NEW YORK (Feb. 12)
A new survey speaks volumes about Saudi Arabian attitudes toward Jews, Christians and the West.
An analysis of 93 state-sponsored textbooks in Saudi Arabia, conducted by the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace in partnership with the American Jewish Committee, finds that Saudi students are being taught that "Jews are wickedness in its very essence," "Zionism is a nationalist, racist and aggressive movement" and the West "is the source of the past and present misfortunes in the Muslim world."
"This report is a smoking gun," said David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee. "Despite Saudi government statements to the West promoting unity, friendship and tolerance, the report clearly demonstrates a disturbing pattern of hateful language."
For Arnon Groiss, director of the Voice of Israel’s Arabic news division and the man responsible for compiling and translating the data in the study, the most compelling finding was "the extent of the paranoia the Saudis are trying to instill in their children regarding the West, beyond the expected anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism."
This is the fourth report Groiss has issued for the center, following two on Palestinian and one on Israeli textbooks.
In many ways, it could be the most significant.
The study comes as increasing attention is being paid to anti-Semitism in Saudi Arabia, a long-time U.S. ally. The Saudis also have come in for criticism since it was found that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 terror attacks were Saudi citizens, and that Saudi money helps fund Palestinian terrorist groups.
Andre Marcus, the founding chairman of the center, which has offices in both New York and Jerusalem, said the educational system is key, since decisions taken at an autocratic political level don’t necessarily make it down to the street.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, that disconnect — for example, between the Palestinian Authority’s peace agreements with Israel and the anti-Israel messages in Palestinian textbooks and official media — makes it much more difficult for peace to succeed, Marcus said.
"Textbooks are a powerful tool," he said, "I would say even more than the media, more than TV."
Attitudes towards the Jewish people and Israel — which doesn’t even exist on Saudi maps — are particularly noteworthy in light of the plan for Mideast peace that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah proposed last year.
Marcus points to another reason why a study on the Saudis is so critical: As the cradle of Islam, Saudi Arabia’s educational system exerts an influence on curricula in other Muslim countries.
The textbooks make abundantly clear the Saudi belief that Islam is the only true religion and that followers of other religions can’t be trusted or befriended.
Marcus characterized the books’ sentiments as "very much against peace and an education of peace."
The study also illustrates the Saudi position on the legal standing and duties of women and children, as well as notions of government and society.
Given the tight controls on information in Saudi Arabia, information for the study was gathered with great difficulty, from Saudis who want to see the educational system revamped.
These are people "who are tired of seeing education used as propaganda, and would like to see some changes in their own country," Marcus said.
The report has two objectives, he said: The first is to promote greater awareness of the "brainwashing" taking place in Saudi Arabia and the second is the construction of an educational system "that is more democratic and allows children to think freely" Marcus said.
Harris said the study is "creating quite a buzz on Capital Hill," with senators asking for copies. The report also was presented to the State Department on Feb. 4, the day of its release.
"Our goal in the end is not to embarrass the Saudis," Harris said. "Our goal is to get the textbooks changed."
Yet the report’s backers don’t expect the report to produce major changes any time soon.
Groiss, who has spent 30 years monitoring Middle Eastern affairs, says he recognizes that entrenched interests in the Muslim world will work to forestall change.
One of the few "Western-friendly" excerpts Groiss found was the Saudi denunciation of terrorism. The catch, of course, lies in how the Saudis define terrorism.
According to Groiss, "everything that falls within the category of jihad or martyrdom is not terror." If violence can be justified as "for the sake of God" then it is considered permissible, and even is encouraged, he said.
Students are given examples of what constitutes legitimate examples of jihad — including the struggles over Kashmir and "occupied Palestine."
Members of the American Jewish community met with the Saudi foreign minister in September 2002 and spoke with him about initial findings in the survey, which was already under way.
"They admit that there’s some problematic material," said Ken Bandler, a spokesman for the AJCommittee. "But they don’t seem to be doing much about it."