The Middle East Channel

Beyond the madrassa paradigm

Since September 11, 2001, the word "madrassa" has become one of a few select terms of Islamic origin that have entered the mainstream American political lexicon. Prosaically referring to an institution of Islamic religious education, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell first employed it to locate the "breeding grounds" of radical Islam. It has since been ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Since September 11, 2001, the word "madrassa" has become one of a few select terms of Islamic origin that have entered the mainstream American political lexicon. Prosaically referring to an institution of Islamic religious education, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell first employed it to locate the "breeding grounds" of radical Islam. It has since been applied incorrectly by right-wing critics to President Barack Obama’s childhood education in Indonesia, continuing its misinformed, pejorative use. In short, the expression "madrassa" has become synonymous with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. More acutely, it has come to characterize education and institutions of higher learning across the Middle East and the Islamic world, from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

But what can be said about secular education across this stretch of the globe? I recently spent a week touring several universities in the West Bank within the Occupied Territories under the governance of the Palestinian Authority, where each town, it seems, has its own university. These small cities, which individually have no more than 200,000 residents, include Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Ramallah, where the Palestinian government is seated. When traffic is scarce and Israeli checkpoints are manageable, each city and its university are less than an hour’s drive from one another. Think of this small, dense area, then, as the Cambridge, Massachusetts of the Levant or, with its small, rolling mountains, the Pioneer Valley of Palestine, with its own version of a five-college consortium paralleling Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts.

With the exception of Bethlehem University, an institution affiliated with the Catholic Church, all of the universities I visited are secular. All offer bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees across a range of disciplinary fields. Though only one institution, An-Najah National University in Nablus, offers a Ph.D. degree, a program in chemistry established in 1996, many have master’s degree programs. They also range in student size from a U.S. liberal arts college-level enrollment of approximately 3,000 students at Bethlehem, to roughly 7,000 students at Birzeit University, to a robust 20,000 students at An-Najah, the UMass-Amherst of the group in terms of size and institutional capacity. Remarkably, many of the students are women, totaling 54 percent of the study body at Birzeit, for example, and over 70 percent at Bethlehem and Hebron Universities. Finally, contrary to stereotype, a number of Palestinian students are Christian.

But the most significant quality among these schools is the level of active investment being made into their programs and infrastructure. With the exception of Hebron, each of these universities is attracting donations through a method that would be familiar to many university presidents in the United States. To walk across the campus of Birzeit is to see new buildings encased in modern architectural features of glass and stonework, with the names of prominent donors inscribed across the front. These donors are mostly Palestinian, with many having earned their considerable wealth working in the Persian Gulf, an economic consequence of the diaspora created through years of conflict and displacement.

This recent infusion of capital should not be read, however, as a newfound appreciation for education. Although formalized as a university in 1973, Bethlehem’s origins date to the establishment of a missionary boys’ school in 1893. Birzeit similarly began with humble origins as a village school for girls in 1924. Such longevity of institution-building has since been balanced with an appreciation for the challenges of the present. Business and economic development courses are among the most popular, while Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem has initiated an American Studies program and an Israeli Studies program, the only one of its kind in the Arab world. These endeavors point to a general ambition across these universities that is not only forward-looking, but informed with a pragmatism regarding the social and political complexities of the present and future.

Yet, as with many aspects of life within the West Bank, vulnerabilities and general uncertainty remain. Despite investment in infrastructure, endowments appear to be next to nothing, with tuition allocations providing much of the income for annual budgets. More significant, these universities have not been immune to the ongoing political situation. Students face recurring difficulties with commuting to school through roadblocks and checkpoints. During the brief Israeli invasion of Bethlehem in 2002, for instance, two buildings on the university campus there were hit by missile strikes.

The larger point to be made, though, is that, despite such setbacks, enrollment continues, a reflection of the importance of education and, indeed, its valued portability for a people that have faced the predicament of displacement for six decades. In sum, these institutions represent and continue to cultivate vital intellectual capital, a resource that contains not only the potential to transform individual lives, but local communities throughout the West Bank.  

Wa’ed, a senior at Birzeit, tells me over dinner how she spent the previous summer in Boston on an internship and how she has been accepted into an MBA program at Babson College. She relays her plans to me with the exuberance of any 22-year old woman who has a sense of her future and the positive possibilities it contains.

With the Obama administration’s attempt at renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, stories like hers and the presence and influence of universities in Palestine should be kept in mind. We need to think beyond the madrassa paradigm and instead strengthen existing secular institutions of higher learning throughout the region, given their ability to provide a stable foundation for social, economic, and civic development.

Security as a step toward peace should not be defined solely in military terms, but, in the end, should involve broader ideas of civil society and individual well-being, for all of the region’s inhabitants. 

Christopher J. Lee is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was recently a faculty fellow of the Palestinian American Research Center, an affiliate of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers.

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