Ismail Serageldin

Speeches


Education for Peace

 16/06/2006 | Petra, Jordan

 

I.  Education in the Arab and Muslim world

 

Introduction:

The Arab and Muslim worlds are very diverse.  Covering a vast expanse that stretches from Morocco to Indonesia and from Central Asia to northern Nigeria, the predominantly Muslim countries show an enormous diversity of local cultures, languages and national histories and experiences.  This not counting the large numbers of Muslims who live in countries that are predominantly non-Muslim, starting with India and ending with Europe, Canada, the US and Australia, where these minorities are rapidly becoming the second largest religious group in their countries.  These vast numbers, which certainly exceed a billion people and may be getting closer to 1.3 billion, are too heterogeneous for any generalizations to make sense.

Recognizing that not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs, the Arab world, with its 300 million inhabitants still plays a very powerful and central role in the world of Islam.  Arabs share some commonalities: language, history and aspirations of belonging to that larger though ill-defined cultural community of Arabs.

Within the Arab world, there are still several distinct groupings possible for the 22 countries that make up the members of the Arab League: 

  • The gulf oil-exporters, who have the resources to deal with an accelerated pace of change
  • The old Mashreq: Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq; with a long history of achievement, facing singular and complex problems today, not least the Palestinian/Israeli problem and the Iraq situation
  • Egypt representing a quarter of the Arab population, as old as time itself and fretting about the need for change
  • Sudan and the East Africans: riven by war and turmoil, suffering dire poverty, and with few immediate prospects for quick improvement
  • The grand Maghreb: from Libya to Mauritania, with the forces of Franco-Arab culture particularly strong except in Libya.

With these caveats, we can highlight several important commonalities:

  • The Arab world is young.  In almost every country, the majority of the population is under 25 years of age.
  • The Arab world suffers from the three gaps identified by the Arab Human Development Report: An education gap, a democracy gap and a gender gap.
  • Arab education systems are weak in the teaching of science and math and the promotion of the rational and skeptical scientific outlook.

Reforming The Arab Education System:

As the world moves into the knowledge based economy of the 21st century, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Arab World, like many other developing countries, must retool its educational and training system (ETS) to better fit the needs of the coming challenges.  This is a continuous process, and no matter how successful past policies may have been, they are not necessarily the ones best suited to the needs of the new and rapidly evolving challenges.  Even powerhouses like Korea are revising their education and training systems to confront this challenge.

The Arab World needs to develop cadres of highly trained individuals of talent to lead the institutional reforms necessary to be part of the new knowledge based economy of the 21st century.  Such cadres will require excellence in training from basic education through university, and must have access to a variety of centers of excellence to carry out the necessary R&D that will transform industry and agriculture and will enable the Arab World to be competitive in the new and fast growing fields of the new economy.

To do this, a major and in-depth reform of the ETS is needed.  The large education system that we have developed in most Arab countries, (except for Sudan and the east African states and Yemen and Mauritania) must continue to function with a primary focus on basic education and the schools’ socializing function, along with a new emphasis on the importance of Science and Technology (S&T). 

In Parallel, a smaller stream of rigorously controlled experimental elite schools would be allowed to flourish on a different administrative milieu.  These would feed Centers of Excellence at the higher education level, where appropriate Research and Development (R&D) would be undertaken to transform the Arab World’s economy.

Over the longer haul, the entire ETS would be retooled to a much more vigorous and institutionally diverse system that works much more closely with the private sector (employers) and where the focus is on ability not certification.  A key long-range reform will be to break the automatic perception of a certificate-employment link that exists to this day in countries such as Egypt.

Some are able to tackle the whole education system in one go.  This is already happening in the Oil-exporting countries of the Gulf, notably in Qatar.  Others are reforming in slices, phasing the reform, starting with a number of lead institutions.

This two-phase solution is necessary to have a manageable proposition to build the kind of human resources that the Arab World needs in the next two decades.  Moving along a broad front is bound to fail as the inertia in the system is vast, and the personal interest of key actors (e.g. teachers giving private lessons) should not be underestimated. However, the immediate focus on a narrower slice of the ETS to create excellence in the midst of mediocrity should not be seen as a substitute for the absolutely necessary longer-term overhaul of the entire system.   It is largely a matter of phasing.

