Saudi Arabia has been sharply criticized over the decades for school textbooks that preach women’s subservience to men, anti-Semitism and a general enmity toward religions other than Islam. But those textbooks have been slowly scrubbed of much of this objectionable content, with particularly significant revisions made in the fall.
Gone is a section on sodomy that was supportive of capital punishment for homosexual relations. Gone are most adulations of jihadi martyrdom. Anti-Semitic references and calls to “fight Jews” are now far fewer.
The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), an Israel-based group that monitors school curriculums, welcomed the changes. The group’s chief executive, Marcus Sheff, called them “quite astonishing.”
But some concerns about anti-Semitic themes remain. One textbook still includes a story about a Jewish boy who is saved from hell by being converted to Islam.
Another passage refers to a religious text that describes God changing a group of Jews into “real monkeys.” A review by IMPACT-se in December said the Saudi textbook ruled out “other, gentler interpretations” of this episode that treat the passage metaphorically.
“Some of the most demonizing passages about Christians, about Jews and about Shiite Muslims have in some places been removed or toned down,” said David Weinberg, Washington director for international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. Particularly of note, said Weinberg, is that the books no longer endorse the death penalty for men having sex with men and for apostasy, sorcery and adultery.
But Saudi Arabia and Israel have yet to establish diplomatic ties, and the textbooks continue to reflect the decades-old animosity as well as the kingdom’s traditional support for the Palestinian cause. “There’s still a very heavy focus on enmity with Israel and Zionism – which sometimes involved anti-Semitism,” Weinberg said, adding that maps in textbooks do not include Israel. “Old hatreds die hard.” Although the Saudi government has recently been softening its tone, he said anti-Israel passages in the textbooks will probably be the last to be removed.
Saudi textbooks have long inveighed against anything that diverts from the hard-line Sunni Muslim beliefs that govern the kingdom. Non-Muslims – and in particular, Jews, who are singled out – are considered infidels and have been the most-targeted groups. The practices of Shiites, who follow another branch of Islam and are a minority in Saudi Arabia, have also been heavily criticized.
The Koran, Islam’s holy book, is written in complex, archaic Arabic, leaving adherents to depend on interpretations and rulings by religious experts. Conservative sheikhs tend to issue harsher edicts, while liberal sheikhs issue more tolerant or lenient ones.
The textbook editions introduced in 2019 had already made strides, removing lessons that alleged Jewish plans for world domination.
Instead, themes of female empowerment, especially in education and employment, were introduced. One seventh-grade textbook cartoon featured a smiling woman saying, “I think adding material on economics in the course is a positive thing,” and a scowling man responding: “What is this opinion? Who even are you to express such an opinion!!!”
Underneath, in red, is printed a question – “What is noteworthy in Ahmad’s answer?” – to encourage students to critique his response.