- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia A chapter in a religious textbook for 10th-grade students cautions against making friends with non-Muslims or copying any of their activities or even foods of their religious holidays.

Yet, chapters in other religious books urge students to be tolerant and charitable toward "peaceful" non-Muslims who have not fought them, especially the "people of the book" Jews and Christians.

The contrasting tone underlines the complexities of this socially conservative land that is struggling to balance the forces of tradition and modernization.

Saudi leaders insist their schools don't preach hate or encourage religious extremism, but since September 11, some in the West wonder if the harsher views about non-Muslims are being emphasized. They note that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks that day on the United States were Saudi, as are about 300 to 400 hard-core members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

Saudi Arabia has always been the heart of the puritanical form of Islam, said Martin Indyk, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"There's nothing wrong with that in itself," Mr. Indyk said. "It's when that becomes a base for a promotion of intolerance and extremism that it becomes a problem, and that appears to be what has happened here."

Such assertions anger Saudi officials, who are increasingly speaking out to defend their school system and religion.

They say neither bin Laden nor the 15 Saudi hijackers were graduates of religious schools.

"Our country spends more than 25 percent of its budget on education. Do you think we're spending it to raise terrorists?" Education Minister Mohammed Ahmed Rasheed said in an interview with the Associated Press.

"When a student in the United States opens fire on fellow students, would it be fair to say his actions were a result of the American school curriculum?"

Prince Turki, who was the chief intelligence officer until shortly before September 11, said the kingdom has been using the same curriculum, with slight modifications, for 35 years.

"How come it didn't produce more [al Qaeda members] if it was so general and so directed toward breeding terrorists, breeding people who hate foreigners [and are] anti-Christian, anti-Jewish youths," he said.

Fahd al Harithi, head of the International and Cultural Affairs Committee in the country's consultative Shura Council, said there was a time when the only education a Saudi could get was at the mosque.

"There's less religious teaching now," he said. "If religious teaching breeds terrorists, the kingdom's 100 years of history would have been filled with terrorist actions."

Western diplomats generally agree extremist views are not pervasive in Saudi schools, though they say there is sometimes a tone against foreigners and outside religions.

Saudi Arabia has adopted the ascetic and strict stream of Islam that emerged in the 1700s under Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab. A pact between Abdel-Wahhab and Muhammad Ibn Saud, a clan ruler and military chief, allowed the Saud clan to gradually increase in power, finally consolidating control of Arabia in the early 1900s.

Because of that pact, the ruling family finds itself constantly playing a balancing act in its quest for modernity, introducing change while at the same time ensuring not to upset the religious leadership.

The government is especially careful about religion in the schools.

"Everything that has to do with religion is sensitive," said an official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The extremist material in some books is the work of the more conservative elements."

Work on rewriting the textbooks had been scheduled to begin in December, the official said. But after criticisms of Saudi society in U.S. news media after September 11, the writers balked, saying they did not want to be seen as yielding to U.S. pressure, the official said.


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