Saturday, April 14, 2012

Reclaiming the Past: Using Memory and Education to Fight Intolerance and Radicalism among the Youth of the Middle East

What impact will youth have on the future of the Middle East? Most countries of the region are experiencing a"youth bulge" which means that 65-70% of the population is under the age of 30.

Youth have played a central role in the Arab Spring which has resulted in the removal of four of the Arab World's repressive autocrats. Yet youth also serve as government thugs, such as the so-called Shabiha in Syria, provide the cadres for sectarian militias, such as the Mahdi Army in Iraq, and form the core of a wide variety of criminal organizations. Clearly youth are in the forefront of both positive and negative change in the region. What can be done to have positive change triumph over negative behavior?

One way to address this problem is to call upon a historical memory of tolerance and political pluralism which characterized many of the nationalist movements in the Middle East. We should never romanticize the past and, as the title of Thomas Wolfe's 1938 novel, You Can't Go Home Again, informs us, the past can never be recreated. However, the past can become a source of inspiration for new forms of political culture and behavior. Why has the past been so repressed in the Middle East and why do youth know so little about the histories of their countries?

One of the most pressing problems facing youth in the Middle East today is lack of education, particularly education which stresses historical and critical learning. Unless they are part of the small upper class, most youth in the Middle East receive a sub-standard education or no education at all. While many youth do learn basic skills, few learn about the history of their country or the region through a curriculum which is not politicized.

In Saudi Arabia, the secondary school curriculum present a uni-dimensional and Manichean understanding of the world. Under the guise of an "Islamic" education, youth are instead indoctrinated into subservience to the Saudi monarchy and suspicion of the West and its secular culture and values.

In Iraq under Saddam Husayn, a Pan-Arabism was emphasized which privileged the Ba'thist regime and invoked hostility towards the Persians who ruled the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran. In the Ba'thist worldview, Persians had always been envious of Iraq's civilizational achievements stretching back to ancient Mesopotamia. Iraqi students were presented with a distorted history in which Persians purportedly have sustained a hatred of Arabs which spans all time.

In Syria, the state's problems are said to derive from Zionism and Western neo-colonialism. As the regime of Bashar al-Asad has become ever more repressive, tolerance of any alternative political perspectives apart from those approved by the state has disappeared and dissent has been violently suppressed.

Despite the vigor of Egypt's Arab Spring, the military dominated government has recently taken to blaming the country's problems on Western interference. This led to the detention of 40 democracy activists in January of this year which was designed to further stir up xenophobic feelings. Increasingly the country' severe economic problems have been ignored by setting Islamists against secularists and creating conspiracy theories.

The lack of education and the efforts of political elites to stir up xenophobic feelings and use a strategy of national victimization has a detrimental impact on youth. For those who come from educated families, where they have learned more nuanced views of the countries in which they live, repressive state behavior can often promote a desire to emigrate, with the loss of needed human development resources. For youth from poorer families who have limited access to education, lack of education combined with intolerant behavior on the part of the state can lead to hostility to other segments of society who become associated with having created the nation's problems.

Looking at the past, before the rise of military backed dictatorships, such as those which came to power in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Algeria, the Middle East experienced a "liberal era" between the two world wars. During this period, powerful nationalist movements arose to challenge British and French colonial domination of the Middle East.

In Egypt, this movement was led by Muslims and Coptic Christians. It included Jews and other minorities. It emphasized national unity rather than sectarianism. It is true that there was also the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, and Young Egypt (Misr al-Fatat) which demonstrated support for fascism as it gained strength in the 1930s. But these organizations were nationalist as well and never acquired the power of the mainstream nationalist movement. Prior to the military coup of 19532 which ended the Egyptian monarchy, the Brotherhood did not manifest the sectarianism which some Salafists promote in contemporary Egypt.

As I describe in Challenging Colonialism: Bank Misr and Egyptian Industrialization, 1920-1941, Muhammad Tala't Harb, foudner of the Bank Misr and the Misr group of companies, was an extremely devout Muslim. Among his writings was a book attacking Qasim Amin's book calling for the abolition of the veil (hijab). Yet Harb counted Christians and Jews among his closest friends and invited them to his Friday evening salon in the Cairo district of al-Abbasiya.

For most Egyptians today, Tala't Harb is no more than a statue in a square in downtown Cairo (where his date of birth is incorrectly inscribed on the statue's plaque). Few know that he was honored as Egypt's economic leader (za'im Misr al-iqtisadi), and fewer still know how much respect he had for religious tolerance.

In Iraq, the nationalist movement was likewise extremely powerful. As I note in my book, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Egypt, the Iraqi nationalist movement was known for its cross-ethnic cooperation, the associational behavior and vigorous press that it promoted, and its emphasis on the arts and culture as forms of non-violent resistance. What was striking about the nationalist movement was its inclusive character which included Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Jews and all of Iraq's many minority groups.

Certainly, there was violence during the nationalist protest against the Hashimite monarchy and their British overlords (1921-1958). Yet there was also an incredible cultural and educational environment that was stimulated by the Iraqi nationalist movement. With the publication of the journal Sumer, and the expansion of the Iraq Museum, Iraqis were able to connect not just with their Arab-Islamic past - epitomized by the early centuries of the Abbasid Empire and its own ecumenical approach to learning and foreign cultures - but with ancient Mesopotamia as well.

Few Iraqi students (as underscored by my own ongoing research with Iraqi youth) know much about Hammurabi's code, Iraq's introduction of the first known language, Cuneiform, that Iraq had the world's first parliament, and likewise the first example of a parliament exercising control over the power of the state's sovereign.

As Iraq's recent decision to connect the country to a major Internet hub demonstrates, the possibility of disseminating information is not the issue (as it was under Saddam's Ba'thist regime when owning a typewriter without a government license was a capital offense). The problem is the lack of an educational infrastructure that will provide youth with a new way of understanding the past and, by extension, the present and future of the nation-states in which they live.

NGOs and civil society organizations, UN agencies and agencies of states which are interested in meaningful democracy promotion need to address this lacunae among the region's youth, a historical amnesia combined with the lack of being taught critical thinking skills. Creating websites that address the issues raised above, both within and outside the Arab world, could mark the beginning of addressing this problem.