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Religious commission criticizes Saudi textbooks

WASHINGTON (BP)–An Islamic academy in Northern Virginia plans to revise before the new school year textbooks that reportedly advocate violence against non-Muslims and some Muslims, a school spokesman has said.

The Islamic Saudi Academy’s head of Muslim teachings made the comment to the Cybercast News Service (CNS News) June 17, less than a week after a United States panel called for the reforms. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued an eight-page report June 11 on the curriculum, citing some examples of passages it said promote violence and intolerance.

Among the examples are statements from two 12th-grade textbooks used at the academy, which is operated by the Saudi Arabian government:

— One book says a Muslim may kill an apostate (a Muslim who has converted), an adulterer or a person who has intentionally murdered an Islamic believer, according to USCIRF. Allah, the text says, “prohibits killing the soul that God has forbidden (to kill) unless for just cause….” Just cause is explained in the book as “unbelief after belief, adultery, and killing an inviolable believer intentionally,” USCIRF reported.

— Another text says “[m]ajor polytheism makes blood and wealth permissible.” According to USCIRF, this means a Muslim can take the life and property of polytheists, which would include (according to Muslim beliefs) not only Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, but Shi’a and Sufi Muslims.

The academy spokesman, who asked not to be identified, denied the books encouraged violence or hatred.

“We hope the books will be clean from any kind of misunderstanding that people think about,” the spokesman told CNS News. “There is nothing in these books –- but people that don’t have this background, they may understand it in a wrong way, in a negative way.”

USCIRF reported it had asked the Saudi government for copies of the textbooks during and following its trip to Saudi Arabia in 2007. The Virginia school uses the Saudi government’s official textbooks. The Saudis refused to comply with USCIRF’s request but gave copies of books used at the Islamic Saudi Academy to the U.S. State Department. The department has declined to provide the books to USCIRF or to make them public, according to the commission. USCIRF was able to obtain 17 of the academy’s textbooks from other sources. It reported most of the controversial texts are not from the Koran but consist of the Saudis’ interpretation of the Koran and other Muslim writings.

The Islamic Saudi Academy criticized USCIRF’s report in a June 13 written statement, saying it contained “mistranslated and misinterpreted texts.” It also said the commission referred to books the school no longer uses.

The Saudi government had pledged in July 2006 to alter textbooks in the next year or two in order to “remove remaining references that disparage Muslims or non-Muslims or that promote hatred toward other religions or religious groups,” USCIRF reported. It released the report near the close of the “two-year timeframe” to bring attention to reforms that need to be implemented before the 2008-09 school year, according to the commission.

In its report, USCIRF repeated recommendations for the State Department to release all textbooks it has received from Saudi Arabia so they can be judged for their “compliance with international human rights standards” and to establish a method of monitoring and urging enactment of the policies pledged by the Saudi government in 2006.

“No government should be teaching children that it is justified to kill anyone on the basis of his or her religion or belief,” the commission said.

The State Department designated Saudi Arabia as a one of its “countries of particular concern” (CPC), a classification reserved for the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom, in 2004. USCIRF had recommended the Saudi regime for CPC status from the beginning of its work in 1999.

The USCIRF’s recommendation of Saudi Arabia, and the State Department’s designation of the country, as a CPC has been based on the dominance of a state-approved version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabi. The Saudi government is hostile to non-Muslims and Muslims outside the Wahhabi tradition.

USCIRF also had targeted Saudi Arabia because of evidence the government was funding the spread of Wahhabism to schools in other countries. The Saudi regime operates 19 schools outside its own country, according to the commission.

The commission has sought to review the Islamic Saudi Academy’s texts because the school is an arm of a foreign government and therefore fits under its assignment to monitor other countries’ activities regarding religious liberty, USCIRF reported.

USCIRF, which was established by a 1998 law, is to advise the White House and Congress on religious freedom overseas. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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