- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

Public calls by Arab governments for education reform have failed to curb Islamist elements in schools, a prominent Middle East scholar says.

“All of this, on the face of it, looks like good news,” said Mamoun Fandy, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. “The reality is that none of this is happening on the lower level, on the ground,” he told participants in a conference on Thursday.

Mr. Fandy pointed to recent reports that Egyptian authorities have decided to teach schoolchildren tolerance of other cultures — part of a 7-year program to integrate human rights into school books. Egypt has also removed thousands of extremist teachers from Egyptian schools. In addition, Saudi Arabia is also seeking to curb religious extremists in schools.

Mr. Fandy said the whole issue of education reform is more a matter of political will than lack of technical expertise.

“Right now there is no Arab leader that can come out and say, ‘We have a problem in our educational system; we have a problem in terms of our world view; we have a problem in terms of being integrated in the larger global economy.’”

Arab nations have said that reform will only come from the inside and that changes forced upon them by foreign intervention or pressure are unacceptable.

Today, education is primarily seen as a vehicle for nation-building and not for creating productivity in the marketplace, Mr. Fandy said.

The disconnect between education, which praises a glorious Islamic civilization, and the stark reality of their daily lives, produces a vehement reaction in Arab nations to the sense of injustice, according to Mr. Fandy.

“The first order of business is to know which countries you have most tools and leverage on and tell them to move forward,” he said. The United States should publicly support the modernizers in these societies and stop the widespread practice of rewarding extremists.

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