Textbooks are one measure of the degree of a country’s religious tolerance. Pushing for regional organisations to set standards is another. The latter is where Middle Eastern religious soft power rivals falter.
With textbooks in countries like Turkey and Kuwait maintaining or even expanding supremacist, racist and intolerant content, none of the religious soft power contenders have sought to persuade regional organisations, like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups the six monarchies in the Gulf or the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to adopt resolutions that would advocate textbook review.
Those groupings have further failed to set the elimination of discriminatory, anti-Semitic, anti-pluralistic language and content in educational texts as a standard.
To be fair, the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration that affirmed the rights of minorities in Muslim-majority countries urged "Muslim educational institutions and authorities to conduct a courageous review of educational curricula that addresses honestly and effectively any material that instigates aggression and extremism, leads to war and chaos, and results in the destruction of our shared societies".
Co-organised by Moroccan King Mohammed VI and Abdallah bin Bayyah, a UAE-backed Moroccan Islamic scholar, the conference was attended by hundreds of government official, religious figures, and academics whose names were not made public.
Human rights scholars Marie Juul Petersen and Osama Arhb Moftah noted that the declaration lacked mechanisms for implementation and follow-up. They also suggested that the declaration fell short of embracing freedom of religion.
"Religious freedom is not only about religious minorities’ collective rights, as important as they may be, but is also about the right of the individual to criticise religion, change religion or even leave religion and these rights are not part of the Marrakesh Declaration," Petersen and Moftah said.
As a result, whatever pressure there is on Muslim-majority states to revise textbooks emanates from Western pressures, as well as requirements related to geopolitical objectives, competition for religious soft power and efforts to reform and diversify economies. That is what has driven changes in Qatari, Saudi and Emirati textbooks.
No regional standards mean a lack of accountability
Moreover, the lack of an enforcement mechanism and the failure of regional organisations like the GCC and the OIC to set standards has meant countries like Kuwait are not held accountable for racist and bigoted content in textbooks.
An eighth-grade Kuwaiti textbook on Islamic education explains that one of its objectives is to teach that "the enmity of the Jews towards Islam and the Muslims is old and deeply rooted" and that "stirring up strife, breaking pacts, and malice are among the inherent characteristics of the Jews".
The book advocates boycotting Jewish products. It warns that the hereafter will only come with "the victory of the Muslims over the Jews" when "the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them", including those "who hide behind rocks and trees".
Jews are not the only target of venom in Kuwaiti textbooks. So are Christians and Bahais. Echoing the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan, 'Islamic Issues', a twelfth-grade schoolbook, alleges that "the English government embraces this faith... taking officers from them for its secret intelligence service". The book features a picture of an Ahmadi hugging a Jew. The international headquarters of Ahmadis, a messianic movement founded in the 19th century, is in London.
To be fair, the same book published a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking the hand of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House in 1993. It also references the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, pays lip service to religious freedom, and acknowledges that "people are equal in dignity and enjoy equal rights to protection under the law without discrimination".
The failure to set standards that would take Kuwaiti, Turkish and other textbooks to task constitutes a missed opportunity for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar to bolster their claims to leadership and spearhead reform of religious education and jurisprudence.
Even if they set standards adopted by regional groupings, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar's notion of moderation would remain problematic. They interpret Islamic law as stipulating the duty to absolutely obey the ruler, which contrasts starkly with the concepts of religious tolerance that they put forward.
Political attitudes are formed in the classroom
When Ryan Bohl taught in an Emirati public school a decade ago, religion played a minor role compared to the notion of national identity and authority.
One of several Westerners hired by the UAE to replace Arab teachers suspected of being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, Bohl described Emirati classrooms as "following the autocratic method, very similar to the ruler and the ruled".
It is in the classrooms, Bohl said, "where those political attitudes get formed, reinforced, enforced in some cases if kids, like they do, decide to deviate outside the line. They understand what the consequences are long before they can become a political threat or an activist threat to the regime. It’s all about creating a chill effect".
Religion may play a more prominent role in Qatari and Saudi schools, but impregnating youth with the notion of obedience is similarly woven into the Emirati fabric of public education.
Comparing his experience teaching in an Emirati public school with instructing youth in a Qatari private school, Bohl noted that "Qataris can’t criticise their own, but they’re more willing to criticise their neighbours."
© Qantara.de 2022
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.