The Platform

A Saudi student pictured in a classroom in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. (John Grummitt/Shutterstock)

School curriculum presents a double-edged sword in analyses of the complex relationship between education and the processes of radicalisation. On the one hand, curricula can be instrumentalised to favour intolerant, hateful ideologies that endanger the prospect of regional normalisation in the Middle East. On the other hand, curricula can just as powerfully be used as a means to promote a more peaceful future based on ideals of mutual respect and tolerance.

It is therefore imperative that we focus our attention on what we are teaching our children at school if we are serious about combating radicalisation. Whilst not everyone would go so far as Michel Foucault, who believed that schools served “the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions” namely “to define, classify, control and regulate people,” there is hardly anyone that would argue that schools do not provide a formative experience to students.

Nobody grasps this truth more than the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE). The research and advocacy group’s pioneering textbook analysis exposes the problem of radicalization in education, whilst also supporting positive change in line with principles derived from UNESCO. These principles include the promotion of peace and gender equality and underline the importance of respecting the way of life and the culture of others.

IMPACT-SE is also guided by an abiding belief that curricula should be free of any content that seems to promote or is likely to promote any form of hatred or intolerance. This includes wording or imagery that uses stereotypes, promotes mistrust, or alludes to racial hatred. Such instances would clearly present a problem to prospects of regional normalisation of relations in the Middle East. The important work conducted by IMPACT-SE thus serves to underline the fact that education can indeed be used as a powerful tool to mitigate and challenge intolerant and extremist influences.

Throughout the course of their research, IMPACT-SE has uncovered and exposed many troubling instances of intolerance in school textbooks from the Middle East, which fundamentally do not align with these principles promoted by UNESCO. Take Saudi Arabia for instance: the Kingdom has long been criticised for its inclusion of some objectionable content in its textbooks. Examples include support for capital punishment for homosexuality and the notion that women should be subservient to men. Furthermore, hostility toward religions other than Islam, and anti-Semitism in particular, has also been a consistent theme in these textbooks.

Another pertinent case study is Qatari curriculum, with the most recent IMPACT-SE report finding that it is still far from meeting international standards of peace and tolerance but that it is making slow but steady progress. The report particularly underlined the prevalent vilification of Jews, finding that “anti-Semitism is central to the curriculum.” One of the many examples of anti-Semitism in the curriculum is the teaching that Jews played a large role in Germany’s defeat and downfall during WWI. Furthermore, IMPACT’s report found that the Qatari curriculum explains that “Jews [were] to blame for the rise of the Nazi Party by manipulating financial markets and creating wealth for themselves.” Throughout the curriculum, the State of Israel is vilified too, mostly referred to as the “Zionist Occupation.”

Particularly worrying is the failure of the Qatari curriculum to adequately teach and highlight the merits of peace to schoolchildren. The analysis of Qatari textbooks in the report revealed that Islamic religious studies often praise “Jihad war, martyrdom, and violent jihadi movements.” Furthermore, whilst references to Israel include mentions of diplomatic solutions, there is a continued glorification of violence, especially in the form of rocket attacks by Hamas.

The crucial point is that these instances of educational incitement of violence and support for intolerance are wholly incompatible with desires for peace. They pose a substantial risk to any future regional normalisation of relations in the Middle East. Clearly, the importance of combating the processes by which radicalization occurs cannot be overstated. Nowhere should this be more evident than in the European Union, which supports educational initiatives in over 100 countries. Often targeted at developing countries through its Global Partnership for Education initiative, in which it reportedly invests around $500 million, alongside its Education Cannot Wait initiative dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises to the tune of almost $30 million, the pertinence of ensuring an educational curriculum free of radicalization and hatred is evident.

The consequences of radicalization, ranging from general intolerance, to violence, terrorism, and conflict, is almost always harmful, and often disastrous. Radicalisation impairs the chances of open-minded societies which embrace mutual respect and acceptance of others to flourish. If we want a more peaceful and tolerant future, then we must find ways to combat radicalization. One vital means of doing this is by profoundly considering what we are teaching our children. Surely we should focus on encouraging coexistence, promoting tolerance, and underlining the merits of mutual respect?

Although the focus so far has been on negative aspects of curricula, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Firstly, it is not the case that there are only radical curricula designers who are committed to violence and war. Although they exist and must be confronted since they are inherently dangerous, there are also many examples of curricula designers and policymakers in countries throughout the Middle East who wish to see their countries living in peace, tolerance, and prosperity. In these instances, IMPACT-SE seeks to assist by providing dialogue and collaboration. The Qatari curriculum is a case in point, with IMPACT-SE suggesting that it is in a phase of transformation, although the process of moderation is in its infancy.

By tackling this problem head-on and applying pressure to governments, IMPACT-SE has shown that significant progress can be achieved. For example, the state of Qatar stopped formally teaching The Protocols of the Elders of Zion after the 2017-18 academic year. Criticism of Saudi Arabia resulted in changes in 2020 that were reported in the Washington Post involving the Kingdom “scrubbing its textbooks of anti-Semitic and misogynistic passages.” Furthermore, the textbooks no longer endorse the death penalty for homosexuality. In fact, IMPACT-SE produced a review of Saudi Arabian textbooks in December 2020 and concluded that there had been notable progress.

That said, changing curricula to align with UNESCO will not happen overnight, and serious concerns remain. For example, Saudi Arabian textbooks continue to reflect tensions between the Kingdom and Israel. Textbooks still contain a story about a Jewish boy being saved from hell by his conversion to Islam. The fight for a more tolerant, open-minded, and peaceful world governed by mutual respect requires hard work, and IMPACT-SE deserves both praise and support. The battle against radicalization through education is a textbook case of perseverance.

Sheila Raviv has been an IMPACT-se board member for over ten years, and is well known for her weekly newsletter focusing on the Middle East and geopolitics, with a readership including thousands of leaders, journalists, politicians, diplomats and academics from around the world. Her Jerusalem home is a center for entertaining visiting dignitaries from all corners of the globe.