Reform Learning to Enable Arab Democracy
November 23, 2016
This article originally appeared in the Financial Times.
To understand the despondent state of affairs in the Arab world today, one need only look at the region’s education systems and how they have evolved through decades of deliberate attempts to suppress the Arab mind. Hyper-nationalist propaganda, exclusionary rhetoric and dogmatic religious discourse have been their defining features. The result has been that generations of Arabs have not only been deprived of a good education, but they have been taught to be narrow-minded, intolerant and ill-equipped for participation in a globalised world.
When new postcolonial states like Iraq, Algeria and Libya were created around the middle of the last century, leaders hastened to fashion education systems where there had been none. National fervour and the assertion of regime and territorial legitimacy became deeply entrenched in education, which in turn became the tool for the imposition of state-sponsored ideologies and militaristic doctrines. Anti-colonial sentiments led to the rejection of most foreign teachings and the adoption of parochial systems of knowledge and values.
Constructing a national identity was predicated on patriotism to the freshly conceived motherland and a shared Arab-Muslim history and belief system. Education was the device for ensuring that this happened.
The Koran as an exemplar of the Arabic language served an important educational function. But this resulted in the infiltration of religious ideology into all subjects, including modern and ostensibly secular ones, heightening an insistence on discipline and control and on acceptance of absolute truths. Rigid pedagogic approaches, rooted in traditional Islamic learning at Koranic schools, required passive methods of rote memorisation and discouraged debate or criticism of authority figures.
Strict — often distorted — interpretations of Islam proliferated, in tandem with the growing role of religion. Saudi education policy, practically unchanged since a 1969 codification, dictates nine hours of Islam and eight of Arabic each week for elementary schoolchildren, but only three for science and five for mathematics. Every section of the Jordanian third-grade science textbook begins with a verse from the Koran.
The use of Islam as a political tool by ruling regimes further bolstered religion’s dominance. In Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to counter the Muslim Brotherhood and to compete with Saudi Arabia’s Islamic weight by defining Egypt as a leading Arab-Muslim state. He therefore permitted the al-Azhar Mosque university to regulate the teaching of religion.
Just as bad education can help explain why the Arab world has struggled, Tunisia offers a counter-example of how good education can help produce a democratic society. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, introduced a liberal education system whose ethos has endured. His policies limited religious education to one or two hours a week and maintained a bilingual system that ensured that students were introduced to western as well as Islamic thought, while keeping religion from secular subjects.
Education was a formidable ingredient in the conditions that enabled Tunisians to stand up against their oppressor, long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and to consolidate the gains of their 2011 revolution. Education ensured a propensity toward democracy and consensus-building.
The trademark of Arab education has otherwise been one of intellectual despotism — discouraging individual thinking and repressing curiosity, creativity and self-expression. Students are robbed of the opportunity to develop reasoning faculties, to acquire sociolinguistic skills, to form their own opinions and to learn to coexist with different points of view and ways of life.
Unless and until these trends are reversed and exclusive religious and narrow nationalistic hegemony over education is diminished, the Arab world is likely to continue its entanglement in intolerance and sectarianism, and to be ill-prepared for democracy.
Safwan Masri is executive vice-president for Global Centers and Global Development, Columbia University, and has a forthcoming book on Tunisia and education being published with Columbia University Press in 2017.