Saudi Arabian textbooks showed significant improvement in 2021 in their treatment of non-Muslims and of violence in the name of Islam, according to a study by an Israel-based research organization.
The removal of explicitly antisemitic and anti-Christian material is part of a trend of moderation in Saudi schools, said the IMPACT-se report titled “A Further Step Forward: Review of Changes and Remaining Problematic Content in Saudi Textbooks 2021–22,” released in late September.
“The greatest changes have been made to lessons dealing with Jews, Christians, non-believers, and violent jihad; twenty-eight lessons featuring demonization of the other and religious intolerance were removed or heavily modified,” read the report. “An entire textbook unit on jihad was scrapped. While problematic material remains in Saudi textbooks, these represent profound changes in these categories.”
A 6th-grade lesson on Muhammad visiting a sick Jewish boy and saving him from hell was changed to focus only on the visit, highlighting the importance of righteous conduct toward non-Muslims.
A now-removed 10th- to 12th-grade lesson on the Al-Aqsa Mosque formerly accused the Jews of violating “the very sanctity” of the mosque by turning it into a marketplace for money lenders and claimed that Jews lost interest in the Temple Mount and forgot its location.
However, Saudi textbooks continue to promulgate historical falsehoods, especially around Israel, and to denounce polytheists and infidels.
A high school textbook still calls Zionism a “Jewish racist political movement, European in its origins and beginnings, which aims to expel the Palestinian people and establish a Jewish state by force by encouraging Jewish immigration into Palestine.”
In addition, young girls in the ultra-conservative society are still being taught that there are traditional roles for women.
Anti-Israel material is still primarily found in maps in the textbooks, but inflammatory material about the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Temple Mount was removed.
Saudi Arabia still does not recognize Israel, but there is robust quiet cooperation between the countries, especially on intelligence and counterterrorism.
In April, the Saudi foreign minister said that normalization with Israel would bring “tremendous benefit” to the region, but such an accord with the kingdom would depend on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Like many Arab countries, the Saudis put out a new set of textbooks for every school year. The report examined material for the fall 2021 and spring 2022 semesters.
IMPACT-se has been reviewing Saudi textbooks since 2003, when there was significant international focus on the kingdom’s curriculum in the wake of revelations that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
“What we saw from 2003 was a radical, Wahabi curriculum,” said Marcus Sheff, CEO of IMPACT-se, “the kind of curriculum that inspires young Saudis to commit terror acts.”
There were minor changes in recent years, but the sea change occurred after the IMPACT-se report on the 2019 textbooks, said Sheff.
“We went back and looked at the 2020 curriculum, and saw really significant change,” he reported. “We saw an institutional effort to modernize the curriculum and most of the problematic, egregious examples of incitement, of antisemitism, about infidels, had been removed.”
“This was quite a big moment.”
According to Sheff, his organization’s reports had reached senior officials in Riyadh and the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC, and he is “indirectly in contact” with senior Saudi decision-makers.
Sheff said he was encouraged to see the moderating trend continue in 2021.
“There were further significant removals of problematic material,” he said. “It speaks to the Saudis’ commitment to a school curriculum which is more modern, which is not radical, which is not inciting young people to violence, but which offers young Saudis opportunities of interacting with the wider world.”
Beyond the removal of inflammatory content, there have also been cautious attempts at teaching critical thinking in high schools.
A lesson on the astronomer Galileo Galilei reads: “He made a discovery that contradicted the dominant perception at that time about the motion of stars, and therefore he faced a great deal of criticism in that time.”
Students are taught that “freedom of speech and criticism are one of the priorities of the tolerant Islamic Sharia,” with the significant caveat that speech cannot be allowed to harm Saudi rulers, state institutions, or Islam.
The changes come as the Saudis work to transform their economy as part of their Vision 2030 plan, turning the kingdom into a global center of investment and trade. To succeed in their bold initiative, Saudi leaders are seeking to ensure that their society is capable of engaging with prosperous liberal democracies.