Critics Say Saudi Textbooks Still Encourage Violence

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Of the 19 hijackers in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 15 were Saudis. Since then, textbooks used in schools across Saudi Arabia have come under harsh criticism for teaching religious intolerance that can lead to violence.

Now, the country has revised its textbooks and is undergoing a massive education reform program. But critics wonder if those efforts go far enough.

Said Mohammad teaches Islamic studies in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. He follows the Saudi national curriculum in his four daily classes, which have 30 students each.

"Every class is the same. I teach what the government tells me to teach," he says.

Softer Approach To Islam

The curriculum changed recently, when the government mandated that certain references be deleted from Saudi textbooks: jihad, or holy war, and walaa wal baraa, the notion that Muslims should be "emancipated from non-Muslims."

Mohammad was surprised — and a little angry.

"Ninety percent of all references to jihad have been removed from our textbooks. Now, maybe I am afraid to even mention jihad in class, because I will be punished. Why didn't they ask my opinion about this first?" he says.

Saudi officials say the move to rewrite the textbooks came after attacks inside Saudi Arabia, not as a result of 9/11.

From 2003 to 2006, a group called Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula launched dozens of attacks against Westerners and Saudis. Nearly 200 people died.

Some Saudi officials acknowledged the national curriculum was teaching hatred not only of non-Muslims, but also of Muslims who don't follow a strict line. So they launched a $2.4 billion program aimed at modernizing the Saudi curriculum and softening its approach to Islam.

Some Perceive An Attack On Islam

But there has been resistance to the reforms, especially from the religious establishment, which controls the judiciary and the ministry of education, says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of a popular, reform-oriented newspaper. The Islamists are on the defensive, he says.

"So everyone who comes with a practical idea, they see him with a great amount of skepticism and paranoia, and that is delaying the reform," Khashoggi says.

He says religious figures see any attempt at reform as an attack on Islam itself.

"It has become an issue of religious Islamic curriculum against nonreligious secular curricula, and that is really very wrong. The issue should be, does our curriculum produce job-ready, university-ready candidates or not?" he says.

Seeking Deeper Changes

Turning out such graduates is one way reformers are promoting change to the broader Saudi population.

Dozens of model high schools have been set up around the country and outfitted with wi-fi access, build-your-own robot sets and laptops for every student.

But despite the flashy new technology, the content of the classroom, so far, remains virtually unchanged.

Recently during a class at one of these schools in Riyadh, a teacher told students, "The names of God are the fairest names. Be free of those who blaspheme his name. They must be punished for what they do."

Resistance To 'Outside' Directives

Mohammad, the Islamic studies teacher, says educators are reluctant to implement changes because they are skeptical about where they came from in the first place.

Because criticism of the Saudi curriculum originated in the U.S., he says Saudi teachers feel like the changes are being forced upon them.

"The problem is that the government is making these changes not from their own minds. They are being pushed to make the changes by outsiders. This makes teachers very angry," he says.

The anger, Mohammad says, makes some teachers even more likely to continue teaching jihad and walaa wal baraa — outside the classroom.

Last month, as President Obama visited Saudi Arabia, a group of U.S. Congress members complained that Saudi textbooks still encourage hatred of non-Muslims.

Over the past several years, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has made similar complaints about a Saudi-funded school outside Washington, D.C., even though the school has twice revised its textbooks.

Real Shift Requires Time

Saudi author Yehya al Amir says it is important that Saudis believe the reform is coming from inside the country, not outside.

He also says the reform effort needs to go further than investing in new technology and deleting a few words in textbooks.

But in a country that for decades has known only one strict interpretation of Islam, Amir says, that change in ideology will take some time.

"The solution is not to remove a verse or line or paragraph. It's the ideology. Even if you remove a section of a book, that doesn't change anything. The curriculum must look at a new way of life, a new ideology," he says.



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