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UN agency funded with Saudi money wants to edit worldwide textbooks

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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah wrote UNESCO a $20 million check, as the agency seeks to influence the content of worldwide textbooks. (AP)

The UN agency that promotes education wants a say in how future textbooks are written, and Saudi Arabia -- a nation whose own school books have been criticized for promoting hatred of Christians and Jews -- is helping to bankroll the effort. 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is currently working with member states to revise its strategy for the publication of textbooks and learning materials. According to UNESCO's website, experts from 21 countries met in Paris last month at a meeting financed by a $29,000 Saudi donation and focused in part on "ways to ensure that content aimed at students systematically reflects cultural and religious diversity, and avoids gender stereotypes."

Then, last week, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah cut a $20 million check to UNESCO's emergency fund.

"Saudi textbooks are extremely hateful and full of xenophobic texts."

- Ali AlAhmed

Critics warn that the funding will come at a price, and predict the Saudis will want input into what goes into rewritten textbooks.

"Saudi textbooks are extremely hateful and full of xenophobic texts," said Ali AlAhmed, author of the upcoming book "Saudi School Books: Objective Education or Extremist Indoctrination?" and director of the Gulf Institute in Washington, D.C.

According to AlAhmed, the Saudi funding "shows how xenophobic governments like [that of] the Saudis are able to buy influence." He said UNESCO was betraying its mandate to uphold "value and standards of education and tolerance" as he warned UNESCO and the UN system as a whole were "susceptible to financial buyouts from countries like Saudi Arabia."

Drawing from research in his upcoming book, which assessed Saudi school textbooks for the last academic year, AlAhmed gave examples of what Saudi children are taught. He said a guidebook says first-grade teachers should tell students that:

  • "Adhering to Islam is the only path to enter heaven, and escape hellfire."
  • "It is from Islam to love Muslims, and to hate the unbelievers and not to imitate them."
  • "Examples of false religions [include] Judaism, Christianity."

AlAhmed says a ninth-grade book teaches that, "The Jews and the Christians are enemies of the believers. He says an 11th-grade book states, "The cursed are: The Christians and all those who have erred from the true path, and worshipped God with other than his orders."

While the Saudi Embassy press spokesperson in Washington D.C. failed to respond to a request for comment, a UNESCO official signaled that the financial support of members was welcomed.

"Each country has the ultimate responsibility for the content of its national textbooks," said Qian Tang, UNESCO's assistant director general for education. "UNESCO's aim is to encourage and support those responsible (in ministries of education) for the writing and production of textbooks to reflect on how textbook content should promote respect and tolerance for diversity and eliminate all forms of negative stereotypes. "

Tang said "member states' engagement in this important area of work is welcomed by UNESCO, as is their financial contribution."

"Opening up dialogue and producing resources that support countries to reflect on the role of textbooks in the learning environment, not only in relation to subject 'facts' but also in relation to tolerance, non-discrimination and social cohesion, is an important means of promoting peace and tolerance," Tang added.

But Brooke Goldstein, director of The Lawfare Project, a non-profit legal think tank based in New York, challenged that position.

"Posturing as though Saudi Arabia's contribution to UNESCO is somehow going to better reflect cultural and religious diversity and avoid gender stereotypes is an outright lie," Goldstein said. "By working with Saudi Arabia to revise its children's curriculum, UNESCO is not only legitimizing the Kingdom's hate-education system, but abetting the premeditated murder of innocent Muslim children and fomenting educational conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism."

Goldstein added, "It should be no surprise, but is nonetheless of utmost concern, that the Saudis are actively working to influence UNESCO's education curriculum."

The Obama administration cut funding to UNESCO in October 2011 after a majority of its members voted to grant the Palestinians full membership. U.S. law mandated the cut.

Follow Ben Evansky @globalposts

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