Saudi Arabia’s Textbooks Still Promote Religious Violence

From: Assyrian International News Agency

September 11, 2011


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s textbooks have a significance that many others do not. Most of the 9/11 terrorists, as well as Osama bin Laden himself, were born and educated in Saudi Arabia. As revealed in an American diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, as recently as December 2009 American government officials believed that Saudi donors remained among the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups such as al Qaeda.\

Along with others, America’s former Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, then the senior financial-counterterrorism official, found a strong link between education and support for groups like al Qaeda. As he wrote in a 2010 Washington Post op-ed, one of the essential steps to end support for such terror is that, “we must focus on educational reform in key locations to ensure that intolerance has no place in curricula and textbooks. . . .[U]nless the next generation of children is taught to reject violent extremism, we will forever be faced with the challenge of disrupting the next group of terrorist facilitators and supporters.”

Some Saudis themselves have acknowledged the problem posed by the nation’s curriculum and, in particular, its religious textbooks. In December 2003, after Saudi Arabia began fighting a vicious battle against al Qaeda terrorists within its own borders, King Abdullah (at that time the Crown Prince), as part of a National Dialogue, convened an expert panel on the country’s religious studies. The experts noted that the kingdom’s religious studies curriculum “encourages violence towards others, and misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the ‘other.'”

Nevertheless, the encouragement of violence and extremism remains an integral part of Saudi Arabia’s national textbooks, particularly those on religion. Five million Saudi students are exposed to them in Saudi classrooms each year. Moreover, as the controlling authority of the two holiest shrines of Islam, Saudi Arabia is able to disseminate its religious materials among the millions of Muslims making the hajj each year. Hence, these teachings can have a wide and deep influence.

Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth also enables it to disseminate its textbooks far and wide. They are posted on the Saudi Education Ministry’s website and are shipped and distributed free by a vast Saudi-sponsored Sunni infrastructure to many Muslim schools, mosques and libraries throughout the world. For example, apart from other schools the Saudi religious curriculum is followed by most of the 19 international academies founded in major world cities by the Saudi government, each of which is chaired by the local Saudi ambassador. In his book The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright asserts that, while Saudis constitute only 1 percent of the world’s Muslims, they pay “90 per cent of the expenses of the entire faith, overriding other traditions of Islam.” Former Treasury Department General Counsel David Aufhauser and other analysts in testimony to Congress, have cited the statistic that, on an annual basis, Saudi Arabia spends three times as much in exporting its Salafi ideology, also called “Wahhabism,” as did the Soviets in propagating Communism during the height of the Cold War.

Muslims in many countries have reported that over the past twenty to thirty years, local Islamic traditions have been transformed and radicalized under growing Saudi Wahhabi influence. The late President of Indonesia Abdurraham Wahid wrote that Wahhabism was making inroads even in his famously tolerant nation of Indonesia. Journalists have documented this spread — and sometimes desperate local Muslim efforts to thwart it — in Somalia, Indonesia, Pakistan , India , Algeria, the Balkans, the UK, among many other places.

Textbook Content

To understand why Aufhauser, former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey, and other key U.S. counterterrorism experts view Wahhabism as it spreads through the Islamic diaspora as “kindling for Usama Bin Laden’s match,” it is necessary to document the content of the problematic Saudi texts.

Sample translations of passages from recent editions of the textbooks in translation are provided in the following pages and the originals can be found in Arabic on the Saudi government’s website. The first set of excerpts is the “marker” passages we have tracked in Saudi textbooks since 2006. The second set of excerpts is included to give a sense of the extent of the problem.

Regarding our markers, 12 of the 15 highly intolerant and violent passages we singled out in our 2006 and 2008 studies remain essentially unchanged, with only some slight modification of wording. Two of the marker passages — one on glorifying jihad and martyrdom and another blaming Jews for virtually all sedition — have been dropped from the lessons cited in our past reports, though the same or similar teaching remains.

