What the Middle East needs most
American schools have worked wonders for the region's elites. Now we must raise the standard of education for all.
Torn by perennial conflicts, the Middle East has long been on the receiving end of great pessimism. But today, buoyed by cash from $100-plus a barrel oil prices and stirred by the region's tech-savvy and politically impatient young residents, it's also the subject of a spirit of possibility.Skip to next paragraph
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The big question is this: Is the kind of independent thinking that can breed peace and the gradual spread of democracy likely to grow?
Robin Wright, veteran newswoman and author, projects long-term optimism in her latest book, "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East." She finds great hope in the young people, from Morocco eastward to Iran and the South Asian lands beyond, and their growing use of tools such as the Internet.
The young are impatient with their authoritarian, often dictatorial, or clerical regimes. They're also thoroughly disillusioned with American government policy that preaches peace and democracy, but often takes stands on issues, such as the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they perceive as biased.
That's why it's so important for the next US administration, Republican or Democratic, to set an enlightened US Middle East policy. It should urgently seek to rectify such huge policy errors as President Bush's war of choice in Iraq, or earlier, indiscriminate cold-war-era support for militant and mercenary Muslim fundamentalists during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, simply because they were anti-Communist.
Above all, Washington ought to promote a massive effort in cultural diplomacy by making a massive and liberally funded effort to spread the best features of American-style education throughout the region.
Many Arabs (as well as Iranians, Turks, Pakistanis, Indians, and other Asian Muslims) have enjoyed higher education in the United States. Thousands of others are graduates of the generations-old American schools in the region – the American Universities of Beirut (AUB) and Cairo (AUC); the American International School in Gaza; and the American Farm School in Thessaloniki, Greece, to name a few still operating.
When I first began to cover North Africa in the 1950s, those schools had been producing Middle Eastern elites for many decades. These elites fought France's rear-guard colonial and postcolonial regimes in North Africa, especially the intense eight-year war for Algerian independence.
Arab students were then linking battles against the colonizers – France (in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia), Britain (in Egypt), Spain (in Morocco) – to the cultural and largely secular Arab nationalism encouraged by US-style education.