In Other Words

Teaching Intolerance

You should see what even first graders have to read in Saudi Arabia.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — In the years just before the 9/11 attacks, I spent two semesters at a public school in Riyadh for my training as a teacher. I was stationed each day at the campus gates, instructed to inspect the girls' abayas as they left school. For each student older than 12, I checked: Was she wearing the tent-style cloak over her head and down to her ankles? Was her face fully covered, no slits for her eyes? I felt like a hypocrite, penalizing girls for violating a custom I don't support -- and one that the majority of Islamic scholars say is not a religious obligation.

The mandate was and still is part of the government-issued curriculum taught in Saudi public schools; it was in their textbooks that the girls were told they should cover their faces in order to be good Muslim women.

Much is made about the role of Islam in Arab societies -- how different interpretations of the Quran can shape laws and conventions. But less often do we consider how these interpretations reach our children: at school and, ultimately, in the textbooks they read. Since Saudi Arabia's first national textbooks were issued in 1937, the controversies they have inspired have mirrored the country's most fundamental debates -- about religion, the treatment of women, the influence of the West. Over time, textbooks have become instruments of the country's religious conservatives, replete with calls to jihad and denunciations of non-Muslims. Yet despite periodic reform efforts, and even though these efforts have escalated amid the global outrage that followed 9/11, in many ways the books remain stubbornly impervious to change. Even in the past two years, they have instructed first graders not to greet infidels and warned 10th graders of the West's threat to Islam.

The Saudi education system wasn't always destined for orthodoxy. King Abdulaziz, the kingdom's founder, established the precursor to today's Education Ministry in 1925, seven years before officially founding the country in 1932. The first national textbooks were heavily influenced by Egyptian and Lebanese curricula, and their chief author, the researcher Omar Abduljabbar, was considered a progressive, opening one of Saudi Arabia's first private girls' schools at a time when only boys could attend public schools.

By the 1950s, however, religious ultraconservatives had begun putting down roots in the Education Ministry. Despite the ministry's efforts to recruit members of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt and Syria, who were seen as proponents of a more liberal form of Islam, the more powerful Saudi religious establishment ensured that textbooks and school policies would become more intolerant and conservative, which the government's 1968 educational policy document solidified formally. In the following decades, those brave enough to criticize the government-mandated curriculum were scarce if not nonexistent. Saudis who were unhappy with the public education system could send their children abroad; even private Saudi schools were (and still are) required to teach Arabic and the government's religious curriculum.

Things went on this way with few changes until 15 of the 19 hijackers responsible for the 9/11 attacks were revealed to have been Saudis. Suddenly, outsiders began asking questions and pointing fingers, wondering what exactly was being taught in our schools. A 2002 Boston Globe report, for instance, bearing the headline "Saudi Schools Fuel Anti-U.S. Anger," quoted inflammatory passages from a government textbook, such as, "The hour will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews, and Muslims will kill all the Jews." Saudis, too, began to reconsider: What kind of messages were we teaching our children?

The question was blown wide open in 2006 with the publication of a Freedom House report titled "Saudi Arabia's Curriculum of Intolerance," which was translated into Arabic and published in the local newspaper Al-Watan. The report analyzed 12 Islamic-studies textbooks, concluding that "the Saudi public school religious curriculum continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the 'unbeliever'" -- most egregiously in a 12th-grade text that instructed students to wage violent jihad against infidels to "spread the faith." Many Saudis bristled at a foreign organization meddling in their internal affairs, but the findings managed to rekindle the debate about Saudi education. The pages of Saudi schoolbooks were finally submitted to a new, unfamiliar scrutiny -- not just from outsiders but also from Saudis themselves.

The Education Ministry responded to the criticism, appearing to commit itself to reform by relegating 2,000 teachers it deemed extremists to administrative roles far from the classroom. The ministry also instructed principals to report anyone preaching extremism.

