I recently had a discussion with a friend over an article written by the Economist arguing that we might be witnessing a scientific renewal in the Islamic world. I have a problem with the way the article refers to the “Islamic world” as if it was a cohesive bloc or entity. Indeed what are the common points between universities and the state of scientific research in Malaysia or even Turkey and scientific and technical development in let’s say Mauritania or Yemen? This essentialist approach and the way the Islamic world is regularly analyzed as one entity annoys me a bit…
Nevertheless the article makes a valid and interesting point concerning the development of scientific research in the MENA region. My interest in this article lays more in the analysis regarding the reasons behind the poor quality of higher education in the Arab world.
The roots of scientific backwardness lie with […] rulers, who are as stingy with cash as they are lavish with controls over independent thought.
Indeed, the main responsible for the failure of Arab universities to produce leading global figures is the Arab state. Authoritarian, corrupt and completely sclerotic it couldn’t produce nothing more than a backward and stifling education system. As Brian Whitaker puts it:
Education in the Arab countries is where the paternalism of the traditional family structure, the authoritarianism of the state and the dogmatism of religion all meet, discouraging critical thought and analysis, stifling creativity and instilling submissiveness
This deficit in critical thinking, in soft and interpersonal skills is what many business leaders underline when they interview young graduates. The enormous difficulty that graduates experience when they are looking for their first job can be partly explained by the fact that their academic formation doesn’t prepare them for the professional life and the expectations of their future boss. The ability to adapt, to be able to communicate, to think out of the box are essential skills that young Arab graduates vastly lack.
Moreover, this education system where rote learning and the believing in one unquestionable truth are sacred pillars, produce Manichean students that fall easily into extremist and radical ideologies. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of Al Qaida, is a physician who graduated from Cairo University. Many jihadist fighters that we see as illiterate cavemen are in fact Masters Degree educated cavemen. Engineers, doctors, scientists swell the ranks of violent extremist groups.
Education is a crucial task for the Arab world. It lays at the foundation of every society. With it you can groom future thinkers, businessmen and citizens that will constitute the strength behind the country’s development. Without it you are stuck with a dysfunctional state, a poor economy and a rotten society.