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November 2017

With the recent publication of two new hard-hitting books on the subject of education and Islam, the British Council’s Martin Rose, senior advisor on Cultural Relations, gives his personal response.

The intersection of Islam and education is a difficult place. On the one hand there is a great educational tradition, stretching back to world centres of learning in Baghdad, Cairo, Fes, Nishapur, Merv, Samarkand and Herat, among many others that flourished while Rome was a dangerous, sheep-infested ruin and London a small, unhygienic port town. On the other is the contemporary phenomenon of terrorism and the sense that in some way education is one of its motors, and one key to understanding and defusing it. All the writers in two new books (Panjwani, Revell, Gholami and Diboll (Ed), Education and Extremisms; and Z Sardar & J Henzell-Thomas, Rethinking Reform in Higher Education) propose changes to the skills – and above all the critical skills – that we offer at school and university; and changes to the ethics of education. Such changes would, they argue, alter the landscape dramatically for the better.

At bottom the question is about the purpose of education. Today, education is largely seen as a practical, market-orientated transaction, focussed at the planning level on its benefits to the national economy and at the individual level on its value in terms of augmented earning-power. This ‘neoliberal,’ marketized education has become so universal that we can easily forget that it is really quite new. Today it is a truism to say that a country’s prosperity is driven by the proportional size of its graduate population and that striving for a greater university enrolment is unarguably a good thing. This was not always so.

Between 2005 and 2015 the number of students in the world grew from 100 million to 207 million. In China, which produces over 7 million graduates every year, there is a dire phenomenon known as ‘the Ant Generation,’ large numbers of woefully under, or un-employed graduates living in poverty awaiting opportunity that may never come. Across the world, growth in graduate numbers continues while the world’s economies, already saturated with graduate labour of uneven quality, cannot absorb them all, leaving large numbers marginalised, vulnerable, resentful.

In much of North Africa, for example, the unemployment rate increases with each level of education attained, and this is not unique to the region. It should not surprise us that dissatisfied graduates, their expectations raised by the implicit rewards that Higher Education offers, and then dashed by an unwelcoming labour market, look for ways to express their anger at what seems to them like a broken contract. Across much of the Mediterranean in the last six years, youth unrest has been partly driven by un- and under-employment. That a small percentage in the MENA region and in countries of diaspora, should look for more extreme approaches to this congeries of problems should not surprise us either. 48.5 percent of jihadis from the Middle East are graduates (or had some HE). This is well above the proportion of graduates in the population as a whole. 

Why criticality is critical

Narrowing it down further, Gambetta and Hertog have demonstrated a preponderance of technical graduates (from East and West) amongst jihadis, while finding that graduates in the social sciences and humanities are negligible in number. So the focus of both books on liberal education and the humanities as nurseries of criticality is clear and relevant. It is this criticality, or critical thinking that links the arguments, but also provides the most difficult contradictions.

The focus of both books on liberal education and the humanities as nurseries of criticality is clear and relevant

The link is clear. Gambetta and Hertog suggest that it is the absence of critical intellectual tools, the inability to cope creatively with ambiguity, the predisposition to seek black and white answers, that sculpt the cast of uncritical binary thinking that at its more extreme is open to influence by malign binary ideologies. Of this critical poverty, Sardar writes “There is ample evidence to suggest that science, engineering and medicine degrees in universities across the Muslim world are taught uncritically, without any context. What is taught is not science as such, but scientism – a blind faith in scientific method.” This may be relatively less so in the UK, but Gambetta’s research seems to demonstrate that there is a wider truth in Sardar’s observation.

Throughout Education and Extremisms runs the belief that education has an increasingly neglected purpose well beyond its present job-market orientation; and that only by reversing the rush into vocationalism can we hope to give the intellectual and moral tools to see the blandishments of violent radicals for what they are – simplistic nonsense. There is a trust here that students, given the tools to critique their environments, will for the most part be proofed against ‘bad ideas.’ But there is also a cautious acknowledgement of the fact that those tools are not always welcomed when they are deployed upon the student’s own political and social environment: that there is a permanent tension between education as a tool for creating quiet, conformist Muslim citizens, and education as a tool for creating resilient, intellectually and ethically independent Muslims who will reject extremist narratives. This is a wider truth, but needs to shape discussion of the challenges of educating young Muslims both in Europe and in the ‘Muslim world’ itself.

