Teaching Hatred in Saudi Arabia and Egypt: The UN Response
By: David G. Littman
Friday, October 01, 2004

Zurich Symposium on "Egyptian Copts: A Minority under Siege".

One of the major concerns of the Association for World Education is the elimination of intolerance based on religion and belief. And, clearly, education is an essential part of developing a spirit of co-operation and respect toward the “Other”. Before turning to the theme which I was asked to address, I would like to provide a brief historical note on Egypt

In 1836 Edward Lane published An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Referring to the intellectual education of Egyptian male children he remarked: “He receives also lessons of religious pride, and learns to hate the Christians, and all other sects but his own, as thoroughly as does the Muslim in advanced age.”/ “They regard persons of every other faith as the children of perdition; and such, the Muslim is early taught to despise.”/ “I am credibly informed that children in Egypt are often taught at school a  regular set of curses to denounce upon the persons and property of Christians, Jews, and all other unbelievers in the religion of Mohammad.”

In 1954, President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser’s cultural secretary at the Egyptian Education Bureau, Saad El-Din, wrote a warm ‘introduction’ for a new Everyman’s Library edition of what he called “Lane’s masterpiece,” but he added a reservation: “one cannot agree with Lane that a Moslem is taught from his childhood to hate other religions.” He explained that any fault was due to “Turkish influence” – and even blamed the Turks for introducing the use of the veil for women, while insisting that “Islam is very tolerant towards the other Semitic religions, Judaism and Christianity.” On what he called “the evil and reactionary grip of Al-Azhar” in the field of education, he was optimistic: “[Al-Azhar] graduates are no longer the narrow-minded superstitious hair-splitters of the past.” (viii-ix).

In his classic study, Lane provided a long description on the Copts of Egypt under the improved tyrannical regime of Muhammad Ali, noting: “The Copts are not now despised and degraded by the government as they were a few years ago.” On the Jews of Egypt, he had this to say:


“They are held in the utmost contempt and abhorrence by the Muslims in general  (…); and also: “the Jews are detested by the Muslims far more than are the Christians (…) At  present, they are less oppressed; but still they scarcely ever dare to utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten unjustly by the meanest Arab or Turk; for many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Kuran or the Prophet.” (Everyman’s Library, Dent:London/Dutton, New York, 1963,  283, 548, 559-60)      


With this ‘prologue’ from the past, let me turn to the contemporary situation and to my main theme: What is being taught in the schools of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in this twenty-first century?


Last month, we made available for the 26 independent members of the 56th session of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights – and for interested observers and NGOs – two important lengthy Reports, both published by the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP), with the titles: The West, Christians and Jews in Saudi Arabian Schoolbooks (Jan. 2003, pp. 153); Jews, Christians, War and Peace in Egyptian School Textbooks (March 2004, pp. 172).  (Further information in the introduction to these two books, and also on the CMIP website: www.edume.org.)


Last year’s UN Sub-Commission Resolution 2003/5: UN Decade for Human Rights Education 1995-2004, “Recommends that the human rights treaty bodies, when examining reports of State parties, devote attention specifically to human rights education.” (§2); it Encourages Governments &  NGOs: “to explore further the potential support and contribution to human rights education of all relevant partners.” It called for a proclamation of a World Programme for Human Rights Education.


School textbooks are one of the most crucial means by which a nation passes on to the younger generation a certain worldview, determined according to parameters set by the educational establishment. As such they open a window on to what the education system in a specific country wishes to instill in the students’ minds.


Founded in 1998, the CIPM has been researching the school textbooks and teacher guides of Middle Eastern countries since 2000 as a means of deciphering educational attitudes toward peace and toward the "Other" in general. It has issued 11 reports in this key field, in regard to the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.


This material has been scrutinized using UNESCO and CMIP criteria listed in our text below:


UNESCO relevant criteria:
1. Are the data given accurate and complete?
2. Are illustrations, maps and graphs up-to-date and accurate?
3. Are the achievements of others recognized?
4. Are equal standards applied?
5. Are political disputes presented objectively and honestly?
6. Is wording likely to create prejudice, misapprehension and conflict avoided?
7. Are ideals of freedom, dignity and fraternity being advocated?
8. Is the need for international cooperation, for the formation of common human ideals and the advancement of the cause of peace, as well as for the enforcement of the law, emphasized?


