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.

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.

Always, however, there was a strong countercurrent of religious fundamentalism, even in those early postcolonial days. Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had seen the last of his British occupiers in the Suez War of 1956, tried to emancipate women, and instituted subsidized family planning and other progressive features in his model Liberation Province. But Nasser was thwarted by Islamist sentiment that had survived his attempt to destroy the militant Muslim Brotherhood, born in Egypt.

Thankfully, US support for Israel during its many wars with Arab neighbors never destroyed the positive influence of American-style schooling on many key leaders. The region's uneven educational standards are retarding Arab development, as a series of reports by the UN on human development have shown. And US-style education reaches only an elite minority. Low literacy rates, failures of the graduates of many Muslim madrassahs (religious schools) and universities to find jobs other than those in their government or clerical bureaucracies, and low achievement in scholarly research are among the bitter fruits of this unevenness.

"While you Westerners are moving forward into the high-tech age, we sometimes seem to be moving backward toward the Middle Ages," one disillusioned Arab student told me recently.

There are hopeful recent breakthroughs in Arab higher education: lavishly funded universities in the Arab Gulf affiliated with US institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, and MIT. Their curricula feature science, engineering, medicine, and other disciplines needed for survival in today's world.

Saudi Arabian women suffer stifling restrictions; they cannot drive cars, for example. However, King Abdullah has given a $10 billion endowment to the eponymously named University of Science and Technology, now being built in Jeddah. It's the biggest symbol to date of the Saudi commitment to modernize education. Indeed, men and women will study modern disciplines together, often with foreign instructors. The university had even formed major partnerships with top American colleges.

Dr. Marwan Muasher, who came to AUB as a freshman in 1972, is a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan. He summed up the problem at AUB's 140th anniversary observances in 2006, and elucidated them in an earlier conversation with this reporter.

AUB, he said, gives students not only an education. But teaches them to think critically and appreciate diversity and opens them up to the rest of the world.

"Contrary to the hostility most Arabs feel toward American policies regarding the Arab-Israel conflict," Dr. Muasher continued, "AUB is a highly regarded institution in the Arab world." He criticized Arab governments for not following AUB's example "in making moderation, inclusion and respect for diversity their guiding principles." Arab education systems, he said, don't form individual thinkers – they teach children to "think monolithically, one-dimensionally," often breeding militancy and terrorism.

There are growing signs that this message is being heard across the Middle East. Washington would be wise to repeat it and back it with a solid commitment to help raise the standard of education across the region. An important first step would be for the 2008 presidential candidates to make improving education in the Middle East a vital component of their foreign-policy vision. Such funding wouldn't be an exercise in social welfare abroad; it would be a direct investment in American security.

John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, covered North Africa and the Middle East for more than 45 years. One of his books is "Unholy Wars, Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism."

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