Egyptian Salafi parliamentarian Mohamed al-Kurdi created a minor stir last week while testifying before the education committee. He declared his opposition to a USAID program to encourage English language teaching in government schools, beginning in grade two as opposed to grade four. Kurdi found this to be an example of ‘cultural imperialism’ and urged the government to cancel the grant.
The Salafi Nour Party, for its part, distanced itself from Kurdi, consenting to their member’s referral to a disciplinary hearing.
Amina Nossair, professor at the Azhar University, criticized:
‘We definitely should not neglect our mother tongue but I would remind Mr. Kurdi that learning foreign languages was advised by Prophet Mohamed.’
Nevertheless, through conversations with many Muslims in the Arab world, I have felt there is a palpable discomfort with the dominance of Western culture. Many of these conversations were conducted in English, so few would argue the language itself should be stricken from education.
Many other conversations, often in their language, have flipped the sentiment arguing Arabic is the language of God. Exasperation at Western culture is often awkwardly articulated as a desire for the reassertion of Islamic cultural dominance. In these cases the issue is seen as one of struggle, rather than respect for the uniqueness of each cultural expression.
But really, why argue in any direction? After all, who can resist the flow of culture? It is above us all.
Such a statement threatens to undo the reality of education as a shaper of values. It is this which Kurdi is addressing in reality, and reflects why the Salafi Nour Party maneuvered to receive the education file in the distribution of parliamentary committee leadership.
An example more akin to Western sensibilities may help win Kurdi sympathy, along with others frustrated over ubiquitous Pepsi commercials starring scantily clad Arab women.
Rev. Emmanuel Bennsion is the pastor for Sudanese ministries at the Anglican Cathedral in Cairo. Sudanese himself, he has lived the past twenty-four years in Egypt. Unlike many of his parishioners, however, he did not arrive as a refugee. In fact, he was a privileged student selected to study in Zagazig University in the Nile Delta.
‘Privileged’, however, is adjoined to the word ‘politicized’. Bennsion is a non-Arab Christian Sudanese from what is now the independent nation of South Sudan. He explains the independence movement is quite old, and the Arab leadership in the north moved to diffuse it as standard policy.
Bennsion stated Sudanese officials targeted bright students from the south to study in Egypt so as to assist in soft, low-key Arabization. During the 1970s up to 300 students a year were selected for the program. They would learn Arabic, gain a picture of Arab civilization from friendly interactions with colleagues, and increase their sense of belonging to Sudan-as-Arab nationality, even though they were ethnically, linguistically, and in some cases, religiously different.
Is this wise policy to unify a diverse population, or cultural imperialism of the sort which Kurdi would decry if applied in reverse?
Consider how many university students from around the world come to the United States. While many come of their own accord, seeking the best preparation for their fields, US policy actively facilitates many programs to give the best and brightest minds a taste of America. If they stay, we profit from brain drain. If they return, they have gained insight into American freedom and values, winning, perhaps, their hearts and minds.
Cultural imperialism, generous welcome, enlightenment sharing, or mere education? It is not a simple question.
Bennsion continues, however, to give what would appear to be a more sinister Sudanese cultural manipulation. All students wishing to enter government elementary schools must first complete two years of preschool in the ‘Kharwa’. Education here, he maintained, consisted entirely of Quran recitation and study of hadith.
This requirement could be avoided if the student entered a private school, but this was cost prohibitive for many. To receive a free education, all students, Christians included, needed to learn the Quran.
In Egypt, all schools teach religion, but separate Muslims and Christians into different classes, taught by approved members of the religious establishments.
Even so, many Christians complain that it is always the Christians who must leave the room, while Muslims remain behind in the normal classroom. Furthermore, the secular curriculum – science, math, and especially Arabic – is laced with Islamic concepts which all are required to learn.
Of course, Islam is the religion of the vast majority and a major shaper of cultural values. In Sudan, this was subjected upon a non-Islamic geographical region. In Egypt, there is no ‘Christian’ area, though Christians are everywhere. Should not Egyptian Copts simply adapt to their cultural setting?
How might your opinion of such issues shape your response to these American questions:
- Teaching of Spanish versus English-only educational systems
- Mandatory inclusion of ‘intelligent design’ theories in school textbooks
- Providing financial vouchers to poor students to attend private/religious schools
- Allowing Muslims students to absent themselves during class for prayers
- Sponsoring school prayers or moments of silence before football games
- Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, including the phrase ‘under God’
The parallels are not exact, but evaluation of the question shapes the search for consistency. What is the proper relation between culture, religion, and freedom? Must we allow for the other what we desire for ourselves? Or is this itself a sentiment derived from a particular cultural-religious framework?
Even if so, is the sentiment superior to cultural imperialism, whether in its Western or Islamic form? Or does appeal to the sentiment itself reflect a return to the zero sum ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative?
Kurdi, however lamentably, reminds us that while we may flail at unwanted cultural expressions, education plays a real role of determination. Egypt, much like America, is in struggle to set its course.
Sudan, meanwhile, has divided over the issue. Is this lamentable? So much depends on perspective, shaped by education, the common collection of which forms a culture.
note: This article was originally published on Aslan Media.
- Under God and the Egyptian Constitution – July 18, 2011
- Islam and the West, a Personal Reflection – August 20, 2010