The State Department’s ,Commission on International Religious Freedom announced recently that Saudi Arabia’s continued funding and export of Wahhabism is making the country a “strategic threat” to the United States. Not surprisingly, the report highlighted the role education plays in the spread of Wahhabism. The commission concluded that this puritanical form of Islam is being taught in Saudi schools and universities and being preached in tens of thousands of government-supported mosques.
#ad#This is in sharp contrast to Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor. Traditionalists in the Muslim world who dwell on only the “corrupting influence of Western culture and education” got a shock when the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, and his wife inaugurated Qatar Foundation’s “Education City” at an event that went largely unnoticed in the West. The Qatar Foundation is a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the arts and sciences and educating younger generations. “Education City” is a revolutionary project based on the philosophy that people are the most valuable asset of a nation.
The emir and his wife, who heads Qatar Foundation, firmly believe that in order for the Arab-Muslim world to protect its rich culture and prevent Islam from being hijacked by extremists, a major investment in and commitment to education is essential. They believe that the soul of the Arab world can only be reinvigorated if it recreates the environment that existed 1,000 years ago, during the golden age when Arabs and Islam flourished. While Europe suffered through the dark ages, the Arab world experienced an explosion of creativity marked by an openness to knowledge and science.
As the emir is fond of pointing out, the first word revealed to the Prophet Mohammed was “read.” Unfortunately, reading beyond the holy Koran is not something that has been a priority in the Arab world in recent times. Currently in North America the gross domestic expenditure on research and development is 2.5 percent of GDP; in Japan, 2.3 percent; in Western Europe, 1.8 percent; in Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa, 0.3 percent. In the Arab world is it 0.2 percent.
The emir’s objective is for Qatar to take a leading role among Arab nations in the transformation of this dismal picture by dedicating a significant portion of its GDP to education. If Arab countries such as Qatar embrace Western educational values, the emir reasons, then Arabs can preserve their core religious, historical, and cultural values while simultaneously stimulating economic progress and political reform. This ally of President Bush in the global war on terrorism believes that if democracy is to take root in the Arab world, a long-term investment in the people of the region must be the starting point. Qatar has now begun this effort.
The tenants of Education City, a 24,000-acre multi-institutional campus, are leading American institutions and think tanks. For example, the Rand-Qatar Policy Institute will help build a base for independent policy analysis with local scholars. Furthermore, Rand has been putting together a plan to revamp primary and secondary education in Qatar. Unlike the Saudi model, tolerance of other cultures and ideas is the cornerstone of this new education system.
The Qatar branch of Cornell Medical School will give students from around the region, as well as from the U.S., the opportunity to complete an educational program leading to a Cornell University medical degree that is taught by Cornell faculty.
The latest tenant of Education City is Texas A&M University, one of America’s leading engineering schools. Qatar Foundation has entered into a ten-year agreement with Texas A&M to bring quality engineering education and research to Qatar.
These institutions, and others to follow, demonstrate the emir’s personal commitment to transforming Qatar into a regional educational hub, an incubator for new ideas.
Qataris sometimes refers to their small nation as a “little speck” in the universe. Since succeeding his father in a bloodless coup seven years ago, the emir has started the gradual transformation of this “little speck” in the combustible Middle East into a laboratory for economic, political, and educational reform. Qatar’s al-Jazeera TV station has rocked the media world by being the first Arab news station to challenge the hegemony of the U.S. and British news powerhouses. Qataris have opened their territory to U.S. Central Command as a base from which to combat the threats of the 21st century in the energy-rich Persian Gulf. And, with the world’s second-largest reserves of clean-burning natural gas, Qatar is poised to supply American consumers with the fuel to heat their homes and, possibly, to fuel their cars.
The inauguration of Qatar’s Education City might not have grabbed world headlines but it may well be the beginning of a renaissance in the Arab world that transforms the region from extremism to moderation. This transformation of the Middle East from the politics of extremism to moderation is America’s best hope for winning the war against terrorism. Qatar’s revolutionary initiative of investing in education may be the lasting contribution of this small but increasingly significant country in global affairs.
–S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.