Jordan has led with a remarkable Jordan Education Initiative (JEI), which is now entering its second phase.  Egypt has just launched its Egyptian Education Initiative (EEI) along very similar lines to the Jordanian experience.  In both cases it is the quality of the education that is being targeted.    In addition, the Initiative, which is supported by the World Econominc Forum (WEF) also brings in the best efforts of the private sector and community action to help support the government led reforms. 

This vision of an institutionally diverse ETS, with many types of institutions offering many different types of training, will allow for the constant change and adaptation of the offering needed at a time when lifelong learning will be a necessity and not a slogan.  The backbone of the whole system will still remain the structured, government sponsored public ETS, all the way to the higher education level.  Particular parts of that system will be allowed the institutional autonomy to become real Centers of Excellence comparable to the best in the world.  They would not be subjected to the quotas and seniority systems that have destroyed so much of the Arab World’s public institutions.  

This is beginning to happen in various places: timidly in some, boldly in others.  In Qatar, multi-billion dollar investments are making a reality of the “Education City” with campuses of first rate American institutions and the best of everything for the young Qataris and other Arabs who would study there.  A unique solution for a unique situation, since Qatar is on a per capita basis the richest country in the world. 

On the Jordan education Initiative and other reform measures:

The Jordan Education Initiative (JEI) has been the spearhead of a Global Education Initiative (GEI)[1] intending to bring together the private sector, government and local communities in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) to improve the quality of education.  Educating the next generation is an urgent priority for all of society. For the private sector in particular, it is critical for economic growth and to build a skilled labor force, improving productivity and increasing the purchasing power of citizens.   Education goals such as equity, access and reducing gender disparity, coupled with real world issues such as poverty and hunger pose a complex development challenge that demands a bold new paradigm. This paradigm is one based on collaborative public private partnerships that leverage key strengths of all of society’s stakeholders such as the global and local public and private sectors and community based civil society.

It can be done:

Difficult but essential, the reform of the ETS and the creation of Centers of Excellence is absolutely necessary for the transformation of Arab World.  It must be pursued vigorously, without deviation and with no compromises on the essential aspects of the reform. There are ample examples of successes from many developing counties that point the way.

India’s elite Institutes of Technology and Science are prime examples of how such institutions can flourish in a country that is populous and poor and where social pressure for education remains high.  It can be done. Centers of excellence can co-exist with enormous enrolments in a politicized environment.  The Mexican National University (UNAM) is such an example.  The R&D efforts launched in national centers of excellence can be the real driving force for bringing the government, industry and the university together.  Korea and Singapore are prime examples.  It can be done in a poor country and gradually transform that poor country through growth and development.

The focus on science and math as a key to mastering science and technology is understandable but insufficient.   Economic growth is a necessary but not sufficient component of nation building. Competitiveness alone is not enough. The democracy and gender challenges must be addressed.  These must be addressed in the context of an even broader initiative: the promotion of a culture of peace, and education has a lot to do with that.  Without peace there is nothing at all, no growth, no equity, no environment, no nothing.

In a region such as ours, the promotion of peace is an absolute priority.  Lasting peace, however, will require attitudinal changes of perception towards the self and the other, and the promotion of a culture of peace in all our societies.


 

II.  Educating for Peace and understanding:

The opening lines of the preamble to the Charter of UNESCO states that:

“… That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed… That ignorance of each other's ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war…”

That vision is still accurate, although it needs a new perception.  At the end of the second world war, there was a feeling that if only we knew more about the cultures of the others and saw them as human beings we would not go to war with them.  The stereotypes and derogatory perceptions of entire peoples tended to facilitate demarcation of the enemy, and seeing them as alien rather than as our neighbors.

In fact, the last several decades have shown that the most vicious wars are fought between neighbors, within a single country.  Thus it is not that they do not know their neighbors, rather it is the susceptibility to reviving old grievances, real or imagined, as well as the recourse to violence as a way of redressing these grievances that is at stake.  It is they from the Balkans to Darfur who have “ethnically cleansed” their neighbors with whom they grew up.  It was the neighbors who executed the genocide in Rwanda.

A liberal education and exposure to cultural works may help, but it is insufficient.  Learning about geography and history alone is inadequate.  Education alone is not enough.  The men who executed the holocaust went home to listen to Wagner. 

