July 19, 2017 | House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Terrorism, Non-Proliferation, and Trade Subcommittee

Saudi Arabia’s Troubling Educational Curriculum

Download the full testimony here.

Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Keating, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, thank you on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies for the opportunity to testify before you today about incitement in Saudi Arabia’s government-published textbooks for school children. It is an honor to be back, particularly because I first engaged with Saudi Arabia on this issue as a Staff Member for this body’s full Committee.

Half a decade after 9/11, Nina Shea wrote in an outstanding Freedom House report that Saudi officials accepted their textbooks had problems but “have repeatedly pledged that reform is underway or completed.”[1] That is still the case today.[2]

Yet as the author of the most recent published study on incitement remaining in Saudi textbooks today,[3] I can vouch that over a decade later Riyadh still has not persuasively shown that this problem has been resolved.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy has not been up to the task of convincing our Saudi allies to remove this incitement with greater urgency.

For example, I exposed in a 2014 monograph that the State Department appeared to have allocated half a million dollars in taxpayer funds to commission a two-part study on Saudi textbooks that was intended for public release but was instead withheld to avoid embarrassing the Saudis or the U.S. administration.[4] Its detailed findings were hidden from public scrutiny for years[5] and only raised with the Saudis at a senior level after the textbooks it had evaluated were already out of date.[6]

In the testimony that follows, I will argue that this is particularly disturbing because incitement of this sort is not just a moral issue or a human rights issue, it is a national security issue. While Saudi textbooks are not the only significant source of incitement from the Gulf – or even in Saudi Arabia – they are an important bellwether and concern for U.S. policy.

I will then endeavor to present everything we know about incitement in the latest edition of Saudi Arabia’s official textbooks. Examples of such incitement include: (1) directives to kill people in response to their non-violent personal life choices, (2) messages that are undoubtedly anti-Semitic or anti-Christian, (3) lessons that are intolerant toward adherents of non-monotheistic religions as well as implicitly toward Shi’ite and Sufi Muslims, and (4) several other passages encouraging violence.

I will explain how Riyadh regularly oversells the success of its textbook reforms.  I will then argue for why U.S. policy in this regard needs to change urgently. Next, I will refute some common counterarguments by those who claim that U.S. pressure cannot have a positive impact on the Saudi curriculum. Finally, I will conclude by offering a list of policy recommendations for Congress which could help encourage the Saudi government to address this issue in a more effective and timely manner.

[1] Nina Shea, “Saudi Arabia’s Curriculum of Intolerance: With Excerpts from Saudi Ministry of Education Textbooks for Islamic Studies,” Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, 2006, p. 11. (https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/CurriculumOfIntolerance.pdf)

[2] Margherita Stancati and Ahmed Al Omran, “Saudis Ready Digital Push to Get Islamic Extremism out of Schools: Textbooks were Criticized after 9/11 for Tendentious Content Pitting Muslims against Other Religions,” Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2017. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudis-ready-digital-push-to-get-islamic-extremism-out-of-schools-1487154603)

[3] David Andrew Weinberg, “Trump’s Counter-Extremism Effort Should Address Saudi Textbooks: The President Will Have to Address Incitement in Riyadh’s Government-Published Textbooks,” May 20, 2017. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/turning-the-page-on-hate-trumps-counter-extremism_us_5920a45de4b0e8f558bb2719)

[4] David Andrew Weinberg, Textbook Diplomacy: Why the State Department Shelved a Study on Incitement in Saudi Education Materials (March 2014). (https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/defenddemocracy/uploads/documents/Textbook_Diplomacy.pdf)

[5] International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, The State of Tolerance in the Curriculum of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2012, p. 104. (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/17/international-home/document-state-dept-study-on-saudi-textbooks.html); International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, The Global Spread of Saudi Textbooks, 2013. (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/17/international-home/document-state-dept-study-on-saudi-textbooks.html);

[6] David Andrew Weinberg, Textbook Diplomacy: Why the State Department Shelved a Study on Incitement in Saudi Education Materials (March 2014), pp. 4 & 8. (https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/defenddemocracy/uploads/documents/Textbook_Diplomacy.pdf)