Muslim Textbooks Seen as Intolerant

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 21, 2004 7 min read
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A number of Muslim countries have stepped up plans for revising school textbooks as part of the continuing U.S.-driven campaign to combat terrorism. But critics maintain that the efforts are superficial and that the books continue to portray dangerous stereotypes and promote extremist views.

Some books for religious and social sciences classes in use in public and private schools in several Muslim countries have included derogatory references to non-Muslims, glorified terrorist activities, and outlined students’ obligations to defend Islam against the “infidels,” according to reviews by U.S.-based organizations.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, American officials have pressured those nations to remove material in texts that endorses jihad, or holy war, violence, or retaliation against non-Muslims, Americans, and other Westerners. Textbooks used in schools in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s regime have been censored or destroyed, and now new ones are being published with the help of the United Nations and the World Bank. (“Iraq Gets Approval to Control Destiny of School System,” April 14, 2004.)

“We’re making some progress in removing objectional references from texts,” Gregg Sullivan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, said recently.

Last month, for example, Saudi Arabia appointed a government panel to review the textbooks used by many of the nation’s 5 million precollegiate students and remove anything deemed to reflect “excessiveness” in the religious views expressed. Saudi officials have called for such revisions several times over the past three years, according to statements released by the kingdom’s embassy in Washington.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia was joined last December by other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—in agreeing to rewrite school curricula, according to news reports. Government officials in Jordan then announced plans to issue new textbooks in the 2004-05 school year that distinguish between “terrorism and legitimate resistance,” reported, the Internet site of the influential Arab television-news organization based in Qatar.

The directives incited anger and criticism in several of the countries from leaders who expressed resentment of the outside pressure and warned against Western influences on their culture.

Shortly after the Gulf council’s summit in January, the Jordan Times reported that dozens of Saudi judges, university professors, and at least one cleric sent a letter to government leaders admonishing them for the revisions. The letter suggested that the U.S. pressure was meant to take “the kingdom along the path of infidels.” And Kuwaiti lawmakers told government leaders last month that they would not accept the “Americanization” of schoolbooks, the Arab News reported.

‘Dangerous’ Curriculum

Observers, however, say that significant changes are needed.

“The religious curriculum is extremely dangerous, along with the history curriculum,” said Al Al-Ahmed, the director of the Saudi Institute, a Washington-based organization that lobbies for changes to modernize and moderate Saudi culture. “The [textbooks] are pure indoctrination that teaches ... a militant, dark view of the world and the Muslim ‘other’ or non-Muslim ‘other’ as evil that must be eliminated,” he said.

One Saudi textbook for 9th graders, for example, attributes a quote to the Prophet Mohammed that calls for Muslims to kill Jews, according to a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington, a nonprofit group that describes its role as bridging “the language gap between the Middle East and the West” by translating Arabic documents and newspapers into English, and several other languages, including German, Hebrew, and Russian.

“The hour [the day of judgment] will not arrive until Muslims fight Jews, and Muslims will kill Jews until the Jew hides behind a tree or a stone,” reads the quotation cited. “A Jew will [then] hide behind a rock or a tree, and the rock or tree will call upon the Muslim: ‘O Muslim, O slave of Allah! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’”

The institute’s 2002 report suggests that such views are ubiquitous in Saudi texts.

The materials have been effective in promoting “hate, suspicion, and intolerance,” according to Andrew J. Coulson, the senior fellow on education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative-leaning think tank in Midland, Mich. Moreover, they are exported throughout the Muslim world, he wrote in a policy brief, “Education and Indoctrination in the Muslim World,” published last month by the Washington-based Cato Institute. (“U.S. Faulted on School Policies in Muslim Nations,” March 31, 2004.)

“The Saudi education threat is substantially magnified by the country’s aggressive campaign to export it around the world,” the policy brief says.

In an interview, Mr. Coulson said the message is direct and widespread. “There is an entire generation all over the world getting the view that al-Qaida and terrorism are OK,” he said. “That makes them both more likely to be recruited as terrorists later in life and makes a fair number of people accepting of terrorists.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development came under fire several years ago when it was revealed that the federal agency had underwritten textbooks in Afghanistan throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s promoting violence against the Soviet Union. Authority over the content of the texts was left to Afghan officials.

But leaders in several countries have downplayed the extent of extremist content in the textbooks of today. Last month, Egyptian officials, for example, said their country’s textbooks had undergone sufficient revision several years ago.

Egyptian Minister of Education Hussein Kamel Bahaeddin said recently that his country did not need to take direction from the United States in promoting tolerance and human rights, according to newspaper accounts in that country. Egypt, he said, began revising textbooks seven years ago, but did not remove verses from the Koran, sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, or critical information from Islamic history, the Middle East Times, an online English-language newspaper reported in March.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, reported the results of a textbook audit in 2002 that concluded that approximately 5 percent of textbook content was potentially offensive, and he announced that changes were under way. “There is no room in our schools for hatred, for intolerance, or for anti-Western thinking,” he said in a statement released by the embassy in 2002.

Slow Process

Still, some experts contend that changes so far have been insufficient—or inappropriate.

“I would characterize the effort as very cosmetic. ... They removed some passages,” Mr. Al-Ahmed said of a draft of curriculum changes the Saudi government recently unveiled. “They are yanking some pages out, striking some lines here and there. But they are the same authors, and the spirit of the teachings are the same.”

Palestinian textbooks, revised in 2000 in response to the 1993 Oslo accords, a pact between the PLO and Israel brokered by the United States, toned down anti- Israeli rhetoric, according to a study by the Middle East Media Research Institute. Instead, “Israel is virtually ignored,” concludes the study of 20 schoolbooks that represented the new curriculum.

But the institute’s follow- up last year found that a new text produced by the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Education again encouraged jihad and martyrdom “to defend the religion and protect it from [heretical] innovators and doubters.”

Some observers argue that making substantial curricular changes is no easy task. In highly centralized systems, such as those in most Middle Eastern countries, academic content has to be rewritten and put through multiple reviews and approvals before it can be bound into texts, according to Victor Billeh, the regional director for education for the Arab States for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Beirut. Mr. Billeh worked for the Education Ministry in Jordan when that country introduced a new curriculum in all core subjects in the 1990s.

“The actual revision of textbooks is a major undertaking which will take years to change and implement if it is a general reform in the system,” Mr. Billeh said. Such changes, he added, often are costly and require additional teacher training. “It is not,” he said, “a push-button thing.”

Overall, however, reports that top officials are discussing the need for changes are encouraging, the Mackinac Center’s Mr. Coulson said. Nevertheless, he remains skeptical that substantial changes will be made to instructional materials, or that reform will reach the classroom level, particularly in religious schools that adhere to extremist interpretations of Islam.

“There have been so many pronouncements over the years out of the Gulf States and Pakistan that have not come to fruition,” he said. “I tend to look at the actions [of those officials] and tend to discount the public claims.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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