The issue is how to gear our education systems to help in promoting a true culture of peace.  In Egypt, Mrs. Mubarak, who frequently says; “If you want peace, teach peace!” , is leading an effort to establish an Institute for Peace Studies, to be hosted at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new library of Alexandria, itself a unique institution dedicated to promoting rationality, openness to the other, dialogue, learning and understanding.  The BA, with its many research institutions, museums and art galleries and other facilities, already holds some 500 events a year and receives close to a million visitors a year, many of whom are children.

The intent is to undertake research, welcome international scholars, organize seminars and workshops, revise curricula, prepare case studies, train teachers and activists, and generally promote a culture of peace by teaching of  the values of peace.  Other similarly oriented institutions are in various stages of gestation in other Arab countries.

What are these values of peace?  There are many, but the following would certainly be among them:

  • A respect for the law and for human rights;
  • A commitment to non-violence;
  • An openness to the other;
  • Appreciation of the role of women (UNSC Resolution 1325);
  • Mutual respect;
  • Appreciation of diversity;
  • Dialogue (not debate);
  • Active listening (through exercises in paraphrasing and summing up); and
  • Teamwork

For peace is much more than the absence of war.   It is a condition of security and trust in which each individual can flourish to his or her own full potential and give society and all others the full measure of their talents and abilities.  How to teach these values that promote peace?

 

III.  Teaching Peace:

 

The Education System:

The role of schools and schooling is paramount.  The school is far more than a means of imparting skills.  It has a prime socializing functions at which the children learn to relate to and are influenced by their peers in addition to the teachers.   The school is the locus of many additional activities and extra-curricular programs that aim to develop more fully the young, addressing their physical as well as their artistic development.  In these activities as much as in the curriculum, the seeds of peace need to be planted and nurtured.

Special manuals for assisting teachers and librarians to develop “games” for children that promote peace are important.  An effort is underway in Egypt to develop such a  manual and pretest it in real-life situations in pilot schools in five governorates with the help of volunteers and librarians.

The content of curriculum is essential.  If, as so frequently happens in all the world, the curriculum tends to be heavily nationalistic, then it is not surprising to find that derogatory perceptions of non-nationals find their way into the classroom.  A special effort has to be made to encourage the teachers and the students to value diversity and to teach and learn respect of the other and openness to the new and different.   The content of curricula must be adjusted to address not only the needs of better science and math, but also the necessary attention to attitudes to women and minorities within society and to the “other” beyond our borders.

The context of learning is also essential.  Learning does not occur in a vacuum.  Beyond schooling and teachers who advocate this new curriculum, the other aspects of society will provide a counterpoint to the material taught at school.  Images on TV programs, political declarations, behavior of role models, sermons at places of worship, and other myriad ways in which societal attitudes manifest themselves will be seen and heard by the child.  They will either validate and reinforce the message of the reformed curriculum, or they will contradict it and cause tension within the child, no less than his or her family and teachers.

But whatever we do in the schools, the social context and the nature of the public discourse, the media images and the values taught at home or in the Mosque or Church will play a role in shaping the overall acceptability of the message of peace and understanding.  It will require a society wide effort to bear its fruits.

The role of the teachers is paramount.  Ultimately they are the interpreters of the curriculum and the executors of the policies.  They can reinforce or subvert the material depending on their own preferences.  Thus if religious fanaticism is rampant among teachers, they will use their positions to “brainwash” their pupils even if the curriculum were designed by angels.  Thus systematic teacher training, a proper inspectorate and a nurturing school environment are essential.

The key to effectively using the inspectorate, ensuring the nurturing environment and identifying less than desirable attitudes among the teachers will all depend on the school principal.   Far more than an administrator, the principal of the school sets the tone for the entire place.  He or she can be a role model to teachers and students alike.  That is why education reforms should start with selecting and training the best possible principals, who are the keys to execute the reform effectively, creating a multiplier effect of their training in their surroundings.

Gender dimensions require special attention.  They impact on schooling and socialization whether in co-educational schools or same-sex schools.  One cannot have a culture of peace that does not educate girls and empower women in society.   Full legal equality between men and women is present in Tunisia, from the days of Bourghiba, and recently in Morocco.  Additional efforts are underway to deal with remaining aspects of gender discrimination in many Arab legal systems, but some are still very far behind.  In the non-Arab Muslim World, Turkey is  quite advanced.

