As President Barack Obama sets out for his visit to Saudi Arabia this week, a new report suggests the State Department has intentionally been withholding a comprehensive study on Saudi textbooks, because the books include offensive material that dehumanizes Christians and Jews that if made public would embarrass the kingdom.
“The State Department appears to be withholding a government-commissioned textbooks study on the subject,” said the report by the DC-based research organization the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Textbook Diplomacy: Why the State Department Shelved a Study on Incitement in Saudi Education Materials.”
“Passages [in textbooks] continue to dehumanize Jews and Christians, promote the murder of perceived deviants such as homosexuals, and sanction violence against Muslims who do not follow the Wahhabi brand of Islam that is sponsored by the Saudi state,” the government-commissioned study found, according to the think tank report.
David Andrew Weinberg, who authored the Foundation for Defense of Democracies report, wrote that in 2011 the State Department paid the non-profit organization the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) $500,000 to conduct the study of Saudi government-published textbooks that are used widely not only in the kingdom, but are also sent free of charge to Muslim schools around the world, including in the U.S.
“However, when the results of this study were ready for release in 2012, U.S. government officials decided not to publish its findings. Nor did the Department release this study in 2013, despite issuing a similar but controversial study equating the narratives found in textbooks used by Israelis and Palestinians,” Weinberg wrote.
According to Weinberg, ICRD’s leadership asserted their study was withheld from the public because it showed the Saudis had made progress on textbook improvements and that the State Department did not want to discourage further progress by publicly criticizing the remaining areas of disagreement.
“However, current and former officials contest this characterization, asserting that ICRD’s study was withheld because of how bad it makes the Saudis look,” Weinberg wrote.
State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf insisted during Tuesday’s State Department briefing that the report was never meant to be released.
“This project, this assessment from this project, was never intended to be made public, as they often are not,” Harf said. “It was intended to drive and inform the work of the State Department as we work with the Saudi Government to push them to reform their textbooks.”
“There’s no one keeping a public report quiet. It was always supposed to be internal,” she added.
Of the reported evidence that the Saudi textbooks continue to contain offensive themes, Harf said, “We know there’s more work to be done. We’ve been very clear about that publicly, again, regardless of whether a report is released or not. And we have worked with the Saudis over the years, and we believe that it is – every country reforms at its own pace.”
Michael Posner — who was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor during President Barack Obama’s first term — suggested to the Daily Beast that the State Department had never ruled out making the study public.
“We commissioned the study to assess and evaluate the content of the textbooks with the intention of sharing our findings with the Saudi government and with the option, depending on the findings, of making it public if the problems persisted,” Posner told the Daily Beast.
Posner would not provide details on the unpublished textbook study, but spoke more generally about the problems in Saudi study materials.
“Among the references that were most offensive were commentary that linked Christians and Jews to apes and pigs,” Posner told the Daily Beast. “If those references are still in some textbooks then the problem hasn’t been solved.”
Since 9/11, the U.S. government has been concerned about inciting materials in Saudi textbooks that could encourage Islamic extremism. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks were Saudi nationals.
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies quoted a source familiar with the study who provided quotes from the ICRD report which said Saudi textbooks “create a climate that fosters exclusivity, intolerance, and calls to violence that put religious and ethnic minorities at risk.”
A tenth grade Islamic law book said students should “kill the person who changes his religion…for there is no benefit in keeping them alive.”
Christians, Jews and pagans were described in a twelfth grade monotheism textbook as “the worst of creatures” who will “dwell in hellfire.”
According to Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ unnamed source who saw the study, in another tenth grade book, Christians were compared to idol worshippers. It also wrote of Jews that God “made them of swine and apes.” Yet other books praised violence against non-Muslims.
Douglas Johnston, the president and founder of ICRD which conducted the study told the Daily Beast that he recommended against publishing its results.
“We strongly suggested it should not be published because they are making great progress on this. We can achieve a lot more if we pursue this outside the public domain,” Johnston said.
Read the full report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies at this link.