This contradiction is problematic, and explored at length. Panjwani makes clear the two-edged nature of the sword, writing of “a liberal education for our times, to foster students’ powers of questioning, criticality and imagining egalitarian futures.” Arguably, liberal education is the crucial preventative against the process conceived as ‘radicalisation;’ but equally, it is the toolkit for serious and uncomfortable analysis of our education system and our society. Criticality awakens not just the ‘anti-radicalisation antibodies’ but the ability to deconstruct the society in which we live. It is in other words in itself radicalising, but in a different, more traditional and more positive sense of that word.

This sensitivity is visible, too, across the Middle East and beyond in a deep suspicion of the social sciences on the part of autocratic governments. They are seen as encouraging questioning of the status quo - and thus destabilising. Education reform in the Gulf, for example, lavishes funds on Tertiary Education, but with much greater emphasis on STEM subjects which are seen (simplistically) as more directly relevant to national development, and (wrongly) as less fertile breeding grounds of critical dissent. As an ESCWA report in 2014 put it, “Arab countries that create a hospitable environment for [social science research] are rare. Political repression, censorship and lack of research-based policy hinder the development of such environments.” And it is clear that, while social science and humanities graduates are negligible in right-wing and Islamist movements, they are the dominant force in revolutionary movements of the left, so perhaps there is some explicable caution in this attitude.

Europe is not the Middle East, but traces of analogous attitudes exist. ‘Fundamental British Values’, as defined by OFSTED, and contrasted with the values of extremist Islam, include: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths. ‘Extremism’ embraces vocal as well as active opposition to these values: so that there is a whole area of liberal politics and ethics that may not easily be discussed in other than eulogistic terms without the risk of seeming to express ‘extremism.’ But the cultivation of the intellectual criticality necessary to examine and deconstruct ‘bad’ ideas in class, and outside, requires a confidence in the level playing-field of ideas. The obligations placed on teachers to refer ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’ students to Prevent, whist understandable, could make for an unintended consequence of a playing-field that seems far from level to young Muslims: self-censorship is an ever-present danger.

An Islamic epistemological renewal

The editors of Education and Extremisms are explicit. “We advocate a renaissance of liberal education as a way forward to equip young people with the criticality necessary to interrogate and critique extremism of all kinds, be it religious… political and economic, secular, administrative or governmental.” Philip Wood, in an interesting essay on teaching early Muslim history to young Muslims at the Agha Khan University in London, stresses the use of original source materials, training his students on pre-Muslim Roman and Byzantine texts before asking them to use the same critical methods on early Muslim sources. “Extremism,” he writes, “of all forms, relies on simple narratives that can be widely disseminated because they build on ‘common knowledge.’ Therefore any educational solution to extremism must undermine versions of history that carry straightforward messages of us and them, or good and evil.” Teachers on his course decline to accept hadith – the serially authenticated oral traditions of the Prophet - as historical sources, and refuse to talk about “the facts of history, but rather in terms of course criticism, multiple sources and the balance of probabilities.” This is destabilising but constructive, and radically alters the student’s intellectual architecture, evoking a resistance to such binary banalities. The same approach to self-appointed authorities in Islam is explored by Angus Slater through the work of Khalid Abou El Fadl in demolishing their claims to authority outside the generally consensual body of Islamic scholars. And Daryoush Poor stresses, as central to his notion of criticality, an approach to truth as working hypotheses that are not yet disproven. This approach is a challenging but also invigorating notion in these social contexts. 