However, it is noteworthy that despite the obvious ongoing discrimination against women in many Muslim countries, Four Muslim Countries have had women leaders (Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Turkey) and even in Iran, under the Islamic Revolution, women have made remarkable gains in education and the number of seats in parliament.  All this simply to highlight the complexity of the reality on the ground, with enormous variability from country to country and within countries, from one aspect to another of gender dimensions.

On Madrassas

A special word here is pertinent about the Madrassas or religious Quranic schools.  Manyhave seen in them a form of complementary education that could play a role in advancing education in the Arab and Muslim countries.  We cannot ignore their presence or the readiness of local communities to support them.  However,  they raise serious questions.  Unlike religious education in the western parochial school, these schools do not handle the proper school curriculum.  They focus almost exclusively on the basic skills and the study of the Quran, with exposure to various aspects of Islamic studies, at a simplistic and uncritical level.

To many, there are at least three questions raised by the Madrassas:

  • Do they constitute a separate and unequal education system and therefore are indeed unconstitutional in the sense of universal mandatory primary education being the right and obligation of all citizens?
  • Do they promote the values of problem solving and skepticism that will be necessary for the development of the scientific outlook or are they automatically condemning all their students, whatever their initial aptitudes to a career outside of science and technology?
  • Do they promote tolerance and respect for diversity and the international outlook increasingly necessary to function in a globalized world, or do they promote a closed and bigoted outlook that is unhealthy for the youngsters concerned?

The questions that remain are therefore about whether the Madrassas can be sufficiently transformed to be community schools that are open to all denominations, handling a curriculum that is universal in the country?  And if yes, is that better to do it by transforming the Madrassas or by replacing them?  Or does it make sense to accept a dual system?

On Universities:

Universities and research institutions are particularly important.  Beyond imparting the advanced skills for creating a competitive Arab labor force, it is the venue where most young people become politically aware and active.  Thus the atmosphere in the university is qualitatively different from a high school, where imparting skills predominates.  Learning to learn, and the critical outlook are essential attributes for learning politics as well as learning science.

The Arab countries were given a strong jolt when the Chinese list of the 500 top world universities did not include a single Arab university.   There must be an explicit national commitment to strengthening universities and their research capabilities over the long term: 

  • There must be a concerted effort (supplemented with private funds if available) to offer greater opportunities for tertiary education and S&T-training to young people in modalities ranging from “community colleges” (as they are called in the U.S.) to top-class research-based universities.
  • Local (as well as national) government should develop strong partnerships with universities and industry to plan the development of capabilities in science and technology.
  • Universities should have increased autonomy while seeking to systematically strengthen their ties with regional and international institutions and networks; such links can significantly increase the effectiveness of the universities’ science and technology efforts.
  • Students must be allowed the right to have free access to political activity, and authorities must recognize that political participation is part of the educational enterprise.
  • Research Institutions and universities at large, starting with the Centers of Excellence, should make strong commitments to excellence and the promotion of the values of science in their activities, incorporating unbiased merit reviews into all of their decisions on people, programs, and resources; they should also have greater interaction with society at large.

     

IV.  Beyond Schools and Universities:

 

Education does not occur only in schools.  Thus promoting the culture of peace cannot be left to the schools alone.  It must involve the home, religious bodies, the government, the media and the civil society.

In the USA in 1964-1966, a major study was undertaken at the request of congress dealing with equality of educational opportunity.  Prof. James Coleman and his colleagues completed a massive study that showed conclusively that only about 30% of the variability in school achievement could be attributed to school factors.  Thus other aspects such as segregation, poverty, crime, broken homes, etc. all had to be addressed if black youngsters from inner city neighborhoods were to do better.  The expectation that improving labs or teacher training  or reducing class size would radically change the situation was not supported by the evidence.  The impact would be small.  It seems obvious today to say that if a child from a broken home leaves school to go back to a neighborhood where drive-by shootings take place and where other forms of violence are common, they are unlikely to focus on their studies in the same way that a child from well-off suburban homes with parental support will.

