Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah will be received by President Obama in Washington today, nearly two years after the deadline by which the kingdom’s educational curriculum was to have been completely reformed. As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote to the president last week, “This promise remains unfulfilled.”
According to Arab News
, the U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, James Smith, described this White House visit as a “very important” meeting, directed toward coordinating efforts to confront terrorism. The test of its seriousness will be whether President Obama uses the occasion to personally press King Abdullah to finally keep his pledge of textbook reform.
Saudi textbooks teach, along with many other noxious lessons, that Jews and Christians are “enemies,” and they dogmatically instruct that various groups of “unbelievers” — apostates (which includes Muslim moderates who reject Saudi Wahhabi doctrine), polytheists (which includes Shiites), and Jews — should be killed. Under the Saudi Education Ministry’s method of rote learning, these teachings amount to indoctrination, starting in first grade and continuing through high school, where militant jihad on behalf of “truth” is taught as a sacred duty. These textbooks are used not only in Saudi Arabia but in Saudi-funded schools around the world.
King Abdullah has presided over some welcome counterterrorism measures, such as last month’s long-overdue fatwa — issued by the Saudi clerical establishment, the Council of Senior Ulema — condemning the financing of terrorism as a criminal act. But, as Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, America’s top financial-counterterrorism official, reminded us in a recent op-ed, despite progress in thwarting the financing of al-Qaeda, “a more difficult strategic battle remains.”
Levey stressed the primary importance of directing our policy at preventing people from embracing violent extremism in the first place. He warned, “Among other things, we must focus on educational reform in key locations to ensure that intolerance has no place in curricula and textbooks. . . . [U]nless 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 and supporters.”
The primary “key location” is undoubtedly Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is not just any country with problematic textbooks. As the controlling authority of the two holiest shrines of Islam, Saudi Arabia is able to disseminate its religious materials among the millions making the hajj to Mecca each year. Such teachings can, in this context, make a great impression. In addition, Saudi textbooks are also posted on the Saudi Education Ministry’s website and are shipped and distributed by a vast Sunni infrastructure established with Saudi oil wealth to Muslim communities throughout the world. In his book The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright asserts that while Saudis constitute only 1 percent of the world’s Muslims, they pay “90 per cent of the expenses of the entire faith, overriding other traditions of Islam.”