Falling Behind: Religion and Education in the Arab World

Falling Behind: Religion and Education in the Arab World
Falling Behind: Religion and Education in the Arab World
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There are several political, social and cultural factors, which stand in the way of Arab societies from reaching the level of development in the industrialized world. The two main factors are the interpretation and the understanding of religion, and education, which is regressive and impeding making it impossible to accommodate to difficulties of this day. These two factors are the reasons for the seclusion of Arab societies from evolution and modernization. The tragedy of stagnation of the Arab world from human growth and progress, mostly due to the two factors being first religion (in its predominant understanding) and second education (in its current backwardness) have both contributed to the opposition and prevention of any kind of progress towards creativity, diversity and invention of the human mind.

One must not forget the role of the leaders, oppression, and injustice which results in an atmosphere that is negative and impeding minds from being creative. All these negative phenomena are not the problem, but rather its symptoms. The fundamental question that is at stake here is “where do we begin?”

It is important to explain on what is meant by democracy here. Democracy does not mean ballot boxes or elections. In underdeveloped and retarded cultures restricting and decreasing democracy to electoral processes and ballots results is not real democracy. The real meaning of democracy is having a democratic culture, numerous parties, dialogue, democratic institutions, and constitutional and modern laws, an independent judiciary system, low illiteracy rates and finally elections.

Most political regimes in the region expect that when people learn to question religious authorities they will eventually learn to question political authorities. Intellectual curiosity is like a germ it multiplies, it mutates and it moves from one domain to another at a rapid pace.  There are many who live in the region that express the injustices in their political regimes but they seem to have no creative solutions, solutions that emerge from mindsets that challenge authority. Obedience to religious authority often is transformed into blind obedience to political authority.

In discussing education, one has to touch upon religion which plays a major role in our societies. I will start by asking the following questions: is it possible to criticize religious education without offending people or affecting cultural symbols?  The manner as to which children are educated about religion can create a basis of their abilities in critical thinking.

In many societies religious education is a key to adult socialization. In looking at our society, analysts ignore one of the main obstacles which is fanatic religious education. Since spiritual education is in many societies religious education is a key to adult socialization. In looking at our society, analysts ignore one of the main obstacles which is fanatic religious education. Unfortunately, the problem of malpractice in religious education is counteracted since each religious community and each culture pretends that fanaticism exists elsewhere, and not in its own backyard. Dogmatic religious education is not merely an educational issue.

Religious inquiry easily evolves into political inquiry. Fanatic guidance suits fanatic regimes. Most political regimes in the Middle East expect that when people learn to question religious authorities they acquire skill in questioning political authorities. Intellectual curiosity: like a germ it multiplies, it mutates and it moves from one domain to another at a rapid pace.

When children are made to believe that their religion is the only perfect faith, their biased adaptation becomes a problem for their future. When children learn that people of other religions are condemned to go to hell, the god of these children is pictured as avenging. When children are taught that a certain community is evil because their religious leader tells them so, the children acquire the habit of immediate submission to authority. When children are forbidden to question the deeper meaning of a specific citation in their own religion, their intellectual horizon shrinks. Spiritually inhibited children are trained to suppress doubt, and grow up into adults who are incapable of driving scientific discovery and building the basis of a genuine functioning society.

A report issued in 2004 by The Arab Human Development Report observed that “communication in education is instructional, supported by set books containing rigid information in which knowledge is objectified so as to hold indisputable facts, and by an examination process that only tests memorization and factual recall”.

Schools throughout the Arab world teach students to memorize and retain answers; in return the system rewards those who are skilled at being passive knowledge recipients. If this makes those students well-equipped for anything at all, it is how to survive in an authoritarian system: just memorize the teacher’s words, regurgitate them as your own, avoid asking questions – and you’ll stay out of trouble. In the same way, the suppression of their critical thinking turns some of them into gullible recipients for religious extremism. All this put together does not prepare those children for roles as active citizens and contributors to their countries’ development. In recent years, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released three consecutive annual reports about the Arab world. The three main problems that were identified were: limited political freedoms, a gender gap and a lack of orientation towards knowledge.

Adult literacy in the Arab world has increased from around 40 per cent in 1980 to 62 per cent in the early 2000s and school enrollment has reached 60 per cent. This has been a good improvement in education; however, 65 million Arabs remain illiterate out of which two thirds are women.

In a report issued by the World Bank about education systems in the Arab world it disputes that “Arab countries have placed a high premium on forging a common heritage and understanding of citizenship, and used a certain reading of history, the instruction in a particular language, and the inclusion of religion in the education curriculum as a way of enhancing national identity”. Examples of these principles were provided according to the governance in an Arab country. In Syria, education provided an opportunity for the Ba’ath party to imbed its principles to the masses with its ideology through schools, and the party also established an “institute of political science” at Damascus University, providing compulsory classes in political orientation. In Saudi Arabia, education aims at “teach the Islamic faith in the younger generation and preparing them to become useful members in the building of their society”. Without a doubt, these principles have their impact on school curricula.

The Arab Human Development Report- AHDR states that “Textbooks that include politically sensitive issues usually praise past achievements and focus on self-praise in order to teach loyalty and submissiveness to the regime. It is also common to see school books with a photograph of the ruler”.

Without overemphasizing the importance of religious education in building a society, it is important to stress that religious socialization in the Arab world should introduce children to the habits of free thinking rather than position a damper that blurs facts, dulls curiosity and narrows their channels of discovery.

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