may be the way to expand the international community as a beginning of something that might last the course of time,” he said.

With deep roots in the Arab and Muslim world dating back to the 9th century, philosophical thinking may have found a new home in the kingdom centuries later, amid political and social efforts to transform the country.

Updated: December 12th 2021, 9:05 AM