Still Teaching Children the Wrong Thing

Yesterday The New York Times reported the results of a recent review of Saudi Arabian primary and secondary school educational textbooks by the U.S.-based Freedom House think tank and the Institute for Gulf Affairs.  While the Saudi Arabian government made a pledge to reform the religious intolerance and literal interpretation of Islam that permeates these textbooks after the tragedy of 9/11, little progress has been made.  According to the article:

Schoolbooks say that “Christians and Jews are the enemies of the believers” and that students should not “befriend,” ”respect” or “show loyalty to” non-believers, the report said, citing Arabic passages.

The books also condemn most Sunni Muslims around the world, including those who do not interpret the Koran literally, as lax and accuses Shi’ite Muslims and Sufi sects — mystical groups that cross the Sunni-Shi’ite divide — of being heretical. Shi’ite Muslims form a sizeable minority in the country and often complain of state prejudice against their community.

The textbooks are taught in Saudi government schools around the world, said the report issued this week. “What is being taught today in Saudi public school textbooks … may not simply influence a new generation of Saudis, but also those Muslims around the world who rely on the Saudi government’s claim that its instructions on Islam are authoritative,” it said. The birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia receives millions of Muslim pilgrims every year, most of whom are not Wahhabi.

For the full article, click on the New York Times link above.  Americans should also be aware that approximately 80% of mosques in the United States are funded by Saudi Arabia and teach the  fundamentalist content advocated by the Wahhabi sect noted above in the report.

Our government should have already been far more effective in catalyzing change to occur in the  intolerant and dogmatic material that is being taught to literally millions of Muslims around the world.

I am not persuaded by apologies such as the following statement that was part of the article:

Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, issued a statement this week urging patience. “Overhauling an education system is a massive undertaking. There are hundreds of books that are being revised to comply with the new requirements, and the process remains ongoing,” he said.

In my view, one of the most critical problems facing Islam today is the absence of critical thinking.  Fundamentalist clerics in positions of authority choke off debate by insisting that the only acceptable reading of the Quran is its literal interpretation.

Contrary to what much of the mainstream media reports, progressive thinking is not anathema to Islam.  At the height of the Islamic empire on the Iberian peninsula, the tradition of Ijtihad flourished for centuries prior to its abrupt end.

Until the religious content taught to young children in state sponsored schools and mosques is changed from intolerance to respect, from hate to reconciliation, from fear of "the other" to embracing  ethnic and cultural diversity, we will not succeed in making any lasting positive impact on the next generation.

We all need to help moderate Muslims find their voice– it is not just a matter of religious freedom, it is also a matter of basic human rights.

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