Another of our marker passages, regarding polytheists and infidels, has been altered in the 2010-2011 edition. Previously, the 12th grade Monotheism textbook advocated killing and robbing polytheists, among whom the texts include Shiites and sometimes Christians because of their belief in the Trinity, as well as Hindus, Buddhists, and others. In the 2010-2011 edition, the textbook no longer sanctions killing and robbing outright but instead asserts that polytheists — and “infidels” generally — should be fought but only under certain conditions. Some conditions relate to the traditional dhimmi arrangement of taxing conquered non-Muslim communities, and others seem self-serving or tactical, such as taking into account the relative strength of the Muslims and the infidels, or whether it is permitted by the “guardian,” for example the Saudi monarch. These edits appear to be designed to address Saudi security concerns, rather than to implement reforms to protect basic human rights. Elsewhere, for example in lessons on jihad, the texts advocate fighting infidels to spread Islam without discussing these conditions.

Given the overall teachings of the religious curriculum, the changes in these passages that we note cannot realistically be expected to have a significant impact. Instead, they serve to underscore the need for a complete overhaul of the textbooks, rather than the current approach of producing new editions that here and there delete or slightly modify one noxious sentence, of one noxious lesson, of one noxious textbook, each year. Such changes are contradicted, undermined, or negated by the unrevised rest of the curriculum.

The second set of excerpts presented in this report, like the first set of “markers,” continues teachings that mislead students into thinking “they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the ‘other.'” The “other” is identified in the textbooks to include Jews, Christians (sometimes identified by as “Crusaders,” part of al Qaeda’s favored terminology), infidels in general, polytheists (including Shiites), Muslim “apostates” (including converts to other religions, blasphemers, and those who “doubt”), Baha’is, Ahmadis, adulterers, homosexuals, and those practicing witchcraft.

In addition, various lessons in the texts present (often inflated) percentages of Muslim minorities in the West and, at the same time, paint a dire picture of the fate of these minorities. At one point the text implies that “Islamic jihad movements” have not gone far enough in removing colonial control and influence in Muslim countries. They express a fear of Muslims converting to Christianity, in particular, and as in the past denounce Christian and American secular sponsorship of schools in the Middle East as an example of the new “Crusades.” This condemnation of Western education is a theme of al Qaeda’s and other extremist groups, such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram, whose very name means “Western education is forbidden.”

In another instance, a 12th grade textbook from the 2010-2011 edition asserts that the reason why there are Muslim minorities is that non-Muslims “occupy Islamic lands,” and proceeds to list as examples the Balkan states, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, “East Turkistan” in China, and Kashmir in India. They promote a belligerent worldview that seems to prime the students for future hostilities based on religious identity. Twelfth grade texts from the 2010-2011 edition continue to explicitly promote militant jihad for “spreading Islam” by “fighting unbelievers.” In one set of the electronic textbooks — the 2009-2010 edition, which continues to be posted on the Saudi government’s website — jihad is exalted as “a profitable trade,” and something that “saves from painful punishment.” In this context, these geography and history lessons, factually distorted as they are, and rife with fear mongering, appear to incite violence against much of the world.

As before, there continues to be a great preoccupation throughout the texts with Jews and with Israel. Rank anti-Semitism saturates the curriculum. Repeatedly, Jews are demonized, dehumanized, and targeted for violence. The existence of an Israeli state is de-legitimized and the texts are aimed at mentally preparing the students for eventual war, not peace. As with other history, the accounts are wildly distorted and filled with factual errors and tend to blame Jews for all the problems in the world, for example, in denouncing the theory of evolution, identifying Darwin as a “Jew.”

A 10th grade history lesson invokes the “leading astray” language of the Qur’anic opening verse, thereby implying that the verse is referring to Jews and teaching that “God Almighty impugned them and pitched upon them humiliation and wretchedness and led them astray.” In commenting on the allegedly nefarious character of Jews, a 12th grade textbook states:

“For since the Jews were scattered sundries they never knew peace with a single nation because of their proclivity for deceit, lying and conspiracy. Nothing proves this more than the Muslims’ experience with them in Medina as the Prophet (PBUH) deported them and recommended that they be driven out from the Arabian Peninsula and as happened with them in other countries such as Germany, Poland, Spain and others.”

Though the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamously anti-Semitic fabrication, are not part of the Hadiths (traditions of Prophet Mohammed), having been devised in Europe around the time of the Russian revolution, they are included in the religion class in the textbook on “Hadith and Islamic Culture,” where they continue to be taught as historical fact. Saudi Justice Minister Muhammad Al-Issa explained to this editor in February 2011 that the Protocols are treated as part of Islamic culture because they have long been found in plentiful supply in Saudi Arabia (one of the relatively few non- Muslim books to be so).