CMIP criteria of analysis:
1. The image of other peoples, religions and communities: Are they recognized, accepted as equal and respected; or are they presented in a stereotyped and prejudiced way?
2. Peace and the peace process: Does education foster peace? Does it support the peace process? Is there any room for improvement in this respect.


Let me start with the Saudi Arabian School textbooks: The CIPM survey broadened its perspective to include the Saudi Arabian outlook on Christianity and the West. The report also dealt with Saudi notions of government, women’s status and children’s rights as taught in schools. For the purpose of their research, 93 Saudi textbooks on various subjects for grades 1-10 (6 to 16 year-olds) were examined, mostly from the years 1999-2000, and some from 2001. All books except one were published by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education, the exception being a book issued by the female inspectors of the lower grades of girls’ education in the Riyadh Province.


The Report makes extremely distressing reading. Islam is presented as the only true religion, while all others are presented as false. Islam leads its followers to paradise, whereas all others lead their believers to destruction in hell. Saudi children are taught that they are superior, as Muslims, in both this world and the next. Christians and Jews are explicitly denounced as infidels, and are called the enemies of Islam and Muslims. They should not be befriended, nor emulated in any way, as this is forbidden. The West is the source of evil that has afflicted the Muslim world. Western democracy is totally rejected.


As for the Jews, they are a wicked nation, both in their relations with Arabs and Muslims, and in the context of world history. Their disappearance is, therefore, desirable. Even the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion still holds an honored place in the curriculum, for Grade 10 (2001), under: Hadith and Islamic Culture (pp. 103-04), with that classic of racial hatred by Abdullah Al-Tall, The Dangers of World Jewry (Arabic), cited as an authoritative work of reference (p. 81, in CMIP Report). Israel is not recognized and a Middle East peaceful solution is not advocated. Rather war, Jihad and martyrdom is exhorted as a religious duty .


A French edition of CMIP’s Report on Saudi Arabian schoolbooks (compiled, translated and edited by Dr. Arnon Groiss) has just been published: La démocratie en danger: l’enseignement scolaire saoudien (Paris: Berg International, 2004) with a preface by Antoine Sfeir, director of the Cahiers de l’Orient and author of Dictionnaire mondiale de l’Islamisme [Paris: Plon, 2002], in which he gives a grave warning:


“At a time when the Islamist terrorist threat to Europe is becoming clearer, it is urgent to fully understand one of its essential components: the Islamic Wahhabite ideology. This ideology, whose principal target is Western civilization – that is to say, democracy and modernity – is known only to a few specialists. It seems to be largely ignored by the media, as it is by the political class.”


Although Saudi Arabia remains one of  the 53 Member States of the UN Commission on Human Rights, its traditional position regarding non-Muslims (infidels) is well-known. Therefore, the Association for World Education decided to limit its NGO written text to the Report on Egypt, avoiding all controversial “political” issues such as the “Middle East Peace Process” and covering one subject only, under its chapter 11, pp. 146-56. ‘Jihad & Martyrdom’  – as taught in Egyptian primary / preparatory / secondary school text books – this is the title of our NGO written statement to the 56th session of the UN Sub-Commission (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2004/NGO/27). This – and two other statements by the World Union for Progressive Judaism covering related matters, including detailed information on themes such as:  The UN and the Grave Worldwide Cultural Clash (NGO/25); Muslim Brotherhood / Hamas / Hezbollah / Al-Qaeda: Terror Legacy of ‘Jihadist-Martyrdom-Bombings.’ (NGO/26) – are posted on the UN’s website.


The Report on Egypt surveys 103 textbooks published by the Education Ministry for use in primary, preparatory and secondary state schools, as well as 16 textbooks in preparatory and secondary schools under the supervision of the Al-Azhar Religious Institute. They cover the top five grades (7-11). The majority of the books were published in 2002, and the others, between 1999-2001. The books have been carefully scrutinized in accordance with specific criteria set by both UNESCO and CMIP.


