Saudi Arabia’s textbooks include language that disparages practices associated with Islamic religious minorities, such as Shias and Sufis, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report. The report by the international non-governmental organization pointed particularly to a curriculum, titled Tawhid, or Monotheism, which is a mandatory subject for primary, middle and secondary education levels.
The HRW report released on February 15 said that despite important steps taken by the kingdom to purge Saudi schools’ religion texts of hateful and intolerant language, a comprehensive review of Education Ministry-produced textbooks for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years found that “some practices associated with the Shia and Sufi Islamic traditions remain stigmatized as un-Islamic and prohibited.”
The textbooks continue to label some practices and traditions associated with Shia and Sufi Islam as evidence of polytheism, according to the report, which leads to removal from Islam and eternal damnation for those who practice them. Some of these practices include visiting graves of prominent religious figures, and the act of intercession, or tawassul, by which Shia and Sufis supplicate to God via intermediaries such as deceased religious figures.
All the people here are homogeneous and coexist, and they enjoy education, scholarships, and jobs – without the slightest distinction or discrimination
Prof. Widad al-Jarwan, who specializes in political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, deplored the findings of the HRW report, saying that there is no distinction or discrimination against Islamic minorities in Saudi Arabia.
“I do not know why the world is so busy with us. Although their countries are full of things that need attention, revision, arrangement and organization,” al-Jarwan told The Media Line, adding that “even their curricula in the West are full of mistakes against” Muslims.
Al-Jarwan said that Saudis are receiving education, which is what the whole world hoped for.
She urged people to visit Saudi Arab in order to see how secure, developed and caring the country is for its citizens and in its educational system. “All the people here are homogeneous and coexist, and they enjoy education, scholarships, and jobs – without the slightest distinction or discrimination,” she said.
According to the HRW report, between 2017 and 2020 the Saudi Education Ministry initiated numerous changes to the textbooks in response to years of criticism by US authorities, including a draft law circulated in the US Congress that would require the secretary of state to report annually to Congress about whether Saudi Arabia had removed “intolerant” content from its textbooks.
The government textbooks perpetuate an anti-Shia narrative in Saudi society that can serve to incite hatred against Shia citizens and maintain this system of discrimination against them
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Hiba Zayadin, a researcher in the HRW Middle East and North Africa Division investigating human rights abuses in the Arab Gulf states, told The Media Line that Saudi Shia face systematic discrimination in the Saudi education system, the criminal justice system, religious practice and political participation.
“The government textbooks perpetuate an anti-Shia narrative in Saudi society that can serve to incite hatred against Shia citizens and maintain this system of discrimination against them,” Zayadin said.
She explained that the HRW follow-up review, which was carried out last month, found that Saudi Arabia had, indeed, taken steps to remove hateful and intolerant language, but that it downplayed the content that stoked the controversy and attacks on religious minorities.
“Human Rights Watch did not review additional religion texts dealing with Islamic law, Islamic culture, Islamic commentary or Quran recitation,” Zayadin said. “We found that some practices associated with the Shia and Sufi Islamic traditions remain stigmatized as un-Islamic and prohibited.”
As long as the texts continue to disparage religious beliefs and practices of minority groups, including those of fellow Saudi citizens, it will contribute to the culture of discrimination that these groups face
When reached by The Media Line, a number of Saudi analysts refused to comment on the matter, saying that they doubt the findings of the report, and accusing HRW of targeting the Saudi kingdom.
Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement about the report that “Saudi Arabia’s glacial progress on textbook reform appears to have finally picked up steam in recent years.” However, he said, “as long as the texts continue to disparage religious beliefs and practices of minority groups, including those of fellow Saudi citizens, it will contribute to the culture of discrimination that these groups face.”