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.”
Given that most of the 9/11 terrorists and Osama bin Laden himself were Saudi born and educated, it has to be acknowledged that Saudi education not only is deficient, but poses a direct danger to American national security. Saudi foreign-affairs officials and ambassadors do not dispute this. Their reactions, though, have alternated over the years between insisting that reforms had already been made and stalling for time by stating that the reforms would take several years to complete, banking on the hope that American attention would drift.
Four years ago, after years of maintaining (including by taking out ads in American political magazines and on the sides of Washington Metro buses) that their textbooks had been cleaned up, when they demonstrably had not, the Saudis gave a solemn and specific promise to the United States. Its terms were described in a letter from the U.S. assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs to Sen. Jon Kyl, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security: “In July of 2006, the Saudi Government confirmed to us its policy to undertake a program of textbook reform to eliminate all passages that disparage or promote hatred toward any religion or religious groups.” Furthermore, the State Department letter reported that the pledge would be fulfilled “in time for the start of the 2008 school year.”
In its 2010 annual report on human rights, the State Department itself concluded, with diplomatic understatement, that Saudi Ministry of Education textbooks continued to contain “some overtly intolerant statements” against various religious groups, that they “provided justification for violence against non-Muslims,” and that reforms remained “incomplete.”
Meanwhile, Saudi royals have stepped up their philanthropy to higher education around the world, for which they have garnered many encomiums and awards. Hardly a month goes by without a news report that one of the princes is endowing a new center of Islamic and Arabic studies, or a business or scientific department, at a foreign university — so far, the list includes Oxford, Georgetown, Berkeley, Berlin, Harvard, Moscow, Sarajevo, Australia, and many others. The king himself founded a new university inside Saudi Arabia.
These efforts have bought the royal family much good will, but they should not distract our political leaders from the central concern of the Saudi 1–12 religious curriculum. This is not the time for heaping unqualified praise on the aging monarch for promoting “knowledge-based education,” “extending the hand of friendship to people of other faiths,” promoting “principles of moderation, tolerance, and mutual respect,” and the like (all phrases from Secretary Clinton’s “salute” last summer to King Abdullah for his philanthropy).
With Islamist radicalization spreading even within the United States — as seen from terrorist plots at Fort Hood and in Times Square, Northern Virginia, Colorado, and elsewhere over the past year — Saudi textbook reform has never been more important for American security.
– Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. Bonnie Alldredge is a research assistant at the center.