Yet textbooks remained largely untouched, with only the most explicitly intolerant material removed. Now and then a journalist today picks up one of the government-issued schoolbooks only to find that extremism has sneaked back into Saudi schools.

In the 2010-2011 academic year, the new first-grade jurisprudence book (yes, "Islamic jurisprudence" is taught in the first grade, along with a subject called "monotheism") condemned saying hello to non-Muslims. The lesson was presented as a dialogue between a teacher and a student named Ahmed. Ahmed asks, "Should I say hello to people I don't know?" The teacher replies, "Yes, you say hello to Muslims you know and Muslims you don't know." The news caused an uproar in the Saudi media that prompted the Education Ministry to recall the books and remove the offensive portion. But the new copies suspiciously omitted the names of the book's authors, replacing them with the phrase "Authored and revised by a team of experts." Among the book's creators had been Sheikh Yusuf al-Ahmad, known for suggesting that the Grand Mosque in Mecca be rebuilt to ensure complete gender segregation and for calling for a boycott against supermarkets that planned to employ female cashiers. (The sheikh is currently in prison for speaking out against the government's practice of imprisoning political dissidents indefinitely and without charge.)

Just last year, new interpretations were introduced in the boys' 10th-grade hadith, the book of the Prophet Mohammed's sayings and traditions. (Ever since a 1958 royal decree that allowed Saudi girls to attend public schools, boys and girls have been required to use different textbooks.) The move seemed progressive on the surface: The new subjects included human rights, Westernization, globalization, and international scholarships -- but under these headings lay more propaganda. Westernization, for instance, was described (in a mouthful) as a policy "exerted by the dominant forces by tools such as the Security Council and the United Nations in order to implement Westernization strategies in poor countries, especially Islamic nations, under the slogans of reform, democracy, pluralism, liberalism, and human rights, particularly with regard to women and religious minorities." The book also warned that by obtaining an education in the West, Saudi students were at risk of adopting beliefs, values, and behaviors at odds with Islam.

The hadith additions were widely thought to be an underhanded way of criticizing Saudi King Abdullah's scholarship program, which since 2005 has funded 130,000 Saudi students to study in countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States. That such anti-Western language made it into the hadiths proves how embedded Saudi ultraconservatives are in the Education Ministry -- they were able to modify textbooks even against official national programs.

The Education Ministry ultimately held its ground, revising the textbooks to exclude the intolerant subject matter. Still, teaching extremism is only one facet of a much larger, more persistent problem. In a 2009 study on education reform in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh-based researcher Ahmed al-Eissa found that the lion's share of the average male Saudi student's class time -- about 30 percent -- is still in religion. It's no wonder then that Saudi Arabia ranks so poorly in other core academic subjects. In the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, published by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, only Ghana and Qatar fared worse than Saudi Arabia in eighth-grade math scores across 48 countries. In science, Saudi students only performed better than those in Ghana, Qatar, Botswana, and El Salvador.

A study published last year by religious scholar Abdulaziz al-Qasim found that Saudi religion textbooks "have focused far too much on the lowest educational and skill objectives, such as rote memorization and classification, and neglected entirely the objectives of analysis, problem-solving, and critical thinking," leading to "passiveness and negativity." But Eissa's 2009 study noted that there is widespread refusal within the Education Ministry even to acknowledge the need for an overhaul.

It has been more than a decade since the Education Ministry began working on a plan to address these problems. Known as the Comprehensive Curricula Development Project, it is expected to be implemented across the kingdom in the next year, according to its website. Yet, if one reads the project's mission statement for religious textbooks, it is difficult to be optimistic. It calls for the books to require that "the learner grasp his membership and loyalty to Islam and derive all his affairs within it and renounce all that goes against it," as well as to "protect himself in facing deviant sects, creeds, false interpretations of sharia with reason, evidence, and politeness." Nowhere in the statement's 28 points is there any mention of tolerance or peace. Somehow "time management," No. 28, is a bigger priority.