A description of Jihad in Grade 11 from an al-Azhar religious schoolbook makes compelling reading, as do two other descriptions of Jihad in Egyptian State schools, Grade 9 & 10, that are also reproduced here, and in more detail in our written statement NGO/27 to the UN Sub-Commission:


“[One] of the rules derived by the [religious] scholars from these [Qur'anic] verses is the following: Obligation to fight the infidels with utmost vigor and power until they become weak, their state disappears and they submit to the rule of the law of Islam.” –  Commentary, the Surahs of Muhammad, Al-Fath, Al-Hujurat & Qaf, Grade 11 (2002, pp. 312), p. 24 (al-Azhar)


And now two more ordinary quotations from books in the State schools:


“Jihad is honour. Inability to perform it is a cause for grief.”

                Islamic Education, Grade 10, (2002,  pp. 111) p. 69 (State school)


“Jihad is one of Heaven's gates. Whoever desists from it willingly is humiliated by God...” –  Arabic Literature: Literature, Texts, Eloquence, Grade 9, (2002, pp. 201) p. 144 (State school)


But it is once again the al-Azhar teaching that goes to the core of this gruesome subject. Pious justifications are offered to Grade 11 students concerning the reasons for beheading infidels:


“When you meet them in order to fight [them], do not be seized by compassion  [toward them], but strike the[ir] necks powerfully…Striking the neck means fighting, because killing a person is often done by striking off his head…This expression contains a harshness and emphasis that are not found in the word “kill”, because it describes killing in the ugliest manner, “i.e. cutting the neck and making the organ – the head of the body – fly off [the body]”     Commentary on Surahs of Muhammad, Al-Fath, Al-Hujurat, Qaf, Grade 11 (2002), pp.19-20.


This was the tragic fate of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan 2 years ago and is now commonplace in Iraq, where about 130 foreigners have been abducted as hostages since April. 30 have been slaughtered, 20 – it is reported –  being ritually beheaded by Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, to the shouts of “Allah u-Akhbar” by hooded adepts. One should note that al-Zarkawi studied for many years at al-Azhar University in Cairo.



Another passage explains to the future jihadist the sacred justification for this behavior:


“Encouraging the faithful to perform jihad in the path of Allah, to behead the infidels, take them prisoner, break their power, and make their souls ’s humble (…) You see that in His [Muhammad’s] words: “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly. Then grant them their freedom or take a ransom from them, until war shall lay down its burdens.” – Commentary, ibid, Grade 11 (2002), p. 9

It is well-known to scholars that beheading the infidel can be, and is often, associated by Islamic jurists with a warlike jihadist tactic. The classic text is from The Laws of Islamic Governance [al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah] by [Abu’l-Hasan] al-Mawardi, famous 11th century [Shafi’i] jurist of Baghdad – considered “The most judicious of Qadis.” (trans.into English by Cambridge University scholar, Dr. Asadullah Yate  a Muslim; published by Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd. London, 1996, where the scriptural source is provided (p.76): “When you encounter those who deny [the Truth] then strike [their] necks.” - Qur’an 47:4).


The inclusion – in our written statement NGO/27 – of this particularly grim example of al-Azhar religious teaching in Egyptian schools was considered “blasphemous” by Sudan’s representative at the UN Sub-Commission – so he told me twice – and it prompted an indignant ‘right of reply’ from Pakistan, whose delegate immediately condemned this alleged “attack on Islam,” an accusation he repeated in a statement during the session’s final meeting on 13 August 2004 when speaking for the 56 Member States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which also includes the Palestinian Authority.


Our above-mentioned oral statement to the 56th session of the Sub-Commission was made on 10 Aug., six weeks ago. A few days later, the progressive author and journalist, Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi condemned the growing support for terrorism and extremism in the Arab world, and the rejection of moderation and reason in a vibrant article entitled: “The Arabs are Still Slaves to a Medieval Mentality.” [Arabic: www.rezgar.com, 14 Aug. 2004]. Excerpts have just appeared in an English, translation by MEMRI [www.memri.org/bin/opener_latest.cgi?ID=SD78604, Special Dispatch – Reform Project, 20 Sept. 2004, N° 786], with the subtitle: “We have become the Most Terrorist Nation and the Greatest Spillers  of Blood in the World.” This article by an Arab writer contains a scathing condemnation of “the rule of the dark religious educational system which incites to war against modernity, democracy, and the new liberalism …” Only two days ago, MEMRI published another remarkable article by Syrian professor Mundir Badr Haloum, that appeared on 13 September 2004 in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, entitled:


