10/07/2021, 12.00
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Riyadh: fighting fundamentalism, fostering coexistence with Jews and Christians in schools

Israeli NGO Impact-se reports Saudi authorities are continuing their work of "moderation and openness" in school books. The definitions of "infidels" and "enemies of God" have been removed. The society remains traditional, gender discrimination and the knot of Zionism remain, but the change is "extraordinary".



Riyadh (AsiaNews) - School curricula in Saudi Arabia are evolving towards greater "moderation and openness", confirming a trend that has been underway for some years, although some critical areas remain on the subject of gender, Israel, jihad and Zionism.

This is what emerges from an updated study on first and second grade textbooks used in educational institutions in the Wahhabi kingdom, by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (Impact-se). Society, the authors explain, remains "traditional" but there is a "substantial mitigation" of hate speech towards "internal and external actors", i.e. Christians, Jews, the jihad issue (the holy war), Zionism, Israel and Iran, a historical rival in the region. 

The results were published a few days ago by Impact-se, an apolitical NGO founded in 1998 by Yohanan Manor and based in Ramat Gan, in the eastern suburbs of Tel Aviv, Israel. The organisation's main aim is to examine the content of textbooks used in the Middle East, to determine whether children are being taught to accept and recognise the rights of 'others' to 'exist', encouraging 'tolerance, pluralism and democracy'. Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Iran are among the countries being closely monitored. 

An initial report had examined the years 2016-2020, already showing an improvement in textbooks, thanks also to the "Vision 2030" programme imprinted on the country by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (Mbs). A further update, covering the second half of last year and the first half of 2021, confirmed that - in a sort of pendulum effect between improvements and steps backwards - the situation is evolving positively towards increasing "moderation" and "it will be increasingly difficult to turn back". 

Activists and human rights movements have highlighted this revision of school textbooks, which has led, among other things, to the banning of disparaging terms such as monkeys and pigs to label believers of other religions. The authors of the report, which has been updated from the first study entitled "The Winding Road to a New Identity", explain that the textbooks have been cleaned of the ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist dictates that characterise some elements, both State and non-State, in the region. The role of the educators who have slowly but surely guided the nation "away from radicalism towards a society that truly embraces international standards of peace and tolerance" is highlighted. 

The report gives praise where it is due, but does not spare criticism of problematic factors that, in some cases, border on "hostility" towards non-Muslims. The same applies to the "general attitude" towards women, homosexuals and transsexuals in a society whose mould remains "conservative" and "deeply anti-Semitic", with a marked "emphasis" on jihad and martyrdom. However, even in these areas, there has been 'significant' progress, so much so that between the two reports, at least 22 anti-Christian and anti-Semitic references in textbooks were deleted or changed.

Some texts blaming "Jews" for collective attacks on Muslims or Mohammed were changed, attributing them instead to Arab tribes or deleting the content altogether. Passages branding Christians and Jews as "infidels" [Grade 10-12, level 5 in science and administration texts] , or "enemies of God" were also removed, as well as the epithet "negligent" for the Jewish faith and "excessive" for Christians. From a book dedicated to Islamic studies, the passage stating that Christians and Jews took "rabbits and monkeys as their gods" was removed. 

Yet still today, the Impact-se report concludes, there are problematic references, controversial passages and little has been done for true gender equality. There are still "a handful of examples of anti-Semitism" and elements of religious "intolerance", as well as "(at least) dubious historical statements about Israel". Changes to the Saudi curriculum 'will not happen overnight', but the change that has taken place over the past year is 'an extraordinary leap forward'. 

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