Meeting with leaders of the American Jewish Committee in New York last September, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal acknowledged a problem with his country’s schoolbooks, and he assured us that steps would be taken to rewrite them. He asserted, as he has in interviews with American media, that the problematic passages are limited to about “5%” of the schoolbooks.
The foreign minister grossly understated the problem. In fact, a comprehensive study of books used in Saudi schools has revealed that the Saudi government teaches children intolerance and contempt for the West, Christians and Jews.
The study, released last month by the American Jewish Committee and the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, shows that the hatred and denigration of non-Muslims is, in fact, pervasive in Saudi schoolbooks.
The schoolbooks, published by the Saudi Ministry of Education, cover grades one through 10 and include a wide range of subjects, from literature to math. These abhorrent ideas about the West, Christians and Jews are found in all the different classes.
Teaching of hatred is reprehensible under any circumstances, but is especially alarming when it forms an integral part of the school curriculum in a country long viewed as a close friend of the United States and regarded as the center of the Islamic world.
Both Christianity and Judaism are denigrated in the texts we studied. Children in the eighth-grade are taught, in a geography book, that “Islam replaced the former religions that preceded it,” and that “a malicious Crusader-Jewish alliance is striving to eliminate Islam from all the continents.”
Christians and Jews are denounced as “infidels,” and are presented as enemies of Islam and of Muslims. Saudi schoolbooks implore Muslims not to befriend Christians or Jews, as in a ninth-grade jurisprudence schoolbook that states: “Emulation of the infidels leads to loving them, glorifying them and raising their status in the eyes of the Muslim, and that is forbidden.”
Even grammar and math books are full of phrases exalting war, jihad and martyrdom. Saudi youth are taught to reject all notions of Western democracy, and mutual respect between Muslims and non-Muslims is a non-starter. Saudis are instructed that the West is a “decaying society” on its way to extinction.
Overall, Saudi Arabian schoolbooks do not comply with any of the international curriculum criteria established by Unesco, of which Saudi Arabia is a member. The information given to students about the West, Christianity and Judaism is totally tainted, incomplete and biased. In fact, it’s downright racist.
As long as Saudi youth are essentially brainwashed to hate others, truly amicable relations between Saudis and the West will be hard to maintain in the long term. Indeed, reading the textbooks makes it easier to understand why 15 of the 19 terrorists who committed the September 11 attacks were Saudi. They got an early start in seeing the world divided between Muslims and “infidels.”
Moreover, Saudi schoolbooks and curricula are actively exported to other Arab and Muslim countries, where Saudi largesse funds many schools. Indeed, Muslim schools in the United States have been built and staffed with Saudi money, opening the door to the spreading of Saudi-sponsored hate on American soil. It is vital to investigate whether books published in Saudi Arabia are being used here in the United States.
It is high time for the United States, with our thick web of relations with the Saudis, to put on the table the urgent need to reform the Saudi education system, to excise the teaching of hatred from textbooks and to monitor closely any Saudi claims of reform.
Sure, an overhaul of Saudi Arabia’s education system is likely to take time before it has an impact on the current and next generations of Saudis. But to ignore the hate that is integral to Saudi education — as if through denial we could wish it away — must not be tolerated in a post-September 11 world.
David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.