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Saudi Textbooks Continue to Promote Intolerance of Other Religions

Despite years of work aimed at changing Saudi Arabia’s public school curriculum, a study released last week found that the kingdom’s latest textbooks continue to promote intolerance of other religions. Saudi journalist Ali Al-Ahmed is director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, which along with the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington published the study – Saudi Arabia’s Curriculum of Intolerance. Mr. Al-Ahmed says Saudi Arabia has a mandated curriculum with standard textbooks for grades 1 through 12. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, he notes that these textbooks are used throughout the kingdom and in Saudi-supported educational institutions elsewhere in the world.

According to Ali Al-Ahmed, the Saudi curriculum is infused with the teachings of the 18th century religious reformer Ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab. And, in Wahhabi Islam, all those who are not Wahhabis are regarded as outsiders. Ali Al-Ahmed says that means it is not just Wahhabi Islam against Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, but against other forms of Sunni Islam, Sufism, and Shi’a Islam as well. When Saudi Arabia developed its educational system in the 1950’s, Saudi schools used textbooks from Egypt. But in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Mr. Al-Ahmed says, there was a “Saudization” process under King Fahd, and most of the non-Saudi teachers were purged. He says that Saudi textbooks have one over-arching goal – to spread Wahhabi Islam. First graders, for example, are taught that Islam is the only true religion. In fourth grade, Ali Al-Ahmed says, the textbooks explain that Muslims are forbidden to be friends with non-Muslims. And in sixth grade, students are told, “If you don’t listen to us, you are going to end up in hell.” Eighth grade textbooks call Jews, Christians, and some “other Muslims” idol worshippers. In ninth grade, Ali Al-Ahmed says, textbooks talk about exterminating the Jews, and in tenth grade, students learn about the alleged “Zionist conspiracy” and that Jews are responsible for “most of the problems in the world,” including the two World Wars.

Lisa Hostein, editor of the international Jewish Telegraphic Agency, says these textbooks influence the worldview of Saudi students, including relations with their neighbors in the Middle East and with the United States. She says there is a huge gulf between the peace initiatives “emanating from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries” and what children are taught in school. Ali Al-Ahmed agrees, but he emphasizes that the hatred and violence Saudi textbooks encourage directly contradict the Qur’an. Pakistani journalist Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to Britain and now professor of Islamic studies at The American University, notes the well-known verse from the Qur’an (49:13) that says, “Oh mankind! We (God) created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other).” So, Professor Ahmed says, he does not understand how “any one nation can look down on other people and other ethnicities.” Furthermore, any ideology that preaches “us” and “them” in today’s world is going to “create problems.” But Akbar Ahmed also says, because Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country and the guardian of the holy places of Mecca and Medina, its influence extends far beyond its borders.

Lisa Hostein notes that some people have even suggested a link between the Saudi curriculum and the terrorism of 9/11. She says that does not mean all Saudis are “terrorists or potential terrorists,” but she adds that “fundamentalist religion, whatever the religion” is problematic, especially when “it’s government sanctioned” and leads to acts of hate and violence.

In response to last week’s report on Saudi textbooks and extensive media coverage, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, says the revision of these textbooks remains ongoing, with the objective, in his words, “to fight intolerance.”

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.