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The Saudi Guide To Piety

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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Because they are so clearly designed for the convenience of large testing companies, I had always assumed that multiple-choice exams, the bane of any fourth-grader's existence, were a quintessentially American phenomenon. But apparently I was wrong. According to a report last week by the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, it seems that the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education finds them useful, too. Here, for example, is a multiple-choice question from a recent edition of a Saudi fourth-grade textbook, "Monotheism and Jurisprudence," in a section that attempts to teach children to distinguish between "true" and "false" belief in God:

Q. "Is belief true in the following instances:

(a) A man prays but hates those who are virtuous.

(b) A man professes that there is no deity other than God but loves the unbelievers.

(c) A man worships God alone, loves the believers, and hates the unbelievers."

The correct answer, of course, is (c): According to the Wahhabi imams who wrote this textbook, it isn't enough to simply worship God or just to love other believers; it is important to hate unbelievers, too. By the same token, (b) is wrong as well: Even a man who worships God cannot be said to have "true belief" if he also loves unbelievers.

"Unbelievers," in this context, are Christians and Jews. In fact, any child who attends Saudi schools until ninth grade will eventually be taught outright that "Jews and Christians are enemies of believers." They will also be taught that Jews conspire to "gain sole control over the world," that the Christian crusades never ended, and that on Judgment Day "the rocks or the trees" will call out to Muslims to kill Jews.

These passages, it should be noted, are from new, "revised" Saudi textbooks, designed to be less harsh on the infidels. After an analysis of earlier textbooks caused an outcry in 2006, American diplomats approached their Saudi counterparts about modifying the more disturbing passages, and the Saudis agreed to conduct a "comprehensive revision . . . to weed out disparaging remarks toward religious groups."

The promised revision -- hailed at the time as a great diplomatic success -- was supposed to be finished by the beginning of the 2008-09 school year and was accompanied by a Saudi public relations campaign. Among other things, the Saudis sponsored an interfaith dialogue this week, one that all participants hailed as a great breakthrough -- despite the fact that the meetings took place in Spain, apparently because it would be too embarrassing for Saudi Arabia to host Christian and Jewish religious leaders on its own soil. But now the beginning of the 2008-09 school year is nearly upon us, the only textbook revisions have been superficial and the most disturbing part of the books' message -- that faithful Muslims should hate Jews and Christians -- remains.

Normally, the contents of another country's textbooks would be of no interest, and, indeed, I'm sure that there are plenty of American textbooks that contain insane, incorrect or otherwise unacceptable information. Saudi schoolbooks, however, are a special case. They are written and produced by the Saudi government and are distributed, free, to Saudi-sponsored Muslim schools as far afield as Lagos and Buenos Aires. This doesn't mean every child who reads them will hate non-Muslims, but Americans are not the only ones who worry about the influence of these books: In Britain, a small political storm broke out last year when Saudi books calling on Muslims to kill all apostates were found in mosques there.

Still, even if U.S. diplomacy is a legitimate response to this peculiarly insidious form of propaganda, it clearly isn't a sufficient response. Far more significant, and surely more effective, would be a unified response from the rest of the world's Muslims, the vast majority of whom do not share Saudi views and occasionally say so. It would be useful, for us but especially for them, if they would say so more often and more loudly.

The United States, of course, is not a Muslim nation, and Americans cannot by themselves orchestrate a meaningful Muslim response to Saudi extremism. But we do have a large Muslim population, we do have friends in the moderate Muslim world and we do have some money -- mostly wasted -- to spend on public diplomacy. We also have two presidential candidates who are arguing hard about the best way to combat terrorism, the best way to deploy guns and aid, the best uses of American military power.

Here is a novel idea for both of them: Make sure that children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and in Islamic schools all around the world have decent fourth-grade textbooks. Help persuade the Muslim world to write and distribute them. It might save a lot of trouble a few years later on.

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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