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Shiites, not Jews, emerge as a touchstone of Saudi moderation

James M. Dorsey




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Saudi Arabia has removed anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli references from Islamic studies schoolbooks, according to an Israeli textbook watchdog.


Secondary students sit for an exam in a government school in Riyadh Photo: FAHAD SHADEED /Reuters


The watchdog, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), said the deletions were part of a broader textbook revision that also eliminated anti-Christian references and toned-down negative portrayals of infidels and polytheists.


Instead of explicitly referring to infidels and hypocrites, the revised textbooks asserted that on the Day of Judgement. Hell, “the home of painful punishment,” would be reserved for "deniers," rejecting Mohammed's prophecy. Deniers replaced the term infidel or hypocrite.


In its 203-page report, Impact-se further noted that problematic concepts of jihad and martyrdom were also deleted, while two newly released 'Critical Thinking’ textbooks stressed notions of peace and tolerance.


The report acknowledged an improved approach to gender issues, including removing "a significant amount of homophobic content.“ Nevertheless, the textbooks maintained a traditional approach to gender, the report said.


However, the review suggested that progress was limited in altering attitudes towards Shiite and Sufi Muslims, considered heretics by Wahhabism, the austere ultra-conservative strand of Islam that was dominant in the kingdom until the rise in 2015 of King Salman, and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, speaks to his father, King Salman, at a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, December 9, 2018. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)


“Some problematic examples remain…in the approach to perceived heretical practices associated with the Shi‘a and Sufism,” the report said.


The report will likely be read against the backdrop of US efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco in formalising relations with Israel and the recent Chinese-mediated Saudi-Iranian agreement to restore ties broken off in 2016.


In contrast with the three Arab states that unconditionally established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, Saudi Arabia has made formal relations dependent on Israeli moves to solve its conflict with the Palestinians.


Israeli media reported that Bahrain had mediated a recent telephone conversation between Mr. Bin Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.


Mr. Netanyahu has made diplomatic relations with the kingdom a priority. He has pressed Mr. Bin Salman to allow direct flights between Israel and Jeddah, the Saudi Red Sea gateway to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, during next month's annual pilgrimage. Without direct flights, Palestinian pilgrims have to transit through a third country to reach the kingdom.


Prospects for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are dim, with Mr. Netanyahu heading the most religiously ultra-conservative and nationalist government in Israeli history.


Israeli-Palestinian tensions have significantly increased since the government took office in December. Earlier this month, they led to five days of Israeli airstrikes against targets in Gaza and Palestinians firing rockets into Israel in response.


Complicating matters, Saudi Arabia wants the United States to offer the kingdom more binding security guarantees, grant it unrestricted access to US weaponry, and assist in developing a peaceful nuclear program as part of any agreement to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.


Long in the making, the revision of Saudi textbooks constitutes a gesture towards the United States and Israel.


However it is, first and foremost, designed to counter the ultra-conservative, supremacist, and intolerant religious concepts that have shaped the education system since the kingdom was founded.


The revisions are also crucial to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its oil export-dependent economy, prepare its youth for competition in the labour market, and project the one-time secretive kingdom that banned women from driving as an open, forward-looking 21st-century middle power.


Furthermore, the revisions bolster Saudi Arabia's quest for religious soft power as the custodian of Islam's holiest cities and a beacon of a socially liberal moderate Islam.


Getting Saudi Arabia revamping its textbooks has been a long, drawn-out process. The United States and others have pushed for changes since the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. Most of the perpetrators were Saudi nationals.


A hijacked plane is seen as it hits the second tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: Masatomo Kuriya/Corbis via Getty Images


Yet, Impact-se, Human Rights Watch, and the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs, a Saudi opposition think tank, first reported progress in 2021, two decades later.


The more limited progress in redressing prejudiced attitudes towards Shiite and Sufi Muslims compared to Jews and Christians suggests the continued influence of ultra-conservative religious thought in Saudi Arabia despite Mr. Bin Salman’s social reforms.


It also puts into perspective the kingdom's reluctance to anchor the reforms in religious as well as civil law, an approach propagated by Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s Indonesia-based largest and most moderate civil society movement.


On the plus side, Saudi Arabia’s revised textbooks no longer describe visitors to sacred figures’ tombs, a widespread Shiite practice, as “evil” and “cursed” by the Prophet Mohammed.


Nevertheless, textbooks still condemn such visits as innovations banned by Wahhabism. For example, one revised textbook implicitly described tomb visits to supplicate the deceased rather than God as a polytheistic practice to be punished in Hell.


“Students learn that polytheism is dangerous, as it is the ‘most heinous’ of sins. However, while the 2021 edition also taught that those who practice it will be punished with eternity in Hell, this was removed in 2022,” the report said.


At times, the Impact-se report conflated thinking among some Arab and Sunni Muslims with Islam in general, particularly regarding Shiite-majority Iran.


In one instance, the report noted that in the textbooks, "Islamic historical animus toward Persia is maintained through claims that the assassination of the second caliph was a Persian conspiracy.”


The animus is maintained by some Sunni Muslims rather than Muslims as such. It relates to the killing by an enslaved Persian of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second of the first four 7th-century caliphs to succeed Prophet Mohamed.


On an optimistic note, the report concluded, "Saudi efforts to reform the curriculum reveal a reasonably consistent step-by-step approach…and one...hopes that the approach will be applied to the handful of problematic content remaining in some textbooks.”


The report did not say that tackling problematic attitudes towards Shiites and Sufis would constitute one indication of how far Saudi rulers are willing to venture in challenging ultra-conservative Muslim precepts.




Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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