“Ignominious Terrorism Exists, and One Cannot but Acknowledge its Being Islamic.” [www.memri.org/bin/opener_latest.cgi?ID=SD78704, Special Dispatch – Syria/ Reform Project, 22 Sept. 2004, N° 787]. Let us hope that these, and other, critical remarks will become generalized among moderate Muslims. 


On the subject of this terrorism, we recommend a recent book by Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, entitled:


Understanding Islamic Terrorism: The Islamic Doctrine of War (with a foreword by General Sir Hugh Beach. Pewsey, Wiltshire-UK: Isaac Publishing, 2004).


The conclusions drawn from Egyptian school textbooks are that the Christian West is not presented as a rival, but no adequate and objective information is given about its civilisation either. On the other hand, past conflicts with the West mainly in the context of the Crusades and modern Imperialism are vividly described, using hostile language. Western Imperialism is presented as the source of almost all the calamities that have befallen the Arab world in modern times, beginning with occupation and economic exploitation, through to the fragmentation of the Arab world and the creation of internal problems – and ending with the creation of the Palestinian problem and the support of Israel.


Martyrdom, side by side with jihad, is an exalted value in the Egyptian school textbooks. The books define the martyr, talk of his elevated position in God's eyes and of his reward in Heaven, provide the students with examples of heroic martyrdom, both in Islamic and modern history, and feature expressions of readiness for martyrdom.


The image of the Jews as portrayed in the Egyptian school textbooks of both systems, both historically and at present, is very negative. No Jewish individual is portrayed in positive terms, except for biblical figures –  considered traditionally as Muslims – and Albert Einstein.       


Peace in general is exalted in the Egyptian school textbooks, both as a human and as an Islamic value. It is declared to be Egypt's goal. But when examined more deeply, it turns out to be a conditional value, both on the political and religious levels. On the political level peace is made conditional upon reciprocity on the part of the enemy, which is interpreted as acceptance of the Arabs' demands. On the religious level, peace is conditional upon the interests of the Muslims at any given moment. If the Muslims are stronger than the enemy, peace may be legally rejected. The meaning of peace in itself – as presented to the Egyptian students – does not exclude war, and this reaches the point, in several cases, of advocating war in the name of peace. It is worth quoting from British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech to the U.S. Congress on 17 July 2003, in relation to the Middle East Peace Process: “You cannot teach people to hate and then ask them to practice peace.


There are several positive elements in Egyptian textbooks, such as the attitude regarding the Copts  – I would add, who have accepted their dhimmi status – and the stress on tolerance and against religious extremism, at least in the state schools which endeavor to foster this positive attitude among the students. The Coptic civilization and monuments are presented as an integral part of Egypt's history and the Copts' friendly relations with the early Muslims are emphasized, as well as their participation in Egypt’s national struggle. The Copts are depicted as an integral part of the Egyptian nation. In the al-Azhar textbooks this is emphasized much less but no negative references to the Copts appear.


This is the theory, but the reality is very different as you all know, and this grim reality has been stated many times at this Conference, and is well described in all the books by Bat Ye’or, and in a 1976 article by her, to be republished in a forthcoming book, The Myth of Islamic Tolerance. How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims, ed. by Robert Spencer (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005).


For example, in these books, the persecution, discrimination and massacres that occurred in the past three decades and more against the Copts – not to speak of their harsh condition of dhimmitude over the centuries – is not referred to at all. Nor the arrest of Pope Shenuda III by President Sadat for having forgotten his ‘protected’ dhimmi status when he then protested vehemently against government policy. And the teachers are unlikely to comment on current tragedies like the January 2000 Al Khosheh  massacre of 21 Copts and the freeing of all the assassins and other criminals three years later, without condemnation; and the November 2003 mass attack by Muslim mobs on the Coptic village of Al-Girza, where once again the Egyptian criminal justice system has been shown to be gravely flawed – especially for Copts.