In our case, we cannot expect to fix aspects of the curriculum and ignore the bigotry and sexism rampant in many homes, in the texture of the sermons being preached, in the nature of the public discourse of the government, in the shape of the images constructed by an ever-more ubiquitous media, and in the actions of the civil society.  All must be radically changed if the self-critical outlook, the openness to the other and the mutual respect necessary for dialogue is to be implemented.  The celebration of diversity will then follow, but it will take time. 

The role of the home:

It is a truism to say that there is no stronger influence for good or bad than that which comes from the home.   Hate and bigotry have to be taught .  Children are taught most dramatically by word and deed by their parents.  That is the natural order of things, and when there is a conflict between school and home, it tends to be the values imbibed in early childhood that will re-emerge to the surface even if the teenager will revolt against the home and even if peer pressure during school age seems paramount. Thus it becomes essential to address these problems as societal problems, and not just something that can be taught at school like geometry or calculus.

This is an unpleasant observation.  It implies that so much more needs to be done to destroy the roots of hate and prejudice and plant the seeds of peace and hope in every home and in every family. 

The role of the religious bodies:

The influence of the religious bodies cannot be underestimated.  The Arab world is deeply religious, and in periods of doubt about worldly success, and doubting the ability of government to provide deliverance from daily woes, not to mention a profound sense of victimization, of humiliation at the hands of outsiders, the religious authorities and those who use the symbols and discourse of religion to legitimize their actions, tend to get an attentive hearing.

Today in the Arab world, thousands of mosques are pouring forth a torrent of abuse and venom at the hated other, encouraging fratricidal strife between nationals of different religious affiliations, and generally inflaming an already tense situation.

Fiercely independent, the many small mosques will not easily be subjected to a common discourse.  Nor should they become uniform outlets of a single viewpoint.  But we need an intra-Muslim dialogue about the reality of the challenges that the Muslim and Arab worlds face, and the reality of Muslim doctrine, which is open, tolerant and forward looking.

Yet why do these many sources of Islamic legitimacy proffer a message of confrontation rather dialogue?  Why do they help lay out the terrain for the legitimation of the calls of more extreme persons rather than help show them for what they are: extremist movements?

I submit that much of this has to do with the accumulated anger and feelings of hostility that many if not most, in the Muslim and Arab worlds have towards the West.   That resentment runs deep, and it is accompanied by a feeling of victimization that calls on memories from the crusades to colonialism, to the perceived western double standards in international affairs.     In addition, there is in some Arab and Muslim countries a deep sense of frustration at what they perceive to be the inability of their governments to respond to their aspirations or to stand up to the west.   This resentment and deep sense of grievance has been accumulating like a dangerous store of combustible fuels.  Then small sparks like the Cartoons controversy provide a spark that can be used to trigger the explosion of anger and the ensuing fires, literally and metaphorically, on a global scale.  There were also those who actively fanned the flames to advance their own political agendas.   But on the whole, it is a misunderstanding to try to measure the result to the size of the spark, without trying to understand the accumulation of fuel.

Indeed, just a few months ago, the explosions in the French suburbs that resulted in 18 days of rioting and curfews, did not have a spark that justified this reaction.  But the accumulated sense of marginalization, of the unfulfilled promise of the western lifestyle, distinct feelings of being second class citizens, unaddressed grievances and other issues all provided an accumulating stock of fuel, waiting for the right spark to ignite it into a roaring blaze.

In the US in the 1960s, starting with the Watts riots and subsequently affecting many urban centers, blacks revolted and burned down entire areas of major cities, again with minimal sparks but with vast reservoirs of resentment and unmet demands for justice and equality.

So it is the accumulation of fuels and not the spark that must be addressed.  What is essential is to drain away those fuels and air out the receptacles that held them.  That is exactly what the long and arduous work of those who promote the Dialogue Of Cultures and the Alliance Of Civilizations is all about.    How do we promote all those values through the educational experience of the young to day and tomorrow?

The government

Ultimately, it is governments that will make the difference.  It is they who create an open or closed political arena, an enabling or a stifling environment for NGO action, and it is they who, by word and deed, set the tone in a country.  In addition, they frequently have powerful media resources at their command, and are responsible for the national education system, and the national curriculum.    They set the tone of the public discourse, and affect the media discourse.