Ziauddin Sardar and Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, in Rethinking Reform in Higher Education, start from much the same position on neoliberalism in education and the paucity of critical thinking, and share much diagnosis. They would agree with Sarah Marsden’s crucial observation that “the problem of violence and lack of criticality is not a problem exclusively of the Other: it is about us.” These two writers are concerned with the intrinsic renovation (though there is argument about the vocabulary) of a Muslim epistemology, a system of knowledge, and a confidence in it, that they see as having been crushed out of Islamic thought by the steamroller of Western colonial domination since the seventeenth century. Sardar would like Muslim thinkers to find their way back to the medieval intellectual traditions of those great centres of learning, Baghdad, Cairo, Nishapur, and so on – not in terms of picking up obsolete threads of applied or theoretical knowledge (he is very clear about the bankruptcy of unexamined tradition, especially where it has been superseded by other knowledge), but in rescuing the ethos, the open-mindedness and the criticality that characterised them at their best, so that a new kind of integrated knowledge-creation can occur, that is outside as well as inside the post-Enlightenment Western tradition. Sardar relates this process of epistemological renewal and re-integration to the changing nature of the world, the ‘wicked’ problems that we must solve in the blizzard of complexity that confronts us. Sardar’s central theme is the confluence of the need that he sees for a global paradigm-shift in problem-solving and knowledge-making, with the need for intellectual renewal in the Muslim ummah. 

Like the writers of Education and Extremisms, Sardar is clear about the intellectual suppleness that a good grounding in the arts and humanities gives to a student. But he is also clear that it is every bit as important to ‘humanise’ the sciences, to integrate the values and techniques of critical enquiry, the appetite for and the understanding of ambiguity. Indeed in an ideal world he wouldn’t make the distinction, looking for the purposeful assembly of a corpus of knowledge and its constant renewal that is integrated, open and imbued with religious and cultural values, though not the often concomitant rigidities of thought.

The conclusion is clear. If we want education to work effectively as a bulwark against ‘radicalisation, then we must trust more.

The conclusion is clear. If we want education to work effectively as a bulwark against the elusive matter known as ‘radicalisation,’ or perhaps better, simply as a training in the identification and rejection of incoherent and malign ideas, then we must trust more. “Extremism and terrorism are at their core both ideological and socio-political issues that must be explored critically if they are to be dealt with meaningfully” (Panjwani). Such critical exploration cannot well take place if inhibited by a forbidden zone of the undiscussable. We must be clear that, in Marsden’s words, “Education’s role lies not in enforcing commitment to certain types of values, but in creating a space where those values can be constructed and critiqued.”

Education reform all over the Muslim world, and beyond, poses this sort of conundrum to would-be reformers. Demand for education is growing fast, often faster than it can be satisfied. In Morocco, for example, the population of the public universities rose from 294,000 in 2009 to well over half a million by 2014. Almost the only realistic response to growth at this astonishing rate is to provide ‘more of the same’, its quality diluted, its teachers stretched beyond endurance. Rapid educational expansion without labour market reform, or a deep rethinking of the purpose and practice of education, risks lighting a fire under a sealed boiler. Large numbers of poorly skilled, poorly educated graduates with qualifications that nobody wants, facing marginal employment at best, are unlikely to remain quiescent for very long. Both they and their countries deserve better.

There are of course important questions about the skills needed for the fast-evolving economies of most countries – and the relevance and ‘market value’ of educational qualifications. But for many graduates ‘appropriate’ employment is a dream. And as these two books highlight, there are also deeper questions about the intellectual architecture that education builds: whether they are being educated for employment or (realistically, in some cases) for un- or under-employment, the young need to be equipped with the resources to deal with the world, not just as cannon-fodder in an over-supplied labour market. That means being taught to become reasoning, ethically competent individuals, critically engaged with their societies and political systems, pushing clear-sightedly for structural improvements and personal inclusion. Reform designed with this end in mind will yield a better, more effective and highly skilled workforce and a more engaged, challenging and resilient population. 

Review: (Ed) Panjwani, Revell, Gholami and Diboll, Education and Extremisms: Rethinking Liberal Pedagogies in the Contemporary World (Routledge, 2017); and Z Sardar & J Henzell-Thomas, Rethinking Reform in Higher Education: From Islamization to the Integration of Knowledge (IIIT, 2017)

A version of this article appears in Open Democracy

Martin Rose, Senior Advisor, Cultural Relations, British Council

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