DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, May 23 — Despite years of work aimed at changing Saudi Arabia’s public school curriculum, the country’s latest textbooks continue to promote intolerance of other religions, a new study said Tuesday.
A first-grade student is taught that “Every religion other than Islam is false”; the teacher instructed to “Give examples of false religions, like Judaism, Christianity, paganism, etc.” Fifth graders learn “It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and his prophet, or someone who fights the religion of Islam.”
Those lessons are among numerous examples cited in a controversial new study of Saudi Arabia’s religious curriculum released Tuesday by the Center for Religious Freedom, part of Freedom House, a nonprofit group in Washington that seeks to encourage democracy. Despite official pronouncements that curriculum change is marching ahead, intolerance continues to pervade religious education in Saudi public schools, the report says.
“It is not hate speech here and there, it is an ideology that runs throughout,” Nina Shea, the center’s director and principal author of the report, said in a telephone interview from Washington. “It adds up to an argument, an ideology of us versus them.”
The report’s authors, who worked with the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a research group based in Washington that focuses on the Middle East, obtained 12 history and religion textbooks from parents of Saudi schoolchildren, and translated the texts. The textbooks were used last year in Saudi schools and Saudi-run schools in Washington, London, Paris and several other cities, the report said.
The results, they say, outline a systematic theme of “hatred toward ‘unbelievers,’ ” mainly Christians, Jews, Hindus and atheists, but also Shiites and other Muslims who do not ascribe to the country’s orthodox Wahhabi teaching of Islam.
Saudi Arabia’s education system was heavily scrutinized after the Sept. 11 attacks, and criticized internationally for its extremism. Since then, the government has faced significant pressure from both inside and outside the country to change its schools. King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, has made the reform a priority.
Religion is at the core of Saudi public education and can amount to one quarter to a third of class time. By the time Saudi students reach high school, that amount drops slightly to at least one period in six devoted to religious topics, including interpretation of holy texts, theology and morality. (The report looked solely at religion and history texts, and excluded books on other subjects like math and science.)
The findings contradict Saudi statements that educational materials have been revised, the report said.
Saudi officials acknowledged that acerbic language remains in Saudi textbooks, but said their revision was far from complete.
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, responding to an article by Ms. Shea in The Washington Post over the weekend, said in a statement Monday, “There are hundreds of books that are being revised to comply with the new requirements, and the process remains ongoing.”
He added, “The objective of the educational system is to fight intolerance and to prepare Saudi youth with the skills and knowledge to compete in the global economy.”
Saudi reformers note that if the latest textbooks are wanting, they are still a far cry from what they were five years ago. The Saudi public, said Muhammad al-Zulfa, a member of the consultative Shura council, say they are generally in favor of reforming textbooks and curriculum, but religious conservatives have stymied the effort.
“It is an uphill battle to revise the curriculum because the resistance by well-established conservative pockets is so fierce,” Mr. Zulfa said.
One Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, also cited religious conservatives. “We know what needs to be taken out,” he said. “But it’s not that easy to do it.”
Hamza al-Mozainy, a professor of linguistics and a columnist who has campaigned for education reform, said the seeming clash between Islam and the West creates a tough environment for change.
“What makes changing the curriculum so difficult is that the people are living in the middle of a conflict,” he said. One of the easiest ways conservatives have of attacking him is to say he is serving America by demanding the change, he says.
“As we discuss change, they say, ‘Look what America is doing to us, look what Israel is doing,’ ” he said.
But even if the textbooks were changed, the effort might not amount to much unless the country’s teachers were retrained, a far more difficult matter.
“The problem was not the textbooks, it was the mentality of a minority,” said Hassan al-Ahdal, director general of the Muslim World League, a Saudi-based Islamic organization. “Some teachers or supervisors are projecting their own beliefs on the textbooks and are trying to convince their students, as if theirs is the real interpretation of the textbooks.”
Abdulnabi Shaheen contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for this article.
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