Yet despite many efforts to launch Arab reform in many Arab countries, the results to date have been variable and limited.  Declarations such as those of Aqaba, Sanaa and Alexandria have pointed the way, and changes are happening, but not as fast or as far as we would have liked.

Here it is important to underline that:

Reform, and development itself, is like a tree.  You make it grow by feeding its roots not by pulling on its branches. 

So how can the world help?  Not by threats or impositions (tantamount to pulling on the branches), but by supporting education, the arts and letters, supporting science and math with their implicit rationality and skepticism (tantamount to feeding the roots).  How is that best done?

The media

Today, almost anyone has access to multiple sources of information from the satellite dishes that bring hundreds of channels of material, uncensored by their governments.  Yet many of these channels tend to reinforce the negative attitudes towards the other that already pervade society, many advance a pious and even frankly backward looking outlook, while others show video clips of the latest young  singers, and many more have endless hours of talking heads.   Al-Jazeera has made enormous headway as the most-watched channel in the Arab World.  It has openly criticized most Arab governments, to the glee of its spectators, but it never addresses criticism to Qatar.  The entire mix is disjointed and leaves much to be desired from the point of view of promoting the values of peace mentioned above.

The written media is a bit better, with more thoughtful peaces emerging in journals such as Al-Hayat (London) and magazines such as Al-Arabi (Kuwait) and Wighat Nazar (Egypt).  But on the whole, few of these pieces either address or promote the culture of peace, in fact many of them still seem to skirt the issues of peace, true peace, in our region.  The Arab-Israeli conflict is reported on as an ongoing saga of injustice to the Palestinians and double standards by the western powers, especially the US, with no real discussion, much less advocacy, of the means to achieve peace.

Recent liberalization of the media, with many private channels and journals appearing raise the problem of transparency.  The public should be allowed to know who is financing these ventures and to understand better whether biases are there as a result.

The civil society

A vibrant civil Society is critical to creating the open and democratic societies that we all seek in the Arab and Muslim Worlds.    The Library of Alexandria holds its annual Arab Reform event every March, devoted to strengthening the Civil Society, and holds many other events devoted to free speech, the meaning of citizenship and other values.  Many other institutions in the Arab world have also taken up these tasks.   The desired vibrant home-grown civil society is still a long way off, but a start is being made.

It is telling that in Egypt, going beyond the pan-Arab Declaration of Alexandria, the local focus was on reforming education in Egypt.  Three seminars and workshops have been held with major dialogues (or debates) with the ministers concerned in Egypt.  The Civil Society is thus determined to be a major voice in reforms generally and educational reform specifically.

However, questions about funding and international NGOs abound.  Should foreign funding to NGOs be tracked?  Should the activities of foreign NGOs be encouraged?


 

V.  All Knowledge, to all people at all times:

The ICT revolution:

The new century is seeing a qualitative change from all previous periods in history.  The Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) revolution has wrought a profound change in how we relate to others around the planet.  The internet is not just an extension of the telephone.  It is a truly revolutionary new world of connectivity and information.   For the first time we are no longer alone.  We can communicate with others in real time across the planet, at all times.  Transparency becomes possible, censorship becomes difficult and self expression becomes easy.  

But connectivity is growing at differential paces within the Arab and Muslim worlds.  But growing it is.  And it represents the future.  Access to knowledge is becoming increasingly easier and affordable.  Egypt went from 75,000 subscribers to the Internet in 1998 to some five million subscribers today, and growth is continuing in double digits.

Digital libraries can bring knowledge to virtually everyone, everywhere.   Scientists and technologists in developing countries, including the Arab world, have limited access to recent research findings (mostly in journals), to reference materials (mostly in libraries elsewhere), and to databases (some of which are proprietary); and these problems have been exacerbated in the last decade as information streams turned into torrents. The enormous advances in information and communications technology (ICT) have opened up opportunities for remedying the situation as never before, though these same advances have also raised issues of intellectual property rights.

The Arab and Muslim countries should make major efforts to provide adequate ICT infrastructure and trained technical personnel for the promotion of ICT in learning and research institutions and in society more generally.   The proper harnessing of digital technologies is essential not only for S&T capacity-building in the Arab and Muslim worlds, but also for the promotion of access to information from all sources, which is so essential for a free society and for proper governance.  Information begets transparency and accountability and encourages free speech and free expression.

