Here we go again. According to a new government report, Saudi Arabia published yet another year’s worth of public school textbooks that promote hateful ideas. This represents only the latest failure by Saudi Arabia after it repeatedly pledged that such radicalism would be expunged.
Saudi textbooks have long been identified as a potential source of incitement to terrorism around the world by current or former U.S. officials. Stuart Levey, who served as the top U.S. official for combating the financing of terrorism under both Presidents Bush and Obama, wrote that fighting intolerance in textbooks is “even more important” than stopping the funding of terrorism. Because “unless the next generation of children is taught to reject violent extremism, we will forever be faced with the challenge of disrupting the next group of terrorist facilitators.”
Yet the State Department recently revealed in its latest International Religious Freedom report that Saudi Arabia “did not complete its project to remove objectionable content from textbooks,” specifically “content disparaging to religions other than Islam.” In fact, the report finds that “intolerant material remained in textbooks, including directives to kill ‘sorcerers’” and “socially exclude infidels.” This would seem to include all Jews, Christians, Shi’a, and Sufis, whom the books reportedly indicated “did not properly adhere to monotheism.”
Such extremist indoctrination is no mere academic matter. Just last year, Saudi Arabia beheaded a man on charges of sorcery, and the country’s austere religious police declared the arrest of 51 other “sorcerers.” A Saudi imam whose public sermons have beseeched God to “destroy” Christians, Jews, Alawites, and Shi’a is reportedly still employed as a Saudi education official and serves as a frequent guest on Saudi Arabia’s state TV channel.
A study of official Saudi textbooks in early 2014 found that they were even worse that the State Department suggests. As Oren Adaki wrote at the time, these books encouraged intolerance toward women, Jews, and the West – and instructed that converts away from Islam, supposed sorcerers, and others should be killed. Those books advised that the most important debate about homosexuality was how best to execute gay men: whether by stoning, fire, or throwing them off of a high place.
What the State Department report contributes, therefore, is a confirmation that bigoted passages remained in Saudi textbooks at least until the end of last year. That would prove Saudi Arabia violated its latest in a long line of assurances to American officials as to when these revisions would finally be done.
Indeed, Saudi officials told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that these revisions would be completed by 2014.
Before that, the State Department reported that Saudi Arabia planned to stamp out textbook incitement by 2013. Even a decade ago, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah brazenly assured Barbara Walters that the education books were already fixed. But after activists Nina Shea and Ali al-Ahmed exposed this as a lie in a detailed report, the kingdom pledged to “remove remaining intolerant references… that promote hatred toward other religions” by 2008, which helped it avoid potential U.S. penalties under the International Religious Freedom Act. And yet, they never fixed the problem.
There are global ramifications to this, too, since old Saudi textbooks continue to circulate overseas. This August, the Middle East Media Research Institute discovered a video purportedly showing battered, old Saudi textbooks being used to teach children religion as far afield as rural Africa, in Burkina Faso. A Saudi-administered school in the Austrian capital of Vienna was also caught in November with textbooks that called the Freemasons “a secret, subversive Jewish organization, which aimed to secure Jewish control of the world.” The books, which were reportedly official Saudi textbooks from the previous academic year, also posited that birth control is somehow part of a conspiracy to spread Christianity.
It should come as no surprise that the so-called Islamic State “circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls,” according to the New York Times. This is fitting for a terrorist group that beheaded two women this June for “witchcraft and sorcery,” while executing dozens of people suspected of being gay, lesbian, or transgender – by stoning them, throwing them off a tall building, or even stoning them after throwing them off a tall building.
As part of the price for its inclusion in the anti-IS coalition, Saudi Arabia committed last year to “repudiating the hateful ideology” of “ISIL and other violent extremists.” Sadly, there is no indication that they are doing so.
Saudi Arabia needs to fix its textbooks once and for all. Unless it does so and tackles other egregious forms of incitement, the kingdom’s standing in the anti-IS coalition should be reconsidered, and its waiver from targeted sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act should be revoked.
Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg