RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
We turn to Saudi Arabia now, where the education system has been under close scrutiny ever since the 9/11 terror attacks, where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. In particular, textbooks used in schools across Saudi Arabia have come in for some harsh criticism for teaching religious intolerance that can encourage violence.
Now the country has revised its textbooks as part of a broader education reform program, though some critics question whether these efforts go far enough. Kelly McEvers reports from Riyadh.
KELLY MCEVERS: Said Mohammad teaches Islamic studies in the capital - four classes a day, 30 students each. He follows the Saudi national curriculum.
SAID MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) Every class I teach is the same. I teach what the government tells me to teach.
MCEVERS: That 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, quote, "emancipated from non-Muslims." Said Mohammad was surprised and a little angry.
MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) Ninety percent of all references to jihad have been removed from our textbooks. Now, maybe I'm afraid to even mention jihad in class, because I will be punished. Why didn't they ask my opinion about this first?
MCEVERS: Saudi officials say the move to rewrite the textbooks came not as a result of 9/11, but later, after attacks inside Saudi Arabia. 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 officials here 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 reform program aimed at modernizing the Saudi curriculum and softening its approach to Islam.
But there has been resistance to the reforms, especially in the religious establishment, which controls the judiciary and the ministry of education, says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of a popular, reform-oriented newspaper.
JAMAL KHASHOGGI: The Islamists, or the conservatives, right now, they are on the defensive. 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.
MCEVERS: Khashoggi says religious figures see any attempt at reform as an attack on Islam itself.
KHASHOGGI: 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?
MCEVERS: Turning out such graduates is one way reformers are promoting change to the broader Saudi population. Dozens of model high schools like this one here in Riyadh 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.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: The names of God are the fairest names, this teacher says. Be free of those who blaspheme his name. They must be punished for what they do. Islamic studies teacher Said Mohammad says educators are reluctant to implement changes because they're 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.
MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) The problem is that the government is making these changes, not from their own minds. They are being pushed to make the change by outsiders. This makes teachers very angry.
MCEVERS: Saudi author Yehya al Amir says it's 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 here and there.
YEHYA AL AMIR: 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.
MCEVERS: In a country that, for decades, has known one and only one strict interpretation of Islam, Amir says, that change in ideology will take some time.
For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Riyadh.
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