Religious Tolerance in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Promoting Religious Tolerance in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Saudi FlagAt the heart of the Islamic world, and steward of its most important holy sites, Saudi Arabia has a uniquely powerful impact upon both the Islamic faith and global stability. On the one hand, one of the five pillars of Islam prescribes that every Muslim performs the sacred Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina at least once in their lifetime, if they have the means to do so. Additionally, an enormous pool of foreigners migrate to the Kingdom for work, allowing conservative Wahhabi religious interpretations to influence the thinking of a disproportionate number of the world’s Muslim faithful.

Almost ten years to the day after the 9-11 attacks on the United States, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) awarded ICRD a contract to assess discriminatory content in Saudi Arabia’s public school textbooks, as well as to track and evaluate the global impact of these texts. While international criticism pushed the Saudi monarchy to promise curriculum reform as early as 2002, the ever-challenging relationship between the religious and royal establishments has inevitably slowed that process. Without separate secular schools, the KSA public education system is designed to cultivate a deep Islamic faith, using a rigid religious curriculum that is developed under the watchful eye of the Salafist Ulama.

ICRD’s review of those texts, the most comprehensive to date, confirmed that the Kingdom has made some laudable progress, but much remains to be done to fully complete the task of reform. Positive examples were given. The report also included: 1) an analysis of textbook changes over the course of a decade, and 2) the comparison of some key theological concepts with Qur’anic source material, both for selective referencing and distorted emphasis (conducted with significant guiding input from key Saudi counterparts and accomplished Muslim scholars). Ultimately, however, two considerations arose as perhaps even more significant than textbook content: teacher training and the global export of Wahhabist ideology through other means. A lack of pedagogical capacity and the intolerant beliefs of teachers are particularly insidious, rendering any positive reforms applied to textbook content much less relevant.

girlICRD’s approach to the report, while unsparing in its honest assessment of intolerance, reflects a conviction that more might be accomplished with Saudi partners if proposals both: 1) “celebrate the light” of ongoing reform success, rather than simply “curse the darkness” of remaining intolerance, and 2) recognize that this is not an issue plaguing the Saudis alone, and that others struggle with intolerance in education – including the United States.

In 2013, DOS extended ICRD’s funding for another two-year cycle, in order to implement some of the study’s key recommendations. In the coming months, ICRD will facilitate an initial strategic dialogue between Saudi and American education scholars and experts on tackling bias and intolerance in national education systems. Emerging from that dialogue will be concrete measures for supporting the Saudis in their redoubled efforts to expunge the teaching of hatred as a public school priority.

While ICRD and DOS decided not to publish the original report, in order to increase the likelihood of continuing cooperation with the Saudis, it was privately briefed to the Saudi Ministry of Education leadership. Remarkably, in the year that has passed since that briefing, the Kingdom has announced a new National Strategy for Educational Reform, which increases the relevant budget from $1.5B per year to $22B over four years. In a clear demonstration that the Saudi government shares ICRD’s concerns, a considerable fraction is earmarked for teacher training. Together with an openness to exchange scholarly ideas, these are hopeful signs for the future, and for ICRD’s partnership in reducing religious intolerance.

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