Marcus Sheff, CEO of the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), spoke to participants in a June 15 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about his organization's fight to eliminate radicalization found in Middle East textbooks and the challenges that still remain.
IMPACT-se has been monitoring textbooks in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for the past 20 years because of the power they have to either mitigate or encourage extremist influences. Good textbooks can provide a "powerful barrier against acting out violence," while bad textbooks can serve as "a blueprint for radicalization." IMPACT-se brings pressure to bear on Middle East governments and the international community to bring about change.
Surveying the textbook landscape, Sheff described positive developments in much of the Middle East. King Abdullah of Jordan has "presided over taking out objectionable religious texts." Tunisian textbooks now "educate about the importance of negotiations, peace, and respect for the other. King Mohammed VI in Morocco is currently involved in making similar changes, though IMPACT-se's judgment is being withheld until the new curriculum comes online.
Egypt is slowly reforming textbooks under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. As the largest Arab country, "ideas out of Egypt permeate across the Sunni world," said Sheff. While IMPACT-se has yet to review Egypt's new curriculum, positive changes can be found in the country's history textbooks, which now extol "warm peace with Israel" and emphasize that it is "in the strategic interest of Egypt to have peace with Israel."
Saudi Arabia is a work in progress. Although its leaders have the will to change and some improvements have been made, there is a lot of entrenched extremism and anti-Semitism that needs to be rooted out.
IMPACT-se reviewed the Turkish curriculum in 2016 and found it to be "obsessed with the Ottoman empire" but moderately inclusive of other religions and peoples. Although highly militaristic and "anti-Israel without a shadow of a doubt," it was not explicitly anti-Semitic. Since that time, however, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has presided over changes in the textbooks that need to be reviewed. Preliminary information indicates that "more radical ideas, more extreme ideas" have been introduced.
In Iran, textbooks preach "total struggle until the coming of the mahdi (the eschatological redeemer of Islam), the need for jihad, and this fascination with Arabian hegemony in the region." Syria has a "bizarre radical Baathist approach" in textbooks that were written during the civil war.
The biggest disappointment is the Palestinian Authority (PA), which had won plaudits for revising its textbooks back in 2006. In recent years, however, intolerance has been reintroduced with a vengeance. In 2019-2020 PA textbooks, "it's fair to say that peace [with Israel] is not presented as preferred or even possible," as was previously the case. Israel does not appear on any of the maps, and anti-Semitism is rife throughout. Jews are depicted as "enemies of Islam [who] attempted to kill the prophet" and as "liars and fraudsters," said Sheff.
The new radicalized curriculum imbues students with the idea of sacrificing their lives as "martyrs" (shahids). It teaches counting by enumerating the number of "martyrs" in each intifada (uprising) and illustrates Newton's second law using a slingshot. It teaches that seventy-two virgin brides are available for those who die as "martyrs" and even encourages girls to "kill and be killed." Language books include daily vows to "exterminate ... the usurper" and to "sacrifice my blood."
The PA curriculum is "a strategic program to radicalize Palestinian children every single school day."
Essentially, the PA curriculum is "a strategic program to radicalize Palestinian children every single school day" and promote the idea of "Palestine from the river to the sea," according to Sheff. Ironically, while Europeans are pressuring Israel for a two-state solution, the PA textbooks they are funding make no mention of it.
In contrast, Israeli educational curriculum focuses on peace as the means for conflict resolution, with war being the last option. From kindergarten to graduation, Israeli textbooks cover the Palestinians through an Arab cultural and religious lens and seek to shed light on Palestinian national aspirations.
While millions of young people in the Middle East are still being taught to hate Jews and Israel every single day, IMPACT-se is fighting to put a stop to this toxic indoctrination. In Europe, it helped persuade the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to condemn anti-Semitic hate in PA textbooks last year. Earlier this year, at the urging of IMPACT-se the European Parliament passed legislation to the same effect and the Norwegian Parliament instructed its government to freeze monies slated for the PA while this curriculum is being taught.
In the U.S., IMPACT-se has lobbied in support of HR-2343, the Peace and Tolerance in Palestinian Education Act, which would require the U.S. State Department to monitor and report annually to Congress on Palestinian textbooks. HR-2343 is expected to pass the House and Senate and be signed by the president at the end of this Congress.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.