Political correctness in the GulfQatar's textbook spring-clean
Qatar has begun cleansing its schoolbooks of supremacist, racist or derogatory references, as well as celebrations of violent jihad and martyrdom, according to a recently released study.
The revision of textbooks in the final year leading up to Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup is designed to keep the Gulf state in the beauty pageant for the beacon of moderate Islam – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia being the country's major competitors.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia, in contrast to other competitors for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world, like Turkey and Iran, have already significantly revised their school textbooks, although analysts suggest that issues remain.
Recognition of Qatari efforts to clean up textbooks takes on added significance, with the World Cup shining a light on the country's problematic human rights record and migrant labour system. Critics admit that Qatar has made significant progress in improving the legal environment for workers, but charge that implementation is lagging.
"Improvements a pleasant surprise"
The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (Impact-se) concluded in an 85-page report that "substantial improvements have been registered in the new textbooks prepared for the first semester of the current academic year".
Impact-se is an Israeli NGO that focuses on textbook analysis to prevent the radicalisation of schoolchildren. Writing in the introduction, David A. Weinberg, the Washington Director of the Anti-Defamation League, cautioned that Qatar still has "a long way to go when it comes to removing hateful content and consistently teaching tolerance, and yet the improvements that have occurred over the last two academic years in Qatar are still a pleasant surprise".
Weinberg, whose writings focus on state-enabled anti-Semitic incitement in the Middle East, noted that the latest Qatari textbooks, in contrast to Kuwaiti and Egyptian materials that are still in use, no longer describe Jews as "treacherous".
Despite having an established track record in identifying trends and problematic content, Impact-se slips into tricky political territory by essentially equating in its Qatar report all anti-American and anti-Israeli texts with Middle Eastern supremacism and racism. Similarly, the report toes Israeli government policy by blurring the lines between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and criticism of Israeli policy.
Notions of tolerance and equality
Nevertheless, the Qatar report is significant for reasons beyond the rivalry for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world.
The long-overdue overhaul of textbooks in Qatar, like elsewhere, sensitises populations to notions of tolerance and equality. It also helps eliminate stifling and repressive ultra-conservative social mores that complicate economic diversification and job creation and frustrate youth aspirations for greater control of their lives and more individual, less ritualistic experiences of religion.