Islamist fury at textbook changes

Islamist MPs have warned the government in Kuwait of unspecified consequences if it revises schoolbooks to eliminate phrases deemed to promote religious extremism.

"We warn the (education) minister, and all officials, against touching anything that has to do with curricula, especially religion," MP Abdullah Akkash told parliament. "Is there a new religion you want to teach to students? Is it the Western religion? The newcomer American religion?"

Since elections last July religious fundamentalists have formed the largest bloc in the Kuwaiti parliament. But Kuwait is one of six Western-friendly Gulf states - the others are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates - that last month agreed to try to combat religious intolerance and fanatacism through educational reform.

The United States has been pressing for such changes in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington, which are blamed on al Qaeda. Dozens of Kuwaitis trained in al Qaeda's ranks in Afghanistan.

While the Kuwait government has agreed to revise school text-books, the authorities in Saudi Arabia, with the encouragement of Crown Prince Abdullah, have begun a process of national dialogue aimed, among other things, at examining the way Islam is taught in schools.

The need for changes was highlighted in the recently published UN Arab Human Development Report which commented on "an alliance between some oppressive regimes and certain types of conservative religious scholars".

The report said this led to "interpretations of Islam which are inimical to human development with respect to freedom of thought".

The UN survey concluded that the teaching of a distorted interpretation of Islam was a major factor contributing to the poor quality of education at all levels in the Arab world.

Unesco, the UN education body, is organising a conference of Arab education ministers in Beirut later this month in a bid to co-ordinate efforts towards reforming and modernising curricula in the region.

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