The Emancipation Gap in Arab Education

PARIS – Discussion of education in the Arab world has focused only rarely on the role of schooling in changing social and political mores. This is unfortunate, because educated citizens of Arab countries tend to be much less emancipated politically and socially, on average, than their peers in other parts of the world. If Arab societies are ever to become more open and economically dynamic, their education systems will have to embrace and promote values appropriate to that goal.

The gap is reflected in the World Value Survey (WVS), a global opinion poll that allows for the comparison of a broad range of values in different countries. Recently, the WVS surveyed 12 Arab countries – Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Qatar, Yemen, Kuwait, and Libya – along with 47 non-Arab countries. The results allow us for the first time to compare the residents of a sizable share of the Arab world to citizens elsewhere.

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The WVS measures four revealing political and social values: support for democracy, readiness for civic engagement, obedience to authority, and support for patriarchal values that underpin discrimination against women. As a typical country becomes richer, more educated, and more politically open, support for democracy and readiness for civic engagement rise, and obedience to authority and support for patriarchal values fall.

The data, however, reveal that Arab countries lag behind countries at similar levels of development. Arabs have a lower preference for democracy (with a gap of 11%), are less civically active (a gap of 8%), respect authority more (by 11%), and embrace patriarchal values much more strongly (by a whopping 30%).

Two characteristics of the Arab world could explain this: its predominantly Muslim population and the autocratic governments that have ruled much of the region for the past 50 years.

According to the WVS, religiosity does indeed promote conservatism, but not more so in Arab countries than in the rest of the world. Still, given that Arabs’ religiosity score is about double that of people elsewhere, this factor does partly explain the region’s conservatism. But what is more interesting is the role that education plays – or does not play – in promoting social and political openness in the Arab world.

The biggest differences between Arab countries and the rest of the world can be found among the educated. Consider preference for democracy. On that measure, the gap between Arabs and non-Arabs with a university degree is 14%, while the gap between those with secondary degrees is only 5%. And similar effects can be seen for the other three values. Education, it seems, has a weaker effect on social values in Arab countries than elsewhere – by a factor of about three.

Thus, those seeking to foster openness in the Arab world should focus not on the impact of Islam, but on the education to which the region’s residents are exposed. Indeed, one likely explanation of the observed gap in social values is that education is being deliberately used as a tool of indoctrination, with the purpose of consolidating autocratic governments.

Indeed, with the introduction of mass education in the 1960s, education in the Arab world was placed in the service of top-down nationalist projects. Then, in the 1970s, after state-led modernization pushes had failed and governments had become increasingly repressive, education policies were infused with conservative, religious values – first in order to fight leftist opposition groups, and later to compete with Islamic groups on their own terrain.

A review of the pedagogical literature on the region’s education systems reveals the extent to which they have been designed for indoctrination. Most of them are characterized by rote learning, disregard for analytical capabilities, an exaggerated focus on religious subjects and values, the discouragement of self-expression in favor of conformism, and students’ lack of involvement in community affairs. These features are all geared to promote obedience and discourage the questioning of authority.

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It may seem paradoxical that secular regimes were responsible for Islamicizing education. But it makes sense if it is recognized as an attempt to exploit local cultural characteristics to reinforce the indoctrination effort (as has been done in China). Blaming local culture, which societies largely inherit, is not constructive. Recognizing that autocratic regimes purposefully neutralize the modernizing potential of education for the sake of their survival offers a road forward.

Unfortunately for the Arab world, it is a rather narrow road. Elites will not willingly reform education if doing so puts their survival at risk. Civil-society activists will need to fight to change the values underpinning their education systems, by encouraging civic engagement, inculcating democratic principles, supporting gender equality, and promoting diversity and pluralism. Only by ensuring that these values take root in every school will they grow strong enough to change the course of Arab societies.