Taking Hate out of School Textbooks

As an answer to the charge that Kuwait is home to Islamic terrorists, the government wants to revise questionable concepts in school textbooks - against fundamentalist opposition. Lina Hoffman reports

Schoolgirls in Kuwait (photo: AP)
Kuwait's curriculum might soon be retrieved of hardline Islamist tendencies

​​The bomb attacks in a Western residential neighborhood in the Saudi capital Riyadh in May 2003 reiterated that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism find fertile ground in Saudi Arabia. But other countries in the Persian Golf are also threatened by home-grown terrorism. In Kuwait, for example, there have been recurrent attacks on American facilities.

The Golf States of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman reached an agreement at the end of 2003 to fight terrorism together – an agreement, however, which delineates very few concrete steps.

Saudi Arabia and now Kuwait have come up with an idea that focuses on the minds of youths. The idea promises lasting success in fighting terrorism – if the idea can be realized against the will of religious hardliners.

Reconciliation and tolerance

At the end of December 2003, Kuwaiti education minister Rashid Al-Hamad announced revisions in the country's school textbooks. The plan is to remove all concepts that lend themselves to inciting religious extremism. The goal is also to introduce ideas and content that contribute to a better understanding of other cultures and religions.

For example, the Koran verses that best serve to promote reconciliation and tolerance as well as respect for those who think differently will be chosen for use in textbooks for religious instruction and other subject areas. Ali Tarrah, Dean of the Sociology Department at the University of Kuwait, said: "In our country, education is full of concepts that foment hatred of other cultures among our youths. An antiquated education carries the seed of extremist thought."

Tarrah understands the planned changes as a comprehensive revision of education materials and a questioning of certain concepts: "A revision of education materials means for example a debate on terms such as 'Jihad'—holy war— or 'infidel,' which are part of Islamic culture and which must be newly defined."

Slim chances for success

The government's plans, however, have not necessarily met with wide accord in Parliament, where religious forces are strong. These forces have already declared their opposition to the intended revision of school texts.

They say that the measure is merely a response to pressure exerted by the United States, and that the plans threaten the fundaments of Islam. The Kuwaiti government denies both charges. The Islamists also doubt that the causes of regional terrorism lie in education.

Whether or not the reform plans of the Kuwaiti government can be successfully implemented will depend on several factors. Above all, it will depend on the scope of the intended reform. In addition, it will depend on whether the highest Islamic authority of the country will play along, and whether other countries will join in.

The apparently strong political will to make these changes must assert itself against a strong religious front that resists them. "The decision has been made to change the textbooks, but it remains to be seen how far the government will go in order to implement a new vision. The government must decide if it wants to build a bridge to the rest of the world, or if it will continue to isolate itself," said Tarrah.

Lina Hoffmann

© DEUTSCHE WELLE / DW-WORD.DE / Qantara.de 2004

Translated from the German by Christina M. White