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Saudi Arabia: Religion Textbooks Promote Intolerance

Textbooks Disparage Sufi, Shia; Label Jews, Christians ‘Unbelievers’

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s school religious studies curriculum contains hateful and incendiary language toward religions and Islamic traditions that do not adhere to its interpretation of Sunni Islam, Human Rights Watch said today. The texts disparage Sufi and Shia religious practices and label Jews and Christians “unbelievers” with whom Muslims should not associate.

A comprehensive Human Rights Watch review of the Education Ministry-produced school religion books for the 2016-17 school year found that some of the content that first provoked widespread controversy for violent and intolerant teachings in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks remains in the texts today, despite Saudi officials’ promises to eliminate the intolerant language.

“As early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The lessons in hate are reinforced with each following year.”

This research was part of a broader investigation into Saudi officials and religious clerics’ use of hate speech and incitement to violence for an upcoming Human Rights Watch report. The reviewed curriculum, entitled al-tawhid, or “Monotheism,” consisted of 45 textbooks and student workbooks for the primary, middle, and secondary education levels. Human Rights Watch did not review additional religion texts dealing with Islamic law, Islamic culture, Islamic commentary, or Qur’an recitation.

The United States Department of State first designated Saudi Arabia a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations in 2004. It has continued to do so every year since. The designation should trigger penalties, including economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel and visa restrictions. But the US government has had a waiver on penalties in place since 2006. The waiver allows the US to continue economic and security cooperation with Saudi Arabia unencumbered.

Saudi Arabia has faced pressure to reform its school religion curriculum since the September 11 attacks, particularly from the US, after it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Saudi officials have said repeatedly they will carry out these reforms, although past reviews of the curriculum over the last dozen years have shown these promises to be hollow. In February 2017, Saudi’s education minister admitted that a “broader curriculum overhaul” was still necessary, but did not offer a target date for when this overhaul should be completed.

Saudi Arabia does not allow public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam. Its public school religious textbooks are but one aspect of an entire system of discrimination that promotes intolerance toward those perceived as “other.”

As Saudi Arabia moves towards implementing its Vision 2030 goals to transform the country culturally and economically, it should address the hostile rhetoric that nonconforming Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and non-Muslim expatriate workers face in Saudi Arabia, said Human Rights Watch.

Saudi Arabia’s al-tawhid, “Monotheism,” curriculum harshly criticizes practices and traditions closely associated with both Shia Islam and Sufism. In many cases, the curriculum labels practices, such as visiting the graves of prominent religious figures, and the act of intercession, by which Shias and Sufis supplicate to God through intermediaries, as evidence of shirk, or polytheism, that will result in the removal from Islam and eternal damnation.

The curriculum repeatedly condemns building mosques or shrines on top of graves, a clear reference to Shia or Sufi pilgrimage sites. The third book in the five-part secondary level curriculum, for example, contains a section, entitled, “People’s Violation of the Teachings of the Prophet with Graves,” stating that “many people have violated what the prophet forbade in terms of bida’ or ‘illicit innovations’ with graves and committed what he prohibited and because of that fell into illicit innovations or the greatest polytheism” by “building mosques and shrines on top of graves.” The text also states that people use shrines as a place to commit other acts of illicit innovations or polytheism, including: “praying at them, reading at them, sacrificing to them and those [interred] in them, seeking help from them, or making vows by them…”.

Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level Three, 2016-17, p. 104

The second semester of the seventh-grade text expresses similar sentiment, saying that “those who make the graves of prophets and the righteous into mosques are evil-natured.”

Toward the end of one chapter, “The Role of Reformers in Declaring and Defending the Correct Doctrine,” in a secondary-level textbook, a short glossary lists practices of those who have deviated from correct religious practice. It describes Sufism as “a perverse path that began with the claim of asceticism, or severe self-discipline, then entered into illicit innovation, misguidedness, and exaggeration in reverence to the righteous.”

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level One, 2016-17, p. 40

The curriculum reserves its harshest criticisms for Jews, Christians, and people of other faiths, often describing them as kuffar, or “unbelievers.”

In one fifth-grade second semester textbook, the curriculum calls Jews, Christians, and Al Wathaniyeen, or “pagans,” the “original unbelievers” and declares that it is the duty of Muslims to excommunicate them: “For whoever does not [excommunicate them], or whoever doubts their religious infidelity is himself an unbeliever.”

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Fifth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 55

In a chapter listing markers by which one can recognize the approach of the Day of Resurrection, one passage states: “The Hour will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews, and Muslims will kill the Jews.”

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Course, Level Two, 2016-17, p. 102.

A recurring and alarming lesson in the curriculum warns against imitating, associating with, or joining the “unbelievers” in their traditions and practices. One passage rejects and denounces the Sufi practice of celebrating the birth of the prophet, accusing Sufis of imitating Christians, i.e. “unbelievers,” in their celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Fifth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 279 [Translation: Celebrating the prophet’s birth in the spring of every year is prohibited; for it is a new innovation and is in imitation of the Christian celebration of what is known as the birth of Christ.]

In another chapter, “Loyalty to Unbelievers,” the text explicitly calls on Muslims to reserve loyalty to God, the prophet, and other believers and to express hostility and antagonism toward “unbelievers.” It warns Muslims that by imitating “unbelievers” or even joining them in their celebrations, one is at risk of expressing loyalty to them, and worse even, becoming one of them.

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Course, Level One, 2016-17, p. 165  

The Saudi government’s official denigration of other religious groups, combined with its ban on public practice of other religions, could amount to incitement to hatred or discrimination. International human rights law requires countries to prohibit “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

Article 18 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or relief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

“Saudi Arabia’s officials should stop denigrating other people’s personal beliefs,” Whitson said. “After years of reform promises there is apparently still little room for tolerance in the country’s schools.”

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