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To fight terror, fix Saudi schools

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah told President Bush that his government was "fully prepared to cooperate with you in every way that may help identify and pursue the perpetrators of this criminal incident." Saudi Arabia, however, did not have to look far to identify the perpetrators, as 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian nationals.

Now the US must call on the government of Saudi Arabia to ensure its domestic policies, especially education policies, do not foster the very terrorist forces that the crown prince has publicly condemned.

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In Saudi schools, Islamic religious education is compulsory, accounting for 30 to 40 percent of the school day at some grade levels. Over the past two decades, the government of Saudi Arabia has tolerated elements within its education system that promote and encourage extremism. The religious curriculum is written, monitored, and taught by followers of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, a particularly rigid reading of this peaceful religion.

Some instructors are using texts and lesson plans that encourage intolerance and anti-Semitic, anti-American, and anti-Western views, making some Saudi students prime recruiting targets for militant extremist groups.

In addition, rote memorization of religious texts continues to be a central feature of much of the educational system of Saudi Arabia, leaving thousands of students unprepared to function in the global economy of the 21st century.

Failures in the Saudi education system do not bode well for the future of a country that is literally being overrun by young people. At least 65 percent of the 16 million Saudis are now under the age of 25, and 38 percent are under the age of 11.

If left unchecked, extremist influences could become a threat to the national security of not only the US, but also of Saudi Arabia.

Even Saudi Arabia's leaders are willing to admit faults in the school curriculum. In a recent interview with "60 Minutes," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Sa'ud al-Faysal said that post-Sept. 11 educational reviews found 5 percent of the curriculum "abhorrent" and another 10 percent "questionable."

If the US wants to fight terrorism, it is past time that we take steps to publicly support reforms in Saudi Arabia to prevent extremism from infecting the country's next generation of leaders.

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Toward that goal, we have introduced House Concurrent Resolution 432, which expresses support for Saudi Arabia's education review and calls on the Saudi government to ensure the review is thorough, objective, and public. Most important, the resolution calls for education reform that promotes tolerance. It also focuses on developing civil society and preparing young people to function in a 21st-century global economy.

In a letter to President Bush on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Prince Abdullah reiterated his country's "continued will and determination to do our utmost to combat this malignant evil and uproot it from our world."

Although Saudi Arabia has cooperated with the US on several fronts in the war on terrorism, their education policies are evidence that the country's education system itself remains part of the problem, instead of part of the solution to international terrorism.

It is past time for the US to hold the government of Saudi Arabia to its promise to combat terrorism by calling on Saudis to address the terrorist influences at work within their own borders.

• Jim Davis (D) is a US congressman from Florida and Doug Bereuter (R) is a US congressman from Nebraska.


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