Donald Trump is in Saudi Arabia this weekend for the first stop on his first foreign trip as president. He announced that he would use the trip to “begin to construct a new foundation... to combat extremism” and will be delivering a speech tomorrow on tolerance to leaders from roughly fifty Arab- or Muslim-majority countries.
To succeed, sooner or later the president will have to address incitement in Riyadh’s government-published school textbooks, which have already been distributed to well over a dozen countries worldwide. Trump will never achieve his objective of defeating radical Islamic terrorism so long as every terrorist killed on the battlefield can be replaced by a new generation of radicalized recruits.
Until 2015, the Saudi curriculum was so austere that the Islamic State was reportedly using the kingdom’s textbooks at schools in territory it had conquered. While some improvements have reportedly been made since then, a review of current textbooks (made available online by the kingdom’s government-owned corporation for curriculum modernization) reveals that egregious incitement remains.
Saudi textbooks for the current academic year call for the slaughter of people who engage in a range of non-violent acts considered immoral by Saudi religious authorities. This includes adultery, gay sex, disavowing or mocking Islam, and even “sorcery.”
One high school textbook on introductory Islamic jurisprudence from 2016-2017 teaches that the agreed punishment for adultery is “stoning … until death.” The punishment for sodomy, it says, is “like the penalty for adultery,” namely to be killed. The lesson also teaches that adultery and sodomy bring shame to one’s entire family and tribe, a central tenet of the beliefs that lead to honor killings.
Additionally, this textbook teaches that the punishment is death for anyone who refuses to recant from apostasy. The book describes examples of apostasy as “mocking” Allah, Islam, or the Prophet Muhammad or “moving toward [anything] other than Allah” in one’s acts of worship. The latter appears to be suggesting that explicit or implicit conversion from Islam to another religion warrants being killed.
Another current textbook, this one an introductory text on monotheism, teaches that purported acts of sorcery carry penalties up to execution. It mandates the death penalty for what it labels the magic of “devils,” while it says sleight of hand requires anything from a firm rebuke to execution.
Saudi textbooks also still include passages that support Islamic supremacism, aggression, or intolerance toward people of other faiths.
A 2016-2017 twelfth-grade textbook on monotheism forbids befriending “infidels” since it teaches that they are enemies of Muslims, citing a Quranic verse that says not to take Jews or Christians as allies. It adds that any infidels who have neither a non-aggression pact with Muslims nor diplomatic immunity must be treated as “combatants” or to submit as dhimmis, meaning non-Muslims who are forced to pay a special tax commonly associated with second-class status.
A current high school textbook on the Hadith – the traditional corpus of actions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad – claims that the goal of Zionism is world domination, namely a “global Jewish government to control the entire world.” It singles out Zionism among all other self-determination movements as inherently racist and expansionist, somehow even blaming it for spreading drugs and sexually-transmitted diseases in the Islamic world.
Likewise, a high school social studies textbook for 2016-2017 teaches that Zionism is an “octopus” that seeks to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque and the entire “Islamic creed.”
Just as this social studies book warns of a “Zionist danger” to Arabs and Muslims, the aforementioned Hadith textbook warns of a threat posed by “Christianization” in the Muslim world. It declares that “Christianity in its current state is an invalid, perverted religion” whose promoters seek to impose its dominion over Muslim nations through “intellectual invasion.” The book also slanders the American Universities in Cairo and Beirut, asserting that they are currently among “the institutions which are leading Christianization all over the world” today.
The Saudi curriculum also displays continued hostility to Shi’ite Islam.
An eighth-grade monotheism textbook from 2016-2017 teaches that praying while circumambulating graves, a practice commonly associated with Shi’ite or Sufi Muslims, is an act of polytheism and a potential departure from Islam. The photo next to this lesson appears to show an ornate mock tomb in front of a wall that displays the names of Shi’ite imams.
Moving upwards to the high school level, another current textbook on monotheism calls for “fighting” any purported polytheist or infidel who refuses to submit to paying the tax for dhimmis, except under a handful of extenuating circumstances.
A Moment of American Leverage
Trump has significant leverage to encourage Saudi textbook reform if he chooses to use it.
It is true that the royal family’s ruling bargain depends upon a measure of support from the hardline religious establishment – an unwritten rule says the Wahhabi religious scholars stay out of politics if the monarchy stays out of their affairs. But the House of Saud can also compel them toward moderation when it serves state interests. In the past, this has included the abolition of religiously-sanctioned slavery in 1962 to a new rule last year that curbed the religious police.
Riyadh needs to remove such educational incitement to achieve its reform program’s stated objective – endorsed by the king and his cabinet – of being a “tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.” Eliminating such incitement would also help the kingdom escape some of its punishing press coverage in the West and to forge closer alliances with America and in Europe. The alternative is more of what Saudi Arabia sees as its chronic foreign image problem, fueling anti-Saudi policies such as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which passed last year with virtually no opposition on Capitol Hill.
Washington has leverage here, too. Saudi Arabia is so eager to patch up its frayed alliance with the U.S. that the king’s son recently went so far as to vouch for the president’s “deep respect” for Islam and endorse his immigration policies. Trump also arrived in the kingdom with new cachet, having authorized limited military action in Syria and approved a tougher tack on Tehran after Obama administration policies that eschewed such moves – to the consternation of the Saudi people.
Trump should point out that in 2006 the kingdom assured the U.S. that it would remove all remaining passages from the books that promote hatred or disparage other religions by 2008. Saudi Arabia then pledged as part of the 2014 Jeddah Communiqué to do its part against the Islamic State by repudiating the hateful ideology espoused by IS and other violent extremists. That bill is long past due.
It would also be fair to ask Riyadh to take other crucial steps against extremist indoctrination, such as to stop granting broadcast licenses to Salafist television channels that air hateful messages abroad, and to stop granting government privileges to preachers who propagate intolerance.
Congress can help in this regard as well. It should direct the State Department to publish a comprehensive annual assessment of incitement in Saudi textbooks, to be conducted swiftly after the release of new editions each fall. Such transparent oversight could help ensure much-needed U.S. follow-through and create extra incentives for Saudi Arabia to tackle the issue in a timely manner.
If the president wants to put “America first” in his bid to combat extremism, he should ditch the diplomatic niceties that gloss over such areas of concern. Instead, he should work with the Saudis to address state-backed incitement once and for all, especially in the kingdom’s official textbooks for children.
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