Time does not allow more than a brief comment on the iniquitous case of Dr. Neseem Abdel Malek, the former director of the Cairo El-Khanka Hospital, which we have raised at the UNCHR since 1998. Written statement: E/CN.4/2004/NGO/90 has as its title: Discrimination in the Egyptian criminal justice system: ‘State Security’/‘States of Emergency’/‘Military Tribunals’; discrimination against Copts, involving impunity in the massacre of 21 Copts at Al-Khosheh four years ago, and the brutal attack on Al-Girza last November. It also  provides a full summary of the 1999 ‘Opinion’ of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concerning Dr. Abdel Malek. Anyone reading this WGAD Opinion N° 10/1999, and the Government’s inadequate reply, cannot but conclude that a very grave injustice has been done, stemming from a false allegation of bribery, made by an officially certified insane killer, who was contradicted by his own mother. It should be noted that this Islamist expressed only one deep regret on Egyptian TV, just before his execution in 1998:  that he had not killed more “infidels” on 17 Sept. 1997 than the 9 German tourists (and their Egyptian driver). But this TV declaration did not disqualify his blatantly false testimony to a military court, and Dr. Neseem Abdel Malek continues to rot in jail after 7 years, while thousands of Islamists are regularly pardoned. All the appeals to President Mubarak for a gracious pardon have been in vain.


 Egypt’s status within the Arab world is unique. It is in a position to set an example for all other Arab countries in the direction of peace and stability in the region. Some of the findings in the textbooks are disappointing, and others most shocking. In various areas these manuals have failed to meet the recommended UNESCO standard on education that would have been expected from a country in such a special position of influence within UNESCO, in the Middle East, and worldwide. School teaching on ‘Jihad and Martyrdom’ – and many attitudes to the ‘Other’, whether about ‘Jews’ or ‘Christians’– to be found in these State and Al-Azhar school textbooks is in total contradiction with all UN standards and the International Bill of Human Rights, to which Egypt is a Party. UN Sub-Commission resolution 2003/5 Encourages Governments…and  NGOs: “to explore further the potential support and contribution to human rights education of all relevant partners.”


Therefore, at the close of the first UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), the Association for World Education called on the Sub-Commission to act firmly in regard to human rights educational attitudes in general, and toward peace and the ‘Other’; and also to condemn any teaching of ‘jihad and martyrdom,’ and especially  as it relates to beheading of ‘infidels.’ We made it clear that “those committing such barbaric acts in the name of Islam gravely blemish its reputation in the eyes of the world.” We also called on all UN bodies to act on this, especially the Commission and Sub-Commission on Human Rights. We await a concrete response, but without illusions. We share the viewpoint of Philip Gordon , an expert on international affairs at the Brookings Institute,  quoted in yesterday’s NYT/IHT (in an article, “As world leaders meet, UN is at a crossroads” by Roger Cohen, 22 Sept., p. 2): “The UN is useful, but it is a terribly flawed and defective organization.”


To conclude: We should never despair of changing hearts and minds in the quest for peace and real reconciliation with the ‘Other’, through education, and by revealing today historical truths, and irrefutable facts. As we have repeatedly stated at the UN Commission on Human Rights: It is time to monitor this grave situation of a martyred dhimmi people – the Copts of Egypt, the direct heirs of one of humanity’s oldest civilizations – painfully forced to choose between the creeping renewal of a modern form of “dhimmitude” in Egypt, or exile and freedom in the West.


First International Symposium on “Egyptian Copts: A Minority under Siege” (Zurich, Switzerland, September 23-25, 2004) Sponsored by Christian Solidarity International / The Coalition for the  Defense of Human Rights / Jubilee Campaign.

Keynote Speaker: Daniel Pipes, The Challenge of Islamism in Europe & the Middle East.


David G. Littman has represented several NGOs at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva since 1986, including the Zurich-based Christian Solidarity International (CSI). He is currently a representative of two NGOs, the Association for World Education and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Many of his articles over the years and recent UN statements will appear in a forthcoming book by Robert Spencer (ed.), The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims (Prometheus Books, Jan. 2005), in Part 5  “Human Rights and Human Wrongs at the United Nation” (with others):