Published November 11, 2003
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – A new child's textbook has sketches of boys and girls together -- normal classroom fare in many countries but criticized by extremists here as a government scheme to teach children to rebel against the precepts of Islam.
One Islamic Web site, in attacking the book, displayed a drawing of girls in a classroom and declared: "To show this to male students is a problem. ... A boy could remove it at every opportunity he has, kiss it and return it to his desk's drawer."
As Saudi Arabia (search) moves cautiously to reform its religious establishment, education and media, extremists are saying even these small steps go too far and will corrupt the birthplace of Islam -- an argument like those Usama bin Laden (search) uses to justify his demand for the Saudi regime's fall.
The extremists argue that material like the textbook reflects an effort by Saudi Arabia's rulers encourage children to rebel against the strict segregation of the sexes enforced by the religious establishment.
Resistance to change is not new -- since King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud (search) established the kingdom in the 1930s, the ruling family has had to contend with conservatives who objected to each step toward modernization. Even so, the government gradually introduced the telegram, radio, cars, girls' schools and satellite television.
But now, increasing violence -- most recently Saturday's car bomb attack on a housing compound for expatriate Arabs that left 17 dead and scores wounded -- has brought home to the Al Sauds that time is not on their side.
The royal family faces four staggering problems: It must liberalize its ailing economy, which means more, not less, contact with the West. It must satisfy many Saudis' desire for greater freedom and more say in politics. And it must tame the radical religious elements so the royal family's role as guardian of Islam's holy places will not be challenged.
Finally, it must battle violent extremists whom many people believe have been encouraged by the preachings of the religious establishment and its strict Wahhabi Muslim philosophy.
"The state is in trouble now," said Abdulaziz al-Gasim, a reformist lawyer. "It was the one that created Wahhabism and Wahhabism is what's strangling it now. It's strangling it because the state wants to fight Al Qaeda."
In a sign of how serious the royal family is taking the need for change, a working advisory group made up of prominent decision-makers has been formed to push the reforms at a faster pace, according to a senior Saudi official.
It is basing its priorities on secret studies the government conducted with the help of university professors, the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At the same time -- under pressure -- the religious establishment is moving toward reform. It has put in place new restrictions on Islamic charities to ensure donations do not end up funding terror. And many senior clerics are speaking out against terrorism and extremism.
Tawfeeq al-Sediry, deputy Islamic Affairs minister, told The Associated Press that most mosque preachers will be re-educated to ensure they spread a moderate message.
"We noticed in the past few years some deviation from this (moderate) trend by some people influenced by some extremist schools of thought," said al-Sediry. "This is among the things that are being corrected."
The government has also announced the country's first elections -- a vote on municipal councils -- next year. Although not all councils will be elected and municipalities have limited influence, the elections mean there will be a third voice in Saudi Arabia besides the ruling family and the religious establishment.
The government is also beginning to introduce changes in the school curriculum -- a demand the United States made after the Sept. 11 attacks carried out by 19 Arabs, including 15 Saudis. Some in Washington have asked if religious textbooks with harsh views of non-Muslims influenced the attackers.
Some portions offensive to Christians and Jews have been removed, including a chapter in a religious textbook for 10th graders that cautions against befriending non-Muslims or copying any of the activities or even the foods of non-Muslim religious holidays.
For progressive Saudis, the pace of reform is not fast enough.
But for the smaller, more militant segment of society, the change is too much. One militant, who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity, said the reforms were coming at the expense of Islamic principles. He said many in the religious community are incensed at deleting textbook references to jihad, or holy war, and the rejection of non-Muslims.
The man called bin Laden "our father, the crown on our head" and said the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia are "a pride for all Muslims."
Web sites are a major weapon for extremists. A drawing from the new textbook shows a boy and a girl -- identified as siblings -- sitting together in class elicits this remark on one site: "A male student sitting next to a female student during computer class! What kind of serious psychological effect will that have on students."
Another commentary says: "What kind of enticement for mixing is this? May God help us."