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.