CCAS Annual Symposium: The Politics of Education in the Arab World: Past Legacies, Current Challenges - Center for Contemporary Arab Studies | Georgetown University

On March 23-24, 2006, some twenty scholars and specialized professionals were invited to Georgetown University to participate in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies’ (CCAS) 2006 Annual Symposium on education in the Arab world. The Symposium was held in the Copley Formal Lounge and attracted a sizeable audience. The theme for the conference was inspired by recent United Nations Reports on Human Development that attributed the relative slow economic development of the Arab world to its uneven educational standards. As CCAS Director Michael C. Hudson remarked in his opening statement, education has become a “hot topic” in the Arab world and standards of education are increasingly recognized as critical to political, social, and economic renewal in the region. Five panels provided a detailed overview of the evolution of Arab/Muslim education and the challenges that it faces today. The Symposium—dedicated by Symposium Chair Osama Abi-Mershed to the “spirit of curiosity that animates our research and activities” at Georgetown—involved specialists and experts with long academic, theoretical, and practical engagements with issues of education in the region. The diverse backgrounds and expertise of the panelists resulted in the presentation of a wide variety of perspectives on and approaches to education in the Arab world.

The Symposium opened with a discussion of historical approaches to education in the Muslim world: Professor Sebastian Günther offered a scholarly examination of the educational concepts of the prominent Muslim intellectuals al-Ghazali and al-Farabi; Professor Steve Tamari discussed the life and works of the scholar Abdul Ghani al-Nabulsi as emblematic of Arab intellectual life in eighteenth-century Damascus; Professor Malika Zeghal reassessed the role of the ‘ulama of al-Azhar in the transmission of knowledge and ideas via the religious language authorized by their institutional positions; and finally, Dr. Leslie Limage examined the position of Muslim youth in the French educational system in light of the 2005 unrest in working class/migrant suburbs. The second panel considered the impact of European colonial and imperial rule on Arab education: Professor Osama Abi-Mershed examined how colonial schools in Algeria were designed to transform the French civilizing impulse into an operative political reality; Professor Spencer Segalla considered the attempts to resist and obstruct transculturation and hybridization as important features of French educational policies in colonial Morocco. Finally, Ms. Nadya Sbaiti discussed the contest between the French Department of Education and Lebanese schools regarding the primary language of instruction in mandate Beirut. The third panel addressed contemporary education: Professor Colin Brock evaluated the concept of “education as a humanitarian response” and suggested ways in which it could apply to the Arab world; Professor Serra Kirdar surveyed the “educational mismatch” in the Arab world, whereby “traditional” and “modern” methods of education have been ineffectively combined, and suggested strategies for the two to be fused more successfully; Professor André Mazawi examined education as part of a broader project of globalization and development in the Arab world, including the consolidation of geo-political alliances, and offered explanations as to why educational development has not been well received in the region; finally, Professor Nubar Hovsepian analyzed the textbooks published by the Palestinian Ministry of Education in order to uncover the embedded meanings of local identity, as well as the promotion of institutionalized nationalism by the Palestinian Authority at the expense of resistance identity.

The fourth and fifth panels engaged in a discussion of the relationship between development and educational reform: Ms. May Rihani talked about her personal and professional experiences with reform programs in Morocco, with particular focus on the USAID-funded Alif program which caters to the requirements of the job market by developing skills that promote employability and thereby increase the global competitiveness of the country; Professor Dominic Brewer and Dr. Charles Goldman provided an introduction to the work of the RAND Corporation in developing the educational system in Qatar, and discussed some of the challenges stemming from the fast and comprehensive pace of the reforms and conflicting work ethics between locals and foreign contractors; Ms. Margaret Litvin outlined the efforts to enhance “culture of lawfulness programs” in Lebanon, which aim to “foster cultural change in support of the rule of law”; Professor Moncef Ben Abdeljelil examined the teaching of Islam in contemporary Tunisia through a study of the curriculum at Zitouna University, focusing particularly on the approach to Islamic education since the beginning of the reform in 1989; while Professor Eleanor Doumato examined the use of religion to construct identity through textbooks in Saudi Arabia, and Professor Nasr Arif highlighted the difficulties involved in reforming Islamic studies in the United Arab Emirates. Finally, Dr. Michel Welmond presented the initial findings from the World Bank’s flagship report on education in the Middle East and North Africa, and discussed the obstacles to reform and the necessity for increased data on the educational system in order for more effective evaluation and reform.

The symposium highlighted the politically charged nature of education. The ideologies that motivate educational policies and reforms were an underlying theme for most, if not all, of the panels; and while presentations by practitioners tended to be more prescriptive in nature, focusing more on political effectiveness and economic considerations, the academic panelists provided the theoretical frameworks and historical contexts with which to analyze the connections between educational programs and the dominant structures of material and symbolic power. The differing outlooks and approaches provided the audience with wide-ranging perspectives on issues pertinent to education and generated an interesting debate among the panelists. The Symposium ended with an open discussion involving all panelists gathered in a semi-circle before the audience. The open forum allowed members and the audience to pose questions to all the panelists; and, for the latter to engage each other on issues ranging from the need to define “abused” terms, such as “modernity,” “tradition,” and “Islamic education,” to the utility of looking at the USA as a basis for comparison, or for better understanding of assumptions made when studying other societies. Steve Tamari suggested the importance of examining “education in other parts of the world in order to look at the manipulation and the lies…that a nationalist project, like the American project, is based on.” Finally, Ms. Litvin and Georgetown Professor and Chair of the Arabic Department Ahmad Dallal engaged in a debate on the role of foreign NGOs in the MENA region, discussing particularly whether and to what extent they are effective or to what extent they merely exist as a form of cultural imperialism. Professor Dallal deplored the “condescending attitude” held by many American NGOs operating in the region, and called for a more constructive approach of “international solidarity amongst like-minded groups.”