Saudi Arabia is hoping to modernise its image with new school textbooks. The new books were published recently and made available in the internet. Joseph Croitoru has read them, and reports that they leave an ambiguous impression
Following the attacks of 11th September, in which the majority of those involved were Saudi nationals, international attention focussed on the Saudi education system. Studies by Western experts showed that, not only did education in the Kingdom concentrate very strongly on religion, it was also extremely tendentious. In 2006 an American study demonstrated that Saudi children were taught to be missionaries of Islam.
The religion was to be spread, if necessary, by Holy War. In addition, children were told that they had to continue to defend themselves against the Crusades – which were still continuing. Violence against Jews was glorified, and the anti-semitic forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" was taught as fact.
Rigid education with a tendentious approach
The Saudi education ministry has recently reacted to these criticisms, not only by issuing new school textbooks, but also by publishing their complete texts directly in the internet. By doing so, the Kingdom wants evidently to demonstrate its transparency and openness to the world. And indeed the contents of the new books is significantly more modern than that of the old.
Children in their first year at primary school are still mainly taught about the fundamental beliefs of Islam, but they also learn arithmetic and the basic principles of biology and natural science. "Unified Faith and Religious Law" – a textbook on religion which is adapted for use in each grade up to the twelfth – teaches the youngest children that they are all adherents of Islam, created by God. But the introduction to religion soon turns into a rigid education with a tendentious and exclusivist approach:
Children are told that, to be a Muslim, one must reject all other religions. The reward for those who are faithful to God is paradise. The book concludes with an unmistakable statement: "Whoever rejects the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed can expect to suffer the fires of hell."
Influence of Wahhabism
From the fourth grade onwards, children take civics classes which focus on discipline, obedience and social conduct in a mixture of patriotism and religion. The history course restricts itself almost entirely to the life of the Prophet Mohammed. However, already in the second grade, religion teachers are told to teach the life and achievements of Muhammad Abdel Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism.
Second graders are to be taught to accept his dogmatic teachings, such as the rejection of cults linked with saints and grave-sites and the obligation to fight against heretics, as well as to accept national duties such as military service. The textbooks teach consistently that military service is the highest form of service to the Fatherland; to defend it, citizens should be prepared to die an honourable death in Jihad.
Children learn almost nothing about world history; instead, they concentrate on the history of Islam, repeatedly emphasising the victorious battles of the Muslims. The children have a picture of their own glorious history drummed into them, according to which, for century after century, Islam ruled half the world, "destroying all heretics" and ensuring justice and order. They are taught that, while Islam may have suffered military setbacks in the past, in the end it cannot be defeated.
Islam is currently enjoying a boom, they learn, even if the West is currently attempting to split the Umma – as the Crusaders did in the past. In this connection, the "Crusader mentality" is linked with "International Zionism".
Mideast Conflict objectivity
Surprisingly, the "Palestine problem" is treated remarkably objectively. The textbooks avoid references to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," but there are leftovers of old conspiracy theories in the eleventh grade textbook "Cultural and Political History of the Muslims," where one can read that Zionism seeks to conquer Arab lands from Alexandria to Baghdad.
The new books differ from the old in that there is now no incitement against Shiites, although the Ahmadiyya and Baha'i sects are described as heretical. As before, the new Saudi textbooks treat secular pan-Arabism as an enemy, even if that ideology is now historically outdated, and they argue in favour of global Muslim solidarity and the need for Muslims to defend themselves against Western imperialism – nowadays mainly of the cultural variety.
The Kingdom of Saud wants to strengthen Muslims throughout the world in their fight against this imperialism, and contribute to what the books call a better Muslim society – with the help of the Sharia, Islamic religious law. That is something the West ought to take seriously.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton