North Africa, West Asia

After the Paris attacks, what role for reforming education in the Middle East?

Recent terrorist attacks are an opportunity to push for crucial curriculum and educational reforms in Egypt and the Muslim world. 

Hania Sobhy
16 December 2015
Demotix/Mahmoud Khaled. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Mahmoud Khaled. All rights reserved.

The day after the November 13 Paris attacks, the Egyptian President Abdul Fattah El Sisi met with education advisors and emphasized that weak education was a key source of extremism and terrorism. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year, he had even called for a revolution in religious discourse

Extremist religious discourses are of course only one element in complex processes of radicalization. Deeper local and global grievances, evolving opportunity structures and individual factors combine with 'extremist discourse' to drive a minority of Muslim youth towards radicalization and terrorist acts. Undermining extremist discourse is therefore indeed a critical component of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. However, even where there has been high profile interest in ‘rooting out extremism from education’, the approach has been largely misguided. Why are reforms missing the point?

In Egypt for example, the focus has been on revising textbooks by deleting texts that may legitimize violence or extremist views. Unfortunately, such ‘reforms’ that amount to ‘emphasizing tolerance’ and listing ‘moderation’ as a positive quality for students to memorize are too limited to have a notable impact. 

On the opposite side of this, there have been calls for promoting revisionist Islamic perspectives—for example, reinterpreting literal understandings of Sharia and the role of women, or introducing a thoroughly universalist or secularized curriculum. However, such approaches would be counter-productive in the current setting of many Muslim countries, as they are likely to invoke a reaction of defending ‘tradition’ vis-à-vis a western plot to undermine Muslim identity. Almost the contrary is needed: a profound restructuring of curricula away from the intense focus on divisive identity issues and critically opening students up to different local and global social and historical issues. A truly ‘anti-extremism curriculum’ is not limited revisions, ambitious revisionism or complete secularization. 

It must be made clear that exclusionary textbook discourses in the Muslim world are in large part the result of global alliances and dynamics. The reorientation of religious discourses towards Wahhabi conservative doctrine across the Muslim world is rooted in the context of the end of the Cold War, the Soviet-Afghan War and the enduring alliance of western powers with the Gulf states. 

Across the Muslim world, these new orientations were actively cultivated in the public school system, often replacing earlier hegemonic national identity narratives. This was accompanied by the proliferation of conservative Islamist organizations providing education and assisting families with educational costs, especially in light of the declining quality of public education. 

Today real change can only take place if there is a will, both locally and internationally, to limit the growth of the Wahabism, which is at the root of IS ideology, and to alter the global alliances linked to it. 

A gradual approach to curriculum change can, however, reduce the susceptibility of students to radical ideas. Without seeking to suddenly eliminate all Islamist influences on curricula and educational decision-making, there is a need to restore balance to education. Curriculum reform should involve a large array of actors; including competent educational researchers, intellectuals, social scientists, historians, literature enthusiasts and creative linguistic experts. 

So what would this look like in practice? First, curriculum reform cannot simply focus on religious education textbooks, which in effect represent a small proportion of religious discourse students are exposed to in media, family and community. Of course it remains positive develop Islamic studies textbooks, as long as this is not only about revising passages on ‘controversial issues’. Rather the aim of such reforms should be to redesign the overall framework— to reduce the dry repetitive content on rituals and prohibitions and instead present engaged convincing material that will strengthen the spiritual and moral education of students. 

It is native language textbooks (Arabic, Urdu, Dari, and others) however that should be the priority for reform. To use the example of Egypt, Arabic language is especially critical because it significantly affects student grades, whereas religious and national education are pass/fail subjects that receive little real attention in schools. 

Arabic is also the subject that has become most saturated with a narrow Islamist orientation, where everything from loving the nation to justice, science and family values is presented within an Islamist frame of reference. Rather than the novels about jihad and conquest that have been taught for decades, Arabic language curricula should equip students with a more balanced exposure to their cultural heritage curricula by drawing on the canon of contemporary Arabic and Egyptian literature that is inexplicably ignored in the textbooks

Overall, instead of only employing the same Islamist frames of reference used by extremist groups, a larger portion of the readings should be framed in relation to the law, the constitution and universal values. Arabic readings and novels should be balanced with content that discusses diverse social issues in Egypt and other parts of the world. 

History curricula should be re-conceptualized to depict local and global history in a more inclusive and balanced manner, including in fact introducing students to other Muslim cultures and societies. Reflecting similar trends in Arab and Muslim countries, Egyptian textbooks offer almost no knowledge of other civilizations and cultures, whether in terms of their histories, literature, culture or current issues. 

Egypt might be particularly obsessed with its own long history because across all years of study, its textbooks hardly make any mention of other countries, from Indonesia to Russia or Brazil. In fact, there is very little content on its own neighbors whether in Africa, the Middle East or Europe. There is only Egyptian history with a focus on its Pharaonic and Islamic eras. Yet this limits student horizons and makes them more susceptible to discourses grounded in Islamic frames of reference and to prejudice and suspicion of the ‘other’. 

intense focus on their own history blinds students to comparative knowledge 

In fact, from a purely instrumental perspective, this intense focus on their own history blinds students to comparative knowledge that can help them think of their country’s social and political problems in light of the experiences of other nations.   

A more balanced exposure to Muslim and world history, with its positive and negative episodes, is critical for undermining supremacist and victimhood discourses promoted by radical groups. For example, textbooks should introduce students to some of the negative historical practices by later Muslim Caliphs, instead of only presenting an idealized picture of Muslim history. 

It is equally important for students to learn about the suffering of various ‘other peoples’ under war, oppression and occupation, instead of only being exposed to the aggressions against Muslims by foreign powers. In practical terms, curriculum reform should introduce at least two courses on 'world history and civilizations' and 'issues in contemporary Arab and African societies', until a fuller overhaul of history curricula across educational stages can be undertaken. 

Within the overall orientation of moving away from a narrow focus on identity issues, social studies curricula could also help students develop keen awareness of critical social, public health and environmental issues. Such issues should not be ‘thrown away’ into civics and national education curricula (to which students and teachers pay little attention in Egypt). 

To have more credibility for students, textbooks must also be honest about negative conditions in the country and acknowledge the responsibilities of governments and the rights of citizens. Students must be able to debate social problems in schools, not only with extremist groups. A course on “development studies/issues” would not be a danger to any regime. It could actually help students realize that the problems their country faces, from poverty to unemployment, exist across the world, including in rich countries. This should be part of a wider strategy of promoting the study of the social sciences in universities, in light of the higher tendency among engineering and science students to be involved in extremist organizations. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, the focus on reforming Muslim education does not in any way imply that there is an inherent link between Islam and violence or extremism. Reforming Muslim education, and gradually rooting Wahabism out of it, is however a necessity in its own right and has a critical role to play in combatting extremism. 

To be successful, such reform should embrace a complete overhaul of how textbooks present world history, Muslim history, social issues and local cultural heritage, based on an inclusive and rigorous curriculum development process. This should be coupled with concerted efforts to upgrade the quality of public education and provide educational support to disadvantaged students to enhance their learning outcomes and reduce their reliance on different- often extremist- organizations outside the formal system. Ordinary citizens, moderate Islamists and seculars alike would welcome such changes.

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