Covering intolerance in the Middle East

saudi textbookMajor U.S. media outlets are all over a report [PDF] released Tuesday by Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, which found that Saudi Arabian schools are teaching their students things the U.S. government told them not to teach after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After the Washington Post's Outlook section ran commentary by Nina Shea, the report's primary author and director of the CRF, I was worried that The New York Times would take a competitive we-don'-like-to-get-scooped pass on the all-important story.

But the Times came out swinging Wednesday morning with an emotionally charged headline reading "Don't be Friends with Christians or Jews, Saudi Texts Say." National Public Radio was a bit more measured, using the headline "Saudi Textbooks Still Teach Hate, Group Says."

NPR played it straight through the entire story. Once the Times was done playing up the more dramatic claims of the report, it got to the heart of the story: Why in the world is the United States government friendly with another government that teaches its children to not be friends with Jews and Christians?

Saudi reformers note that if the latest textbooks are wanting, they are still a far cry from what they were five years ago. The Saudi public, said Muhammad al-Zulfa, a member of the consultative Shura council, say they are generally in favor of reforming textbooks and curriculum, but religious conservatives have stymied the effort.

"It is an uphill battle to revise the curriculum because the resistance by well-established conservative pockets is so fierce," Mr. Zulfa said.

One Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, also cited religious conservatives. "We know what needs to be taken out," he said. "But it's not that easy to do it."

The missing element in both of these stories is why the Saudi texts teach this type of religious extremism. There is obviously a religious context rooted in the country's Wahhabi teaching, but neither story attempts to explain that theology.

Another question is why the news in this report is news to anyone. How hard is it to grab a few textbooks, translate them and report on what they said? Is the problem gaining access to the textbooks, or the translating?

I would also like to commend NPR for providing a link to the full report, Shea's Post article, the State Department's religious freedom report on Saudi Arabai, translated experts of the textbooks, an image of a textbook cover, the Freedom House news release on the report, the official response to the report from the Saudi amabssador, the Saudi government's statement on its campaign against extremism and a transcript of a Saudi Embassy news conference on extremism. Talk about being exhaustively helpful.

The Times, on the other hand, was meager in its offerings. It merely provided a link to a forum on the Middle East. I guess it's small peanuts, but why can't the Times provide these types of links?

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