Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has been in power now for just over half a decade. He and his son Crown Prince Mohammed have been credited with carrying out a comprehensive reform agenda to modernize the kingdom’s economy and liberalize its society.
Some outward signs of a more open country are certainly evident. The austere dress code has been relaxed. Women are permitted to drive and are increasingly found in different sectors of employment. Crucially though, have these visible signs of progress been reflected in education? Is the groundwork being laid by Saudi Arabia’s schools for a different future?
Following up on several recent studies of the Saudi curriculum by ADL, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Education in School Textbooks (IMPACT-se) just completed a longer, comprehensive review of Saudi textbooks since 2016, using standards for peace and tolerance outlined by UNESCO as a benchmark.
The results are eye-opening, including the examination of textbooks for the 2019-2020 academic year that are currently in use. In some respects, progress has been made. Hostility towards Christians has been softened in some regards. References to Christianity as a colonial force and “an invalid and perverted religion” have been removed from the latest Saudi curriculum. Unlike previous curricula, terrorism perpetrated by Muslims is specifically and sharply criticized. Importantly, the latest textbooks make clear that self-sacrifice for the sake of jihad, such as suicide bombings, is prohibited. Previous curricula had sought to justify jihad against so-called ‘infidels.’
Although the current curriculum does not promote gender equality, it does endorse female employment, entrepreneurship and the right to drive. Tellingly, a Grade 6 Social Studies and Civics textbook features a cartoon in which a girl says, “I am Saudi: I will be, Inshallah, an outstanding physician, and I will discover more medical inventions.” Teaching female ambition in such a way would have been unthinkable only a few short years ago.
Yet, on the other hand, the latest Saudi curriculum remains plagued by intolerance. Non-Muslims – including Christians and Jews – are still demonized in the latest books as infidels, who are described as enemies of God and all Muslims. Shi’ite Muslims, referred to derogatorily as “polytheists,” are similarly marginalized and condemned.
Meanwhile, vicious incitement against gay men continues unabated. They are still presented in this year’s books as scapegoats for societal misfortune, with children taught that society will be punished with disease and disaster for the sin of homosexuality. The kingdom’s lessons continue to teach that the proper penalty for men having sex with men is death.
In addition, the kingdom’s official textbooks still contain numerous messages of anti-Jewish hatred. Jews are described at one point as monkeys and blamed as assassins of Islamic prophets or caliphs throughout history, although some of these references have been cut out since 2017. Jews are portrayed in several instances as eternally treacherous, guilty of committing evil and determined to harm Muslim holy places. Jews are repeatedly accused of plotting to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. For example, the textbooks’ authors teach the blood libel blaming Jews or Israeli authorities for setting fire to the mosque in 1969, an act that was actually perpetrated by a mentally ill Christian man from Australia.
Fighting and killing Jews is presented in the Saudi curriculum as a precondition for the End of Days. Some limited improvements have been made in the 2019 curriculum, finally removing a longstanding reference to the slanderous claim that Jews have a secret plan to take over the world, a conspiracy theory that had been highlighted in 2018 on the cover of an ADL research report. Yet, this is wholly overshadowed by what remains a bleak and damaging portrayal of Jews.
In essence, the latest Saudi curriculum seems to be something of a contradiction. On the one hand, there appears to be a real attempt to move away from jihadism. On the other, deep and destructive prejudices remain, including those that are used by extremists to justify religious violence against people demonized as the other. Progress in the curriculum has been tentative and unsure, with stark limits in some of the most important areas. Although the kingdom has undertaken rapid reforms in several other policy areas – such as expanding women’s rights and curtailing the abusive religious police – the kingdom’s rulers have yet to show that they are giving similar priority to the urgent removal of incitement from government-published textbooks.
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