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The New Arab Staff

Saudi school textbooks slammed over 'hateful language' against Shias, Sufis

Saudi primary, middle, and secondary education levels are taught a mandatory curriculum entitled Monotheism [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 February, 2021

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Human Rights Watch has found that the current school textbooks maintain language that disparages practices associated with religious minorities.
Shia and Sufi Islamic traditions are still portrayed negatively in Saudi school religion textbooks despite important steps taken to purge them from hateful and intolerant language, a report by Human Rights Watch has found.

Current textbooks used in schools maintain language that disparages practices associated with religious minorities, such as Shia and Sufi Islam, the US-based rights group said.

HRW reviewed textbooks produced by the Saudi education ministry for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years, and found that some practices associated with the Shia and Sufi Islamic traditions remain stigmatised as "un-Islamic" and prohibited.

The textbooks examined are used in primary, middle and secondary education during a mandatory taught subject entitled Monotheism [Tawhid], which focuses on teaching students about different religions and beliefs.

"Saudi Arabia's glacial progress on textbook reform appears to have finally picked up steam in recent years," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

"But as long as the texts continue to disparage religious beliefs and practices of minority groups, including those of fellow Saudi citizens, it will contribute to the culture of discrimination that these groups face."

HRW did not review additional religion texts dealing with Islamic law, Islamic culture, Islamic commentary or Qur'an recitation.

The rights group had already made a study of the same textbooks in 2017, and found that: "Saudi Arabia’s school religious studies curriculum contains hateful and incendiary language toward religions and Islamic traditions that do not adhere to its interpretation of Sunni Islam".

There were "numerous harsh critiques of practices associated with Shia and Sufi Islam, as well as intolerant and degrading language about Christianity and Judaism," the report said.

"The curriculum does not make direct reference to Shia Islam or use derogatory terms," it added. "The texts harshly criticize practices and traditions closely associated with Shia Islam in broad terms, in many cases labelling them evidence of polytheism that will result in removal from Islam and eternal damnation for those who practice them".

Following the 9/11 attacks, the US has criticised the Saudi educational system over the "role it played in shaping the beliefs of Osama bin Laden's followers", according to an article published in 2002 by the Boston Globe.

The American government then called on Saudi Arabia to reform its educational curriculum by reviewing and revising educational materials and eliminating any that spread "intolerance and hatred" towards religious minorities.

Between 2017 and 2020, the Saudi education ministry made numerous changes to the texts in response to US criticism.

In its 2021 report, HRW found that that: "These changes, however, have been mostly limited to how other religions or groups are presented in the textbooks, including eliminating hateful reference to Christians, Jews, and LGBT people, as well as removing violent and anti-Semitic language."

For Shia and Sufi Islam references, the most explicit ones have been minimised but the textbooks continue to label some of their practices as evidence of polytheism, such as the practice of "wailing" over the dead, visiting graves of prominent religious figures, and building mosques and shrines on top of graves, the report said.

"Saudi Arabia has made progress but it is not time to declare victory on textbook reform," Page said. "As long as disparaging references to religious minorities remain in the text it will continue to stoke controversy and condemnation."

A Saudi lawyer from the Shia-majority Eastern province told Human Rights Watch that all Muslims in Saudi Arabia are required to use this curriculum, even if they find it personally offensive.

With few exceptions Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment.

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