Beyond the madrassa paradigm
Posted By Christopher J. Lee Thursday, June 16, 2011

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.

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One Comment to “West Bank is the Cambridge, Mass. of the Levant-rich with secular universities (NOT “madrassas”)”

  • since 1880, the west’s brutal colonization of the moslem world for its resources ahs killed some 15 million moslems… and yet the west still calls them the ‘terrorists’? when ivanhoe left england to fight the moslem moors of spain, the brits were barely out of fur loincloths and could hardly cook anything decent… (still can’t cook decent…) there, they found a moslem culture far more advanced than theirs… and proceeded to destroy it… including burning their already-massive libraries… one had some 40,000 volumes!

    similarly, fanatical xtians are thought to have caused the burning of the library of alexander… a huge tragedy of unthinkable loss of history and culture of the ancients; said to have been perhaps 100,000 volumes, all hand-penned…

    historians will&ariel durant in their awesome 13,000 page history of the world… reported that some of that collection were rescued. one is said to have been discussing the said fact that the egyptian empire (as also stated by greek historian herodotus), actually dated 10,000 or more years earlier than thought…

    it is known that the anti-sexual early christians trashed most of greek nude statuary of their penises and testicles… and it is thought that they also toppled the collossus of rhodes as it was a giat man with a roaring erection under which ships passed. those xtians… don’t let them near your culture

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