The devastating September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States are being commemorated this week as a time to reflect on our responses to the continued threat posed by radical Islamist movements. The Anti-Defamation League and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change have joined together to produce a pioneering joint study assessing one of the principal intellectual aspects of this effort: education reform.
This joint report, based on detailed and painstaking research, is an unprecedented and comprehensive survey of education reform in the Arab world since 9/11. It documents the extensive calls for such reforms from Arab activists and leaders, as well as from the international community, after 9/11. And it explains how the region’s uneven progress in this area over the past two decades can offer a roadmap for addressing remaining content that contributes to hate and violence.
There is an assumption in the West that Middle Eastern governments have done little to endorse the principle of stemming violent extremism, but “Peace and Tolerance Education in the Arab World Two Decades after 9/11” shows that this is untrue and unfair. Beginning with the first Arab Human Development Report in 2002, the need for educational reform was recognized by Arab thought leaders as a critical step for boosting development, stability, and inclusion, all of which can help combat the extremism that has destabilized the Muslim world and cost thousands of Muslim and non-Muslim lives.
As the report argues, the region’s progress in education reform has been incomplete but important nonetheless. Textbooks throughout the region are now teaching that tolerance is a fundamental Islamic value, an ethos that provides an opening for other reforms in practice. The report assembles positive examples of passages from Arabic textbooks today that model teaching peace and tolerance in practice, such as lessons that address the common origins of our faith traditions, the inclusion and rights of religious minorities, peaceful interpretations of Islamic thinking, and the importance of respect for others and interfaith dialogue.
While there has been commendable progress, there is much room for improvement in what regional youth are exposed to. In nearly every country of the Middle East, government-published textbooks include some inaccurate and hateful messages about non-Islamic faiths and minority Muslim traditions. Some of this content is unambiguously and unacceptably antisemitic. Other problematic educational content includes the continuation of antagonistic and harmful “clash of civilisations” narratives, conspiracy theories, polemical imagery, and in some cases content that may encourage terrorism, especially but not exclusively against Israelis. These materials often sit uncomfortably alongside and contradict the more progressive inclusions above.
One year on from the Abraham Accords and the historic warm peace between Israel and four additional Arab nations, this is surely the time to underpin people-to-people engagement with informed and tolerant education, heralding a new generation of Jewish-Muslim collaboration in the spirit of, for example, medieval Andalusia. The nurturing of a new generation liberated from the hateful thinking of the past can give rise to our strongest champions for prosperity and region-wide peace.
No country’s system of education is perfect, and working together we can continue the progress made over the past two decades. Our report recommends constructive steps forward, such as including accurate information about minority Muslim and global faith traditions, replacing civilisational antagonism with international cooperation, condemning and counteracting non-state actors from disseminating incitement to violence, and entrenching pluralistic thinking and human rights education.
But as this report also demonstrates, incorporating such content into state-published textbooks in the Arab world is a serious test of political will. Technical support may help, but it can only go so far unless government leaders within the region are willing to challenge prevailing narratives, teach accurate world history, and champion a pluralism that includes everybody, even those internal and external minority groups that may be controversial.
No one is born our enemy, and hate is not innate but taught. The people of the Arab world are as desirous and deserving of peace and tolerance as those in any other region. As millions of children and youth return to the classroom for the first time in many months following the Covid-19 pandemic, this is an opportunity to accelerate efforts toward education reform prompted by the tragedy of 9/11.
As the 9/11 Commission Report noted in 2004, “education that teaches tolerance, the dignity and value of each individual, and respect for different beliefs is a key element in any global strategy to eliminate Islamist terrorism.” And as our recently departed dear friend Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observed, “To be immortal, all you need to do is engrave your values on the minds of your children.” Together, we and the people of the region can ensure the values of peace and tolerance are learned and cherished by every generation to come. And hopefully our new joint report can help.
Rt Hon Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
CEO and National Director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League)
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