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Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi ambassador to the United States, addresses a luncheon in Chicago, April 20, 2006. He has assured U.S. audiences that the Kingdom has "eliminated what might be perceived as intolerance" from its old textbooks.
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Cover of the fourth-grade text Monotheism and Jurisprudence, distributed by the Saudi Arabian education department.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States pressured Saudi Arabia to reform its educational curriculum by eliminating educational material that demonizes Christians and Jews or that urges holy war on "the unbelievers." Senior Saudi officials have assured the United States that the reform has been completed, but a new report by the human-rights group Freedom House suggests otherwise.
Read the full report, as well as excerpts translated by Freedom House
Wahhabism, a strict and rigid interpretation of Islam, permeates life in Saudi Arabia and has long dominated the public school curriculum. When it was learned that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis, the United States demanded changes in the Saudi school system in the belief that the strict Islamist curriculum encouraged a culture of violence.
Saudi officials have been trying to convince Washington that the educational curriculum has been reformed. On a recent speaking tour of American cities, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, assured audiences that the Kingdom has "eliminated what might be perceived as intolerance" from its old textbooks.
Last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal proclaimed in Washington that the reforms go far beyond moderating the language used in textbooks.
"They go into teachers' training, directions for the messages that are given to children in the formative years, and this is done for our own security and our own educational standard," he said.
The Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House has studied some of the textbooks currently in use in Saudi public schools, from grades one through 12. Nina Shea, the center's director, says the texts do not comport with what Saudi officials have been saying.
The textbooks "reflect an ideology of hatred against the other, against Christians, Jews other Muslims, for instance, Shiites and the majority Sunni Muslims and all others who do not subscribe to the Wahhabi doctrine," Shea says.
The center's report cites numerous examples. It quotes a fourth-grade text as telling students to "love for the sake of God and to hate for the sake of God." The report says that textbooks instruct students that Christians and Jews are "apes and pigs" and warns students not to "greet," "befriend" or "respect" non-believers.
Saudi officials have told Washington that their reformed curriculum encourages tolerance and understanding of other religions and cultures.
Shea says any changes in that direction are miniscule.
"They have made some changes," she says. "Sometimes though, the changes aren't all they're cracked up to be. For example, they will say, 'You have to hate the unbeliever but to treat them justly.' That's supposed to be an improvement."
In its defense, the Saudi embassy in Washington issued a statement saying that curriculum reform is a massive undertaking and that the process in Saudi Arabia is ongoing. Shea is skeptical; she notes that the oil-rich Saudis began the reform process five years ago.
"They certainly have the money to change all the textbooks for next semester," she says. "Or, last semester for that matter."
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters on Monday that he had not seen the Freedom House report. But he indicated that Washington still is not satisfied with what is being taught in Saudi schools.
"We appreciate the fact that there are efforts under way to work on this but certainly this is an ongoing concern and something we will be discussing."
For her part, Shea warns that if Saudi Arabia does not speed up its reforms, Saudi schools could produce another generation of students grounded in the culture of jihad.