The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, an Israeli non-profit organization that monitors the content of school textbooks worldwide, to determine whether the material conforms to international standards as derived from UNESCO declarations and resolutions, has updated its report on Saudi textbooks (Updated Review: Saudi Textbooks 2022–23), and pointed out that its findings show “continued curricula reform toward moderation, openness, and peaceful development through a step-by-step process.”
The report noted that the September 11 attacks have led to rising interest in the textbooks of some Arab countries, raising questions about the role of school education in radicalizing the Saudi nationals who comprised most of the hijackers, as well as Al Qaida’s founder Osama bin Laden.
“Since then, the Saudi government has gradually reshaped the curriculum, balancing openness and tolerance with deeply-rooted Wahhabi religious values and traditions,” according to the report.
The monitoring group’s February 2020 report, titled “The Winding Road to a New Identity: Saudi Arabian Curriculum 2016-19,” noted this emerging process, but also pointed out that highly problematic content still remained in the Kingdom’s school textbooks: “Qur’anic surahs, hadiths, and religious interpretations that incite against non-Muslims; conservative ideas were applied to women and gender identity; textbooks commonly promulgated antisemitic tropes; and there remained a strong emphasis on jihad war and the virtue of martyrdom.”
Three years later, the monitors have seen some and even significant improvements:
- Almost all previously identified problematic examples regarding Jews and Christians in Islamic Studies textbooks were removed.
- Negative portrayals of infidels and polytheists have been toned down; some problematic examples remain, for example in the approach to perceived heretical practices associated with the Shi‘a and Sufism.
- The trend of removing problematic examples of jihad and martyrdom, as seen in previous reports, has continued. This year, almost all problematic issues have been removed.
- The importance of peace and tolerance is further highlighted in textbooks, particularly in newly introduced textbooks. These include two new “Critical Thinking” textbooks.
- Considerable improvement has been noted concerning gender issues; a traditional approach to gender roles is maintained.
- A significant amount of homophobic content has been removed in recent years.
- Some cultural practices are delegitimized, including imitation of the opposite sex, tribal medicine (“sorcery”), agnosticism, and animism. Students are now instructed to report “sorcerers” to the official authorities.
- New content criticizes radical religious ideologies: these include both extremist religious groups, including Hezbollah, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Houthi militias, and atheism. Chief among these groups is the Muslim Brotherhood, considered an incendiary terrorist organization.
- The portrayals of Israel and Zionism have demonstrated slight progress; several problematic examples which still appear in some textbooks were removed from a new social studies textbook.
The report’s section titled Israel and Zionism (p.94) notes that two maps in a geography textbook, which previously labeled Israel as Palestine, now do not display the names of any country, including Israel. However, other maps in this textbook and others still label Israel as Palestine.
A new 2022 edition of a Social Studies textbook for Grades 10-12 no longer has a task instructing students to disprove “one of the Zionist claims regarding their right to the Arab land of Palestine,” thus teaching that the Jews have no right – historical or religious – to self-determination in the land.
One 2022 high school social studies textbook softened the references to the IDF from “the Zionist enemy” to “the Israeli occupation army.” The textbook also removed references to Israel as “the Israeli enemy,” replacing them with “the Israeli occupation,” and the term “the Zionists” was replaced with “the Israelis.”
It should be noted, however, that the new textbook uses the terms “the Israeli occupation army” and “Israeli occupiers” in the context of the 1948 War, implicitly delegitimizing the existence of the State of Israel.