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Saudi Government Extremism and the U.S. Response

Nina Shea & Talal Eid

Written with Talil Eid.

Terrorists are not born, they’re made. Extremist indoctrination is the first step in this process, an indisputable fact accepted by security experts and terror cell leaders alike. Administration officials have openly acknowledged this, noting that the growing list of Americans accused of terrorist acts are being inspired by “al-Qaeda and radical ideology.”

One such ideology comes from Saudi Arabia and is based on the Saudi government’s interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam. It has been described as kindling for Osama bin Laden’s match by some prominent terrorism experts, though of course the vast majority of those who are exposed to this ideology never go on to commit terrorist acts. Saudi Arabia’s role in inspiring terrorists has caused the Obama Administration to designate the country this week as one of 14 countries whose nationals will face enhanced security upon entering the United States. In addition, Saudi Arabia has been on the State Department’s religious freedom blacklist for engaging in egregious violations since 2004, yet the U.S. has invoked a national interest waiver on any actions (which could include sanctions) every year since then, in effect, giving Saudi Arabia a free pass.

The Saudi government’s ideology of extreme religious intolerance, including violence, is propounded in Saudi textbooks and other educational materials. Saudi Arabia makes these publications available on the internet and through their distribution internationally. Their reach in the West may be expanding with new Saudi plans to open schools in Ireland and France and to enlarge its Islamic Saudi Academy in Northern Virginia.

Since 2003, Saudi Arabia itself has been threatened by an epidemic of homegrown terrorism, which it attributes to a deficient “intellectual” grounding in Islam. In response, it launched a counterterrorism program, one that is highly acclaimed by the U.S. government, both to rehabilitate Islamist extremists and to prevent the recruitment of future terrorists. According to an October 2009 assessment by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, as part of the prevention program’s “mindset” component, the Saudis are distributing to its public millions of pamphlets, tracts, messages and ads of religious opinions condemning terror, and warning against the hijacking of airplanes, bombings and assassinations.

Significantly, many of these initiatives, implemented through the Saudi Interior Ministry’s ‘guidance department,’ are designed to confront extremism through the propagation of a “more judicious interpretation of religious doctrine,” according to a study by Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Examples include the dropping of the takfir doctrine, accusing another Muslim of being an apostate to justify his murder, and the insistence on strict jurisprudence of recognized authorities.

This public awareness push, which Riyadh compares to America’s “drink milk” campaign, would of course be doomed to failure if it were to run alongside a state-run educational system that promotes extremism. The Saudis, therefore, set out to review the Education Ministry’s curriculum and delete and clarify passages they deem objectionable. As the U.S. State Department publicly announced in 2006, among other goals to advance religious tolerance, the Saudis made an explicit commitment to the United States Government that within two years it would remove from its educational materials “intolerant references that disparage Muslims or non-Muslims or that promote hatred toward other religions or religious groups.”

With the Saudi counterterrorism program now in its seventh year and the curriculum reform deadline long past, its religion textbooks, however, continue to assert highly inflammatory teachings. In October 2009, the State Department, while still praising the Saudi educational reform pledge, reported with typical diplomatic understatement that reforms remained “incomplete.” In fact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reconfirmed this month that the textbooks currently posted on the Saudi Ministry of Education’s website still teach hatred toward other religions and, in some cases, promote violence.

One ninth grade book, for example, teaches that “Jews and Christians are enemies of the believers, and they cannot approve of Muslims.” Twelfth grade books justify killing an apostate, a polytheist, and an adulterer. Controversial interpretations of “jihad” also remain in the textbooks. The schoolbooks refer students for moral advice to Ibn Taymiyyah, the medieval scholar of takfiri thought, whose fatwas West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center identifies as “by far the most popular texts for modern Jihadis.” In addition, the recent State Department’s report on religious freedom finds that many teachers go unpunished for promoting intolerance in the classroom.

What has gone wrong? The Carnegie study reported that the curriculum editing process has been “hampered by allegations that some material removed during the review process has been reinserted by others opposed to the curriculum edits.” Whether or not that can explain matters, the fact remains: Riyadh’s educational reform policies amount to so many broken promises. The Saudi government continues to propagate a radical ideology that by its own analysis could foster more homegrown terrorists here and in a growing number of other countries.

At West Point, President Obama stated, “It is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat.” In light of this emerging threat, the U.S. must end its praise of Saudi reform policies that never get implemented and begin in earnest to press Riyadh to finally make good on its long promised educational revision.

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