Review of textbooks under way

9th April 2004 at 01:00

An overhaul of school textbooks has begun in Saudi Arabia after Crown Prince Abdullah declared that education must be included in the kingdom's nascent reforms.

The Saudi heir to the throne has already chaired two meetings of a "national dialogue" attended by 60 men and women - clergy, academics and leading opinion-formers.

The subject of the most recent meeting was "Excess and Moderation: a thorough review".

The forum examined reform issues including "the effect of religious curricula", "the role of the teacher and the social milieu in achieving moderation" and "dubious educational activity and its impact on the achievement of excess or moderation".

The process of reform is at its earliest stage but has already been strongly criticised by Islamic conservatives who say that the authorities are bowing to pressure from the United States.

Some 150 senior Saudis, including judges and university professors, recently warned the reformers not to interfere with the Islamic-based school curriculum. To do so, they argued, was to take the kingdom "along the path of the infidels".

But Crown Prince Abdullah has said there is no alternative to a gradual change in the school curriculum to make it more relevant to life in the 21st century.

Surprisingly, the first target of the textbook review has been the withdrawal not of religiously inflammatory material but a million new geography books.

The books contain maps that refer to the Persian Gulf, which Arab states describe as the Arabian Gulf. The publisher has been ordered to stop production and recall the books which have already been distributed.

The concern reflects Arab fears of radical Shia domination of the Middle East following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime in Iraq.

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