Changing the world one schoolbook at a time.

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July 21 2008 8:01 PM

A Textbook Case of Intolerance

Changing the world one schoolbook at a time.

Saudi textbooks. Click image to expand
Saudi textbooks

Because they are so clearly designed for the convenience of large testing companies, I had always assumed that multiple-choice tests, the bane of any fourth grader's existence, were a quintessentially American phenomenon. But apparently I was wrong. According to a report put out by the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom last week, it seems that Saudi Arabians find them useful, too. Here, for example, is a multiple-choice question that appears in a recent edition of a Saudi fourth-grade textbook, Monotheism and Jurisprudence, in a section that attempts to teach children to distinguish "true" from "false" belief in god:

Q. Is belief true in the following instances:
a) A man prays but hates those who are virtuous.
b) A man professes that there is no deity other than God but loves the unbelievers.
c) A man worships God alone, loves the believers, and hates the unbelievers.

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The correct answer, of course, is c). According to the Wahhabi imams who wrote this textbook, it isn't enough just to worship god or just to love other believers—it is important to hate unbelievers as well. By the same token, b) is also wrong. Even a man who worships god cannot be said to have "true belief" if he loves unbelievers.

"Unbelievers," in this context, are Christians and Jews. In fact, any child who sticks around in Saudi schools until ninth grade will eventually be taught that "Jews and Christians are enemies of believers." They will also be taught that Jews conspire to "gain sole control of the world," that the Christian crusades never ended, and that on Judgment Day "the rocks or the trees" will call out to Muslims to kill Jews.

These passages, it should be noted, are from new, "revised" Saudi textbooks. Following a similar analysis of earlier versions of these same textbooks in 2006, American diplomats immediately approached their Saudi counterparts about the more disturbing passages, and the Saudis agreed to conduct a "comprehensive revision … to weed out disparaging remarks towards religious groups."

The promised revision—hailed, at the time, as a great diplomatic success—was supposed to be finished by the beginning of the 2008-09 school year and was accompanied by a Saudi PR campaign. Among other things, the Saudis sponsored an interfaith dialogue last week, one that all participants hailed as a great breakthrough—despite the fact that the actual meetings took place in Spain as it would be too embarrassing for Saudi Arabia to host Christian and Jewish religious leaders on its own soil. But although the beginning of the 2008-09 school year is nearly upon us, the only textbook revisions have been superficial, and the most disturbing part of the message—that faithful Muslims should hate Jews and Christians—remains.

Normally, the contents of another country's textbooks would be of no interest to us. Indeed, I've no doubt that there are plenty of U.S. textbooks that contain insane, incorrect, or otherwise unacceptable information. Saudi school textbooks are a special case, however. They are written and produced by the Saudi government and subsequently distributed, free of cost, to Saudi-sponsored schools as far afield as Lagos, Nigeria, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Americans are not the only ones who worry about their influence. In Britain, a small political storm began last year when British mosques were found to be distributing Saudi books that called on Muslims to kill all apostates.

Still, even if U.S. diplomacy is a legitimate response to this peculiarly insidious form of propaganda, it clearly isn't a sufficient response. Far more significant, and surely more effective, would be a unified response from the rest of the world's Muslims, the vast majority of whom do not share Saudi views and do, occasionally, say so. The Hudson Insitute report cites a few of them, outside as well as inside Saudi Arabia. It would be useful, for us but especially for them, if they would say so more often and more loudly.

Of course, we are not a Muslim nation, and Americans cannot, by themselves, orchestrate a meaningful Muslim response to Saudi extremism. But we do have a large Muslim population, we do have friends in the moderate Muslim world, and we do have some money, much of which is wasted, to spend on public diplomacy. We also have two presidential candidates who are arguing hard this week about the best ways to combat terrorism, the best way to deploy guns and aid, the best uses of American military power.

Here is a novel idea for both of them: Make sure that children in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in Islamic schools all around the world have decent fourth-grade textbooks. It might save a lot of trouble later on.

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