Even if the ministry's changes materialize, education reform in Saudi Arabia is not simply a matter of revising textbooks. It's a matter of changing the minds of whole generations. Saudis who were taught to believe a very narrow interpretation of Islam are now foisting it onto millions more students. They will have to determine a way forward -- but they won't find the answer in their textbooks.

Omar Salem/AFP/Getty Images

In Other Words

The End of History in the New Libya

The Green Book is gone, but what will replace it?

TRIPOLI, Libya — "Our enemies are targeting our nationality and our beliefs.… Throughout their history, the Arabs have faced one foreign enemy with one ambition: to divide us up."

So began the first day of school for Libya's 14-year-olds in 2010. The previous year they had been taught how the Crusades and the Ottoman "occupation" drove the "Arab Nation" back into a dark age. Now, this ninth-grade history textbook told them the story of Arab nationalism and its leader, Egyptian liberator Gamal Abdel Nasser -- the adolescent hero of Muammar al-Qaddafi. It was only a fitting tribute: Nasser, after all, had helped inspire Qaddafi's 1969 seizure of power in Libya -- a coup that Qaddafi institutionalized over four decades in power by exercising sweeping control over even the most basic lessons taught in classrooms.

Qaddafi made his eccentric ideologies the very foundation of Libyan schooling, from the warped renderings of the past in history books to the opaque political theories in the Green Book, the Qaddafi treatise that formed the core of the Libyan curriculum. Multiple generations were taught under this regime, so when the revolution came last year it was no simple matter to fix an education system needing an overhaul from top to bottom.

Members of the ruling National Transitional Council first met in the spring of last year to discuss how to purge Qaddafi's curriculum, and despite the six further months of civil war that followed, the new Education Ministry managed to dispense with Qaddafi's old books by the time schools in Tripoli reopened in September. For the time being, schools have relied on flimsy handouts and even reprints of books from the early 1970s.

The question now is how to create an intellectual basis for free thinking out of a near vacuum. What will fill the books that replace Qaddafi's? If history is written by the winners, Libya's rebels still have much work to do.

THE NEW EDUCATION MINISTRY is housed in a spacious yellow stone building erected by Italian colonists and boasting a tiled fountain and peaceful courtyard. Open since September, the ministry stands on a tree-lined street just up the road from Tripoli's Martyrs' Square -- formerly Green Square until it was seized and renamed by Libya's revolutionaries last year.

When I met Suliman el-Sahli, the acting education minister, there in March, he told me that "the most important thing to change in the curriculum was anything related to the old regime."

Generations of Libyans had come to resent Qaddafi's deep influence on the public schools. Under his rule, any administrator or curriculum designer was required to be a member of the lijan thawriya ("revolutionary committees") -- a sort of all-purpose thought police and snitch service. Libyan textbooks printed only what the dictator mandated, with all educational principles ultimately drawn from his three-part, roughly 100-page Green Book, first published in the 1970s. Whether claiming that "dictatorship is established under the cover of false democracy" in elections or criticizing political parties as "instrument[s] to rule the people," Qaddafi's text was widely considered convoluted and inconsistent -- not to mention reviled openly by many Libyans

Students didn't read the full Green Book, instead absorbing the thoughts of the "Brother Leader" through companion textbooks for the mandatory "Jamahiriya studies." (Jamahiriya, which translates literally as "republics," was Qaddafi's term for his system of government.) Lasting from ages 9 to 18, these courses formed the basis for education and civic life in Libya, but the Jamahiriya books were also largely incomprehensible. A text for 12-year-olds, for instance, introduces the concept of "popular committees" -- local government bodies under Qaddafi's rule -- that were "chosen by the masses." The committees do not "make decisions," the Jamahiriya book says, but instead "collect the decisions of the masses, which they took note of in the popular meetings." The book instructs each class of students to choose such a "committee" to represent them, "and from the committees of each class you will establish the popular conferences, where these committees will choose another committee to go to the regional conferences." But Libyans told me that did not happen when they were students.

