Because they are so clearly designed for the convenience of large testing companies, I had always assumed that multiple choice tests, the bane of any fourth-grader's existence, were a quintessentially American phenomenon. But apparently I was wrong. According to a report put out by the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom last week, it seems that the Saudi Arabians find them useful too. Here, for example, is a multiple-choice question which appears in a recent edition of a Saudi fourth-grade textbook, "Monotheism and Jurisprudence," in a section which attempts to teach children to distinguish "true" from "false" belief in God:
Q. Is belief true in the following instances:
a) a man prays but hates those who are virtuous
b) A man professes that there is no deity other than God but loves the unbelievers
c) A man worships God alone, loves the believers, and hates the unbelievers
The correct answer, of course, is (c): According to the Wahhabi imams who wrote this textbook, it isn't enough just to worship God, or just to love other believers, it is important to hate unbelievers as well. By the same token, (b) is wrong as well: Even a man who worships God cannot be said to have "true belief" if he at the same time loves unbelievers.
"Unbelievers," in this context, are Christians and Jews: In fact, any child who sticks around in Saudi schools until ninth grade will eventually be taught that "Jews and Christians are enemies of believers." They also will be taught that Jews conspire to "gain sole control of the world," that the Christian crusades never ended, and that on Judgment Day "the rocks or the trees" will call out to Muslims to kill Jews.
These passages, it should be noted, are from new, "revised" Saudi textbooks. Following a similar analysis of earlier versions of these same textbooks in 2006, American diplomats immediately approached their Saudi counterparts about the more disturbing passages, and the Saudis actually agreed to conduct a "comprehensive revision ... to weed out disparaging remarks towards religious groups."
The promised revision — hailed, at the time, as a great diplomatic success — was supposed to be finished by the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, and was accompanied by a Saudi PR campaign as well. Among other things the Saudis sponsored an interfaith dialogue this week, one which all participants hailed as a great breakthrough — despite the fact that the actual meetings took place in Spain, as it would be too embarrassing for Saudi Arabia to host Christian and Jewish religious leaders on its own soil. But although the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year is nearly upon us, the only textbook revisions have been superficial, and the most disturbing part of the message — that faithful Muslims should hate Jews and Christians — remains.
Normally, the contents of another country's textbooks would be of no interest to us, and indeed I've no doubt that there are plenty of American textbooks which contain insane, incorrect, or otherwise unacceptable information. Saudi school textbooks are a special case, however. They are written and produced by the Saudi government, and subsequently distributed, free of cost, to Saudi-sponsored schools as far afield as Lagos and Buenos Aires. Americans are not the only ones who worry about their influence: In Britain, a small political storm began last year when British mosques were found to be distributing Saudi books which called on Muslims to kill all apostates.
Still, even if American diplomacy is a legitimate response to this peculiarly insidious form of propaganda, it clearly isn't a sufficient response. Far more significant, and surely more effective, would be a unified response from the rest of the world's Muslims, the vast majority of whom do not share Saudi views and do, occasionally, say so. The Hudson Institute report cites a few of them, outside as well as inside Saudi Arabia. It would be useful, for us but especially for them, if they would say so more often and more loudly.
Of course we are not a Muslim nation, and Americans cannot, by themselves, orchestrate a meaningful Muslim response to Saudi extremism. But we do have a large Muslim population, we do have friends in the moderate Muslim world, and we do have some money, much of which is wasted, to spend on public diplomacy. We also have two presidential candidates who are arguing hard, this week, about the best ways to combat terrorism, the best way to deploy guns and aid, the best uses of American military power.
Here is a novel idea for both of them: make sure that children in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in Islamic schools all around the world, have decent fourth-grade textbooks. It might save a lot of effort later on.
© 2008 The Washington Post