Blood libel is used to advance Saudi politics. Israel is described as having “no benefit in the human world except sucking its (Arab countries) blood, bringing to life a parasitic perverted structure, giving from its waste, so that it retains in its veins some blood to suck and live on.”

The Saudi educational system for grades 1 through 12 rejects critical thinking and independent reasoning. Under the Saudi Education Ministry’s method of rote learning, these dogmatic teachings are tantamount to indoctrination. This starts in first grade and intensifies in number and virulence in middle school and high school. By occupying much of the school day, the Wahhabi religion courses crowd out ones on math, science and the humanities, leaving students poorly prepared for work in the modern world and vulnerable to the messages of terrorist recruiters.

Broken Promises of Reform

Saudi foreign-affairs officials and ambassadors have not disputed the need for education reform. However, over the years, their reactions have alternated between insisting that reforms had already been made and asking for time by stating that the reforms would take several years more to complete.

Four years ago, the Saudis gave a solemn and specific promise to the United States. Its terms were described in a letter from the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs to Sen. Jon Kyl, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security: “In July of 2006, the Saudi Government confirmed to us its policy to undertake a program of textbook reform to eliminate all passages that disparage or promote hatred toward any religion or religious groups.” Furthermore, the State Department letter reported that this pledge would be fulfilled “in time for the start of the 2008 school year.” (See Appendices A, B and C).

As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently wrote to President Obama, “This promise remains unfulfilled.”

The State Department itself is aware of the problems of textbook reform: One cable from the U.S. embassy, released by Wikileaks, reports that Saudi education reform seems “glacial.” Despite the fact that the U.S. government has not taken on the Saudi education reform issue with as much dedication as it has directed to counterterrorist financing and trade issues, the State Department has reported annually on the topic in its religious freedom and general human rights reports. These reports are weak and overly positive. Nevertheless, in its 2010 annual report on religious freedom, with respect to Saudi Ministry of Education textbooks, the State Department asserted, albeit briefly and with diplomatic understatement: “Despite government revisions to elementary and secondary education textbooks, they retained language intolerant of other religious traditions, especially Jewish, Christian, and Shi’a beliefs, including commands to hate infidels and kill apostates.” (Emphasis added.)

In a meeting in Riyadh earlier this year as a commissioner with USCIRF, the editor of this report was told by Saudi Education Minister Prince Faisal Al-Saud that his priority, like that of his father-in-law King Abdullah, was to reform higher education. He conceded that he was “not concerned” terribly by the need to reform education in grades 1 through 12. Indeed, the reform efforts of 2007, before Prince Faisal was appointed, in which the religion textbooks in three lower grades (1, 4, and 7) were revised for a limited pilot program, now appear to be in limbo.

The Saudi Ministry of Education’s Deputy Minister for Educational Development, Dr. Naif H. Alromi, told the USCIRF delegation in February 2011 that the various multi-year plans announced by the Saudi government prior to the 2009 appointment of Prince Faisal as Minister are now obsolete. He said that the government is currently working on grades 2, 5, and 8, under the latest “five year” plan will complete revisions in high school and other grades by 2013. Islamic Affairs Minister Sheikh Saleh Al-Shaykh confirmed that revisions to high school religious texts have not been completed. As USCIRF found, “it is not clear when any of these revised texts will be used in Saudi schools throughout the country.”

The USCIRF 2011 annual report noted: “During USCIRF’s 2011 visit, Saudi officials provided no details of programs or initiatives that have been undertaken over the past year by the government to halt the dissemination of intolerant literature and extremist ideology globally.” Meanwhile, a 2010 BBC Panorama’s exposé of 40 Saudi part time schools in the UK found that in fact the Saudi Cultural Bureau, which is part of the kingdom’s embassy, did indeed have authority over the network, despite official denials. These 40 UK Saudi schools teach from the Saudi national curriculum discussed in this report. These are just some of many examples around the world. Furthermore, the Saudi government continues to post electronically its textbooks, including the 2009-2010 edition, which does not have the benefit of even the latest incremental revisions.


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