But that is changing. Starting from this academic year, Saudi Arabia has removed “intolerant and offensive” chapters from its text books, Saudi reformists, teachers and diplomats said.
A whole theology text used by 13 and 14-year olds, which used to command Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews because “emulation of the infidels leads to loving them”, has been taken out.
“It is the duty of a Muslim to be loyal to believers (Muslims) and be the enemy of infidels. One of the duties of affirming the oneness of God is to have nothing to do with His idolatrous and polytheist enemies,” the text added.
Before the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington two years ago, little attention was paid to the outpouring of religious fanaticism from Saudi Arabia’s schools and mosques.
But when it emerged that 15 of the 19 hijackers were young Saudis, a piercing spotlight was turned on the kingdom, questioning the extent to which an educational system under the control of the powerful religious establishment was instilling bigotry and hatred of the West in its young people.
“One of the most important requirements in loathing infidels and being their enemy is to stay away from and disdain their rituals, the biggest of which is their feasts”
Saudi text book
The Saudi ruling family was alarmed too, especially after the May triple suicide bombings of Western compounds in the capital Riyadh, and has instructed the government to overhaul the school curriculum. And so it did.
What was found in Saudi textbooks, reformists say, explained in a way the sub-culture of religious alienation and contempt for the West that incubated, among others, Usama bin Ladin, the Saudi-born al-Qaida leader held responsible for the US attacks.
Examination of standard school texts shows that across a range of subjects from theology to history, impressionable young Saudis have drilled into them the duty to loathe Christians and Jews as enemies of Islam.
Following the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th century theologian whose influence still permeates the puritanical Wahhabi strain of Islam that underpins the rule of the House of Saud, one textbook said:
“One of the most important requirements in loathing the infidels and being their enemy is to stay away from and disdain their rituals, the biggest of which is their feasts”.
“There is a need for the Saudis to look inside the political and educational spectrum and find out what is it that fostered the sub-culture of people willing to use violence”
For further measure, the text added: “It is forbidden for Muslims to share the infidels’ mourning or joy because this might prove loyalty and love. It is not allowed to congratulate them on their joyful events or offer condolences in mourning.
“Muslims should not imitate the infidels in music and art or frequenting theatres and cinemas. All these are frequented by the wayward and those who have strayed from earnest life.
“Imitating the infidels is blasphemous to Islam.”
The text went as far as saying that “infidels” should not be given influential posts over Muslims or be appointed ministers or advisers. They must not be given access to secrets, “because the infidel is deceitful and conceals wicked intentions.”
Even in standard Arabic classes, stereotypes and religious bigotry are blatant, reformists say. “Children are asked to fill in sentences with missing words, for example a sentence begins ‘God hates …’, and the correct answer will be ‘God hates infidels’. This is offensive,” said one Saudi resident.
There is, most scholars agree, no sanction for this in orthodox Islam, which reveres Judaism and Christianity and celebrates a common prophetic inheritance stretching back to Abraham.
But diplomats have noted the similarity between the sentiments expressed in textbooks and the statements of bin Ladin and his followers.
“There is a need for the Saudis to look inside the political and educational spectrum and find out what is it that fostered the sub-culture of people willing to use violence,” one said.
“Why is it that 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudis? Is it the education system? Is it the religious indoctrination? Is it the failure of the government to reform society? What are the reasons?” the Saudi-based Western diplomat asked.
Battling grassroots ‘extremism’
Saudis and Westerners knowledgeable about the kingdom acknowledge the strain and dislocation of the country’s oil-fired, headlong rush from a traditional Bedouin society to a brittle modernity, imported without the culture underlying it.
The ruling family, deeply conscious that the Arabian peninsula is the birthplace of Islam and that they are the custodians of Makka and Madina, sites of the faith’s two holiest shrines, relies on the clerical establishment for its legitimacy.
This continues an 18th century pact between the forerunners of today’s royal family and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the religious reformer whose strict and, to many orthodox Muslims, austere interpretation of Islam dominates Saudi Arabia.
“These clerics (on Aljazeera) had a more enlightening and reasonable vision for life. Their vision is not suicidal like the ones we have”
Khaled al Ghannami,
Saudi reformists believe that any battle against “extremism” should start from the grassroots by changing the minds and hearts of people. They have stepped up their campaign demanding an end to the intervention of clerics in daily life and a change in the curriculum, which they say was reinforced xenophobia.
“The curriculum was offensive and repulsive,” said English teacher Khaled al Ghannami, 37 – a former Islamist but now a leading campaigner for educational reforms.
The Aljazeera effect
Ghannami, a sociologist who himself believed in the fundamentalist school of thought until four years ago, said armed extremists who shed the blood of foreigners do it because of their belief that there is no value for non-Muslim lives.
Ghannami said he renounced radical Islam four years ago with the arrival of satellite television channel Aljazeera, which hosted liberal clerics who had a moderating influence on him and others despite the channel’s radical reputation in the West.
“These clerics (on Aljazeera) had a more enlightening and reasonable vision for life. Their vision is not suicidal like [that of] the ones we have.”
He recalled the day when his cleric told him that watching television, listening to music or having photos were un-Islamic, he went back home and destroyed the television sets his parents had, stopped listening to music and shredded all his photos.
“Not listening to music caused me a lot of grief because I loved music. I lived 10 years without music. It is unbelievable how powerful religion can be. I was possessed with religion.”