Yet the forces of darkness and hatred have also taken to the internet and use its possibilities for their own designs.   The technology itself is neutral between spreading knowledge and spreading falsehoods, between information and disinformation.  Once more, those who believe in the values of peace and of our common humanity must engage in the battle of ideas for the hearts and minds of a generation coming of age in the era of the internet.

 

 

VI.  Beyond Today:

Identity, Community and the individual:

Beyond today, we can hope for a world where the global and the local are two sides of the same coin.  A world where the essence of humanity is celebrated, and people everywhere can say that: “humanity is my family, the world is my home and non-violence is my creed”.  But what of our sense of identity?

For many, identity is partly religious, partly geographic, partly ethnic and partly linguistic.   All affirm that self assurance comes from being secure in one’s identity.  The ability to be open to the new, to embrace the constant revision of the constituents of our identity as we redefine ourselves in the context of a changing world, all that is part of respecting the other and celebrating our common humanity, so enriched by our diversities.  Yet this idyllic image confronts different realities, where the emphasis on identity tends to promote bigotry and hatred.  For identity tends to create boundaries in the mind to define where the “us” ends and the “them” begins.  It is not enough to promote solidarity within the community, among the “us”, especially if it comes at the expense of our appreciation of the other, of the “them”.  

Amin Maalouf has rightly referred to the “murderous identities” for what they have wrought from Lebanon to Liberia, from the Balkans to Rwanda.  Yet being secure in one’s identity is essential to be truly open to others, to be able to exchange ideas without fear.   Muslims who are constantly worried about the impact of the western cultural invasion show a remarkable insecurity.  Others see that as but one more opportunity for enrichment and for learning, accepting what suits and rejecting what does not.

Echoes of past greatness:

Recall the great traditions of the Muslim past.  The great scholars who carried the torch of learning, established the experimental method, opened unlimited vistas for the human mind, and encouraged skepticism and rationality.   Listen to their modern voice, as when Ibn Al-Nafis calls for tolerance and acceptance of listening to the contrarian view:

“When hearing something unusual, do not preemptively reject it, for that would be folly.  Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies.  Truth is truth unto itself, not because [many] people say it is.” 

--- Ibn Al-Nafis, (1213-1288 A.D.) Sharh’ Ma’na Al Qanun.

 How different from those who would freeze our understanding of the world into their interpretations of a bygone past.  How do we recapture that spirit of openness and self-assurance?  … in a Muslim world that feels threatened and humiliated by a hegemonic west that  defines the terms of discourse and intercourse between nations?  … in an Arab world that seeks to define its future with modernity but is worried about loosing its roots in the process?

Mirrors and Windows

I believe that there are Mirrors and Windows created by the intelligentsia in every society.  They construct mirrors where people see themselves.  They can see themselves as the victims of an alien conspiracy, as the instruments of God on earth, as those with manifest destiny, or the chosen people of God, or whatever other construct.  The intelligentsia also construct windows through which people see the world.  They can see it as a place of danger and risk, they can see it as a place of opportunity and hope.  They can see it as filled with enemies, or they can see it as a place of brilliant diversity to be enjoyed and celebrated.  Through the interplay of these mirrors and windows, the balance is struck between self-doubt and self-confidence, between despair and hope, between fear and security, between anxiety and serenity.   That balance also defines the boundaries in the mind for where the “us” ends and the “them” begins.    A correct balance will not only embrace others by virtue of their humanity, it will also enable people to be at peace with themselves and with all others.

As educated leaders who have a responsibility for creating these mirrors and windows, how do we go about fashioning the wise boundaries that make people free?  How do we promote not only the vision of peace but also activate the forces that will bring it about?

 


[1] The vision for the GEI was conceived during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2003, where business leaders of the Information Technology and Telecommunications Community of the Forum launched an initiative that would create new, sustainable models for education reform in the developing world through public private partnership. The Government of Jordan launched this effort in partnership with the World Economic Forum. The resulting Jordan Education Initiative (JEI) has demonstrated the power and potential of collaborative PPPs to catalyze education reform. Similar initiatives have been launched in Egypt and the Palestinian Territories as well as in the Indian State of Rajasthan.

 


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