Even with many of the recent positive events in the Middle East—the elections in Iraq and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon are prominent examples—meaningful reform faces a significant hurdle. Changes in the culture of the region must accompany changes in government, and Arab youth are at the center of the fight.
“The crisis is one of a software problem, what is being uploaded in the minds [of young people],” said Mamoun Fandy [pictured], a senior fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University. Fandy spoke May 2 at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.
The attention in the Middle East has long centered on fixing hardware problems, such as building infrastructure and reforming systems of government, Fandy said. Attention to the manner in which youth are educated has been neglected.
The majority of the population in the Arab world is very young while the leaders are growing old.
“The battle for the heart and soul in these nations is being fought on the floors of the classrooms,” he said.
Students in Muslim schools learn of a “glorious” Islamic past that harshly contrasts the present conditions in Arab nations, according to Fandy. Their teachers are often radical, having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s when “the dominant discourse was Islamism.”
Education reform in the Arab world must be comprehensive and may require a cultural shift. “The [solution to the] problem is not fixing one verse of a textbook,” he said.
Fandy stressed the need for critical thinking in Arab schools. “These systems do not have a merit system…that rewards critical thinking,” he said.
Education is not a facilitator of upward mobility in the Arab world where Advancement is based on tribal ties and family networks, said Fandy. “The basic purpose of education is mobilization,” he said, recalling educational programs under the Nasser government in Egypt as meant to create revolutionary youth.
While the educational system has failed many—unemployment plagues Arab nations—there is little movement toward reform. In Egypt, 20 percent of young people are unemployed, as are 15 percent in Saudi Arabia. Among young people who are working, many are underemployed or have low-paying jobs.
“There is no incentive for changing the educational system,” Fandy said, noting that for reforms to occur it is necessary to “undo the apparatus of repression” in the governments.
Muslim youth throughout the world also face challenges outside the classroom. There are 716 satellite television stations, many of which feature low-cost religious programming, according to Fandy. Also, many Muslim youth in the Western world are influenced by radical Islamist thought. Muslim youth in the West, particularly those who embrace radicalism, believe that they are sojourners in their country of residence, not citizens, Fandy said.
Fandy, while not optimistic, does have some hope for the region. In Lebanon, during what has been popularly called the Cedar Revolution, he noted that it was young people who filled the streets.
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.