In the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, America is reassessing its interests in Saudi Arabia. As U.S. officials consider the complexities of this relationship, they must not forget the importance of motivating Riyadh to remove incitement from its government-published textbooks.
Speaking to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations this fall, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister declared that incitement in the kingdom’s textbooks was a “legacy issue” that had long since been resolved. Indeed, During the George W. Bush administration, Saudi Arabia’s government pledged to remove incitement from state textbooks by the start of the 2008 school year.
But a full decade later, we at the Anti-Defamation League have determined that prolific anti-Semitism and other intolerant material unfortunately still remains.
And thanks to Saudi Arabia’s tradition of religious proselytization, its vast petroleum wealth and its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest sites, Saudi textbooks have had an outsized impact beyond the Arabian Peninsula, spreading problematic messages to numerous other countries across Europe, Africa and Asia.
How bad is it? The kingdom’s new books for the 2018-2019 school year continue to teach hatred or even violence against Jews, Christians, Shiites, women, gay men and anybody who mocks or converts away from Islam.
This academic year, once again Saudi Arabia’s high school monotheism textbooks teach that infidels such as Jews and Christians are “the enemies of Islam and its people” and that proper observance of Islam requires “abhorring the infidels” and “enmity” toward them. These textbooks characterize Shiite Muslims — like those who make up the majority in Iran — as polytheists and declare that Jews, Christians, and polytheists are “the most evil of creatures.”
Saudi Arabia’s current high school religion textbooks also call for violence against such people.
One textbook urges “fighting the infidels and polytheists” except under limited extenuating circumstances. Another, this one on the subject of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, calls for jihad through “battling with the infidels by proselytizing them and fighting them.”
Another teaches the importance of “exposing the People of the Book,” meaning Jews and Christians, and “urging to fight them.”
In addition to calling Christianity “an invalid and perverted religion,” the books teach incorrectly that the American Universities in Beirut and Cairo are among the top sources of Christian missionary work at the expense of Islam in the world today.
But Jews — who are described in the textbooks as devious, deceptive schemers — are an even greater target than Christians for false conspiracy theories in the current Saudi curriculum. For example, these books teach that “a main goal” for the vast majority of Jewish organizations today is to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque and that the ultimate objective of Zionism is a “global Jewish government to control the entire world.”
One Saudi textbook advocates the beating of women, teaching that it is “a means of discipline” and “permitted when necessary.”
The kingdom’s introductory high school textbook on Islamic jurisprudence teaches that the penalty for adultery is death by stoning and that people who engage in anal sex or who mock or convert away from Islam should also be killed.
Saudi Arabia’s leaders need to recognize how severe an impediment the bigotry and calls to violence in their textbooks are to the kingdom’s international agenda, stature and relationships.
But America has its own interests in seeing this hateful material urgently excised. If the Saudis continue to foment hate and violence, the problem will come back to bite us here at home.