Over a decade and a half after 9/11, America's ally Saudi Arabia continues to publish government textbooks for school children that encourage intolerance and even violence against the other.
As I recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, the time has come for Congress to act, creating incentives for Saudi Arabia and the executive branch to address this national security problem more urgently.
In 2005, the former valedictorian of the Islamic Saudi Academy, a school in Virginia that had used official Saudi textbooks, was convicted of plotting with al-Qaeda to assassinate the president. Nearly a decade later, official Saudi textbooks were selected for use in schools under the control of the Islamic State, according to the New York Times. In recent years, schools have been spotted using the books in such disparate countries as Algeria, Austria, Burkina Faso, China, Comoros, Djibouti, France, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Tanzania, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.
Earlier this year, I conducted a deep dive into the official Saudi curriculum for the 2016-2017 academic year. What I found was still deeply disturbing.
First, the books mandated the death penalty for a range of personal life choices, including adultery, anal sex, converting away from Islam, or certain perceived acts of "sorcery." The instructed penalty for adultery was stoning to death.
The books were also rife with anti-Semitic and anti-Christian messages. They called modern-day Christianity "an invalid, perverted religion" and taught that the self-determination movement of the Jewish people, Zionism, is an "octopus" that seeks to destroy Islam and conquer the entire world. The books forbid befriending infidels, citing a Quranic verse that says not to take Christians or Jews as allies and calling such infidels "enemies of God" whom it said Muslims are commanded to hate.
A book from the 2016-2017 curriculum also called for "fighting the infidels and polytheists" except under a handful of extenuating circumstances. It added that any infidel who does not serve as a diplomat, pay a tax commonly associated with second-class status, or come from a nation that Muslims have awarded a non-aggression pact is inherently a "combatant."
Riyadh has repeatedly — and erroneously — claimed that a resolution to this problem was just around the corner.
In 2005, the kingdom's then-foreign minister claimed that "we have taken everything" out of the textbooks "that does not call for cooperation (and) coexistence." Since then the Saudi government has assured U.S. officials that the process of completely removing intolerant passages from its textbooks would be finished by 2008, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.
During to the subcommittee's hearing, the Saudi government conveniently announced that its books will be reformed in time for the new school year this fall. Given the kingdom's invigorated efforts at domestic reform in some other areas, this is not inconceivable. There is no harm in giving our Saudi allies the benefit of the doubt so long as Congress makes sure to trust but verify.
That is why Congress must pass legislation to monitor how effectively the kingdom addresses this issue moving forward. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom calls for the executive branch to "undertake and make public an annual assessment" of Saudi textbooks "to determine if passages that teach religious intolerance have been removed." That is what Congress should mandate and fund.
As I noted in my testimony, legislation of this sort should specify for such public reporting to be as detailed as possible, providing complete quotations of every passage that could be seen as encouraging violence or intolerance toward the other. This way, members of Congress and the American public can make up their own minds about Riyadh's progress instead of letting the State Department make such assessments behind closed doors. Congress should require these reviews to be completed within 90 days from the start of each Saudi school year, to ensure that U.S. leaders have enough time to raise these findings while books are still current.
Congress should also insist on the nomination of relevant U.S. envoys who are the traditional torchbearers for this issue. The new administration only just nominated its pick for ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, but it still has not nominated a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, a special representative to Muslim communities, an ambassador to Saudi Arabia, or a special envoy to promote religious freedom for religious minorities in the broader Middle East with the rank of ambassador, even though some of these positions are even mandatedby law.
Members of Congress should raise the issue of Saudi textbooks in public and private and urge top administration leaders to do the same. Congress should call for restarting the U.S.-Saudi strategic dialogue that lapsed during the Obama years and call for a track of that dialogue to specifically address human rights and incitement issues. Lastly, Congress should direct the intelligence community to monitor and assess whether Riyadh is exporting religious incitement, including in its textbooks.
After the Saudi government missed a deadline to finish removing incitement from textbooks by the end of the George W. Bush administration, a senior U.S. official who covered the issue lamented that "the primary 'lesson' of 9/11" was being "shunted to the side." Let's not make that same mistake again.