This week, BBC1’s Panorama reported on the Saudi school textbooks used in over 40 Saudi schools in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The investigation found that the books contained messages of hatred, incitement of violence and other reprehensible teachings that are commonly found in the Saudi official religious discourse. I had the pleasure of participating in the programme, providing commentary on the findings.
In my years of work dedicated to promoting modernity and reform in my homeland, I have always given special attention to education as it is the foundation of social values and a major predictor of the direction in which a country is headed. Unfortunately, the Saudi government realised the same thing and has used the education system to shape societal attitudes towards the country’s government and the world at large. The primary goal of Saudi education is to maintain the rule of absolute monarchy by casting it as the ordained protector of the faith, and that Islam is at war with other faiths and cultures. That’s what the Saudi monarchy calls “intellectual security,” maintained yet further by a ban on liberal arts education, philosophy, drama, and music.
Since January 2001, I have been writing about how Saudi religious education is dividing our country’s population over the interpretation of Islam, and turning classmates into enemies because some of them view our religion in a different way. Since then, I have reviewed all the religious textbooks used in Saudi schools several times and found them to be comprised of medieval ideological indoctrination instead of offering a modern education that would prepare the student for the workplace.
The current textbooks do not spare most Muslims from the accusations of polytheism, deviance, hypocrisy, and outright apostasy. For example, the 12th grade book on “monotheism” claims that many in the Muslim world community have returned to polytheism. That could be ignored until you know what the texts teach about polytheists. In the classical Takfiri (declaring others to be outside of religion’s bounds) style, the text allows for the killing of apostates and polytheists, and it does not take much to qualify as one or the other. Membership in capitalist, communist or secular groups makes you an apostate, and disagreeing with the Wahhabi/Salafi anthropomorphic characterisation of God makes you a polytheist.
The textbooks take a very aggressive stance against Jews and Christians whom it views as unbelievers and eternal enemies of Islam. And if you do not believe, or even doubt, that Christians and Jews are unbelievers, you are an infidel yourself.
The texts offer a chilling definition of murder as the intentional killing of “protected souls.” You won’t object very much until you know who meets the definition of a “protected soul”. Let us see if you are among those who are protected. The text explains that “protected souls” include free Muslims, free (non-slave) non-Muslim citizens of Muslim countries, and non-Muslims who travel to Muslim countries by invitation of Muslim hosts. The rest are not deserving of the status of a “protected soul”. If this is not license to kill the majority of the world’s population, I am not sure what is.
One of that most disturbing messages offered by the textbooks is that slavery is legitimate, and that young children can be married by their fathers to adults or other children. Child marriage is legal in Saudi Arabia and girls as young as four have been married in Saudi courts. To understand the mentality of these texts’ authors, you need to wonder why there is not a single photo of a living being throughout the entire 12 years of educational text that I have reviewed. The authors believe that photography is polytheistic, and they make that clear in several lessons dedicated to such teachings.
Last June, we asked the Obama administration to implement US law by banning the entry into the US of the Saudi minister of education Faisal bin Abdullah, King Abdullah’s nephew and son-in-law. The US law provides for a way to ban foreign officials from entering the country for their involvement in human rights and security violations. The administration chose not to follow our advice, despite the fact that this minister is directly responsible for the content of the textbooks that both incite violence and violate the rights of million of children in Saudi Arabia who are forced to study such material.
What Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East need is a modern and objective national curriculum that respects all Muslims inside and outside these countries, and portrays other religions, and civilisations with objectivity and respect. Otherwise, it’s not difficult to imagine the chilling consequences 20 years down the line, of filling the minds of millions of children with messages of hate. That is what I am now trying to answer during my year-long fellowship in the congressional US commission on international religious freedom in Washington.
The kingdom’s educational system is gripped by a severe crisis that the monarchy is not willing to address. The west, especially the US, would be well advised to engage its Saudi ally and other Middle Eastern countries in a joint effort aimed at modernising their education systems by making them more open to the rest of the world. The region needs the west’s expertise in modern education a lot more than its modern weapons.
Instead of forcing Americans through humiliating body scans and invasive pat-downs, US officials should focus their efforts on reforming the education system that produced the Saudi bombmaker responsible for the explosive packages sent from Yemen last month.
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.