Even subjects that did not seem political were treated as though they were. Geography, for example, was taught with maps that failed to show national borders in the Arab world, in keeping with Qaddafi's exaggerated Nasserist ideology of pan-Arab unity. It was often difficult for Libyan students to know their country's own borders, Suleiman Khoja, the new deputy education minister, told me.

Qaddafi-era history books, meanwhile, showed little respect for facts or evidence. An eighth-grade text used in the 2008-2009 school year, for instance, includes a photo of soldiers wearing what appear to be World War I-era Western uniforms and standing over corpses in robes. A nearby caption says simply that the photograph "represents the policy of Crusader colonization in the Arab world." In Qaddafi's version of history, the story was always the same, and the particulars -- British? Italians? Did this happen in Libya? -- only distracted from the lesson to be learned. "In every historical period," Khoja says, "he emphasized conflict and misunderstanding and cultural hatred -- especially when it came to the West."

GETTING RID OF Qaddafi's textbooks may turn out to be easier than figuring out how to replace them.

Over at the Education Ministry, the new bureaucracy promises revamped social studies textbooks in time for the 2012-2013 school year and revised history books within the next year or two. The hodgepodge of materials standing in for Qaddafi's curriculum over the past several months, however, suggests this may be an optimistic goal.

In history classes, Libyan students this year have found their vintage early-1970s textbooks abruptly truncated after the reign of King Idris, who ruled Libya from 1951 until the Qaddafi coup in 1969. Qaddafi-era textbooks had all but completely ignored King Idris as a British puppet; now his bespectacled, bearded face is back in Libyan classrooms, while the story of Qaddafi's rule is gone.

Indeed, with the reinstatement of the monarchy's tricolor flag and the national anthem "Ya Biladi" ("O My Country"), both holdovers from the 1950s, many of the symbols of nationhood in the new Libya are in fact old; Libyans are moving forward by looking back first, scrubbing Qaddafi's propagandistic thought from the record until they have decided exactly how to present it to future generations of Libyan students.

The ministry has given a glimpse of its ideological inclinations in the handouts it distributed to schools around the country this past year, simple pamphlets that offer short definitions of words like "democracy" and "citizenship" -- this time, borrowing from the once-hated West. According to the pamphlets, every citizen should be granted human rights, including freedom of speech and expression and the rights to organize politically and vote. In teaching these democratic principles, Sahli says the ministry hopes to train Libyans to be loyal to their country first, rather than a tribe, an individual like Qaddafi, or even a "pan-Arab" idea, all of which he says thwart nation-building.

Even so, Sahli vows that the ministry will "not make the same mistake as before."

"All historical eras will be presented objectively, without propaganda," he promises, careful to mention Qaddafi's rule among them. "Our work at the ministry is to include everybody, whether they are against or for the revolution," Sahli says. "We do not exclude or isolate people. They are all part of the new Libya."

These goals may be clear enough, but when and how the committee rewriting Libya's curriculum will achieve them is less certain. I met in March with Abdulnabi Abu Ghannaya, the committee's director, in the ministry's outer office, where dozens of functionaries filled the sofas while young office boys served coffee and water. When I asked Ghannaya how Libya's Qaddafi-era history would eventually be presented in schools -- a dark spot, a mixed bag, or simply a matter of fact -- he said simply that "historians" would take care of it. Grasping for specifics, I asked whether it would be possible to speak with the person in charge of the history curriculum, but Ghannaya could reply only, "Inshallah."

This is not as surprising as it might seem in the post-revolution government. Most current teachers, school administrators, and ministry officials, after all, worked in education before Qaddafi's fall -- some as members of the lijan thawriya -- and so had grown accustomed to his megalomania.

Under the dictator, Sahli reminds, "The Green Book was supposed to answer all political questions" for students and teachers alike. Now, he told me, "We all need some rehabilitation."

Correction: The print version of this article mistranslates the caption describing a photograph of soldiers in a 2008-2009 Libyan textbook.