Three Interlinked Problematics

Tarek Heggy.

1]   Identity: On August 13, 1947, the Muslim Indian who went to bed resolved to remain in India woke up on August 14, 1947 still an Indian. But Muslim Indians who chose to leave India and join the new entity, Pakistan, slept as Indians and woke up the next morning having dropped the word Indian from their name and replaced it with a new appellation derived from the word ‘Pakistan’.

However, given that a new identity cannot be acquired overnight, the truth is that Muslim Indians who decided not to remain Indian chose to discard the Indian component of their identity and retain only the Muslim – thereby falling victim to an acute identity crisis. For they had decided to define their identity in terms of only one of its constituent elements: the religious.

How did these Indian Muslims who had cast off the Indian component of their identity fare? Pakistan broke up into two separate states when its eastern province seceded and formed the new nation of Bangladesh. It was wracked by half a dozen military coups d’état and was ruled by military juntas for long stretches at a time. As for India, not only did it not witness a single military coup, but is universally acknowledged to be the largest democracy in the world. Moreover, it developed one of the best judicial systems of the age, unlike Pakistan, whose judiciary has all too often been dominated by the military. And, where India enjoys one of the best educational systems in the world, Pakistan’s educational system is in severe decline, not least because of the proliferation of religious madrasas, the main breeding ground of violence and terrorism in the world. While Pakistan, together with Arab and non-Arab partners, has provided violent Islamic organizations with some of their leading cadres, the sizable Muslim community in India, which boasts more members than the entire population of Pakistan, has remained largely aloof from these organizations.

That is because the Muslims of India who chose to retain their Indian citizenship did not fall victim to the identity crisis that has plagued Indian Muslims who renounced their Indian identity on August 14, 1947. This identity crisis is what has determined the course and destiny of Pakistan and its people, who have witnessed the break-up of Pakistan’s territorial integrity with the secession of Bangladesh, the chain of military coups, the rule by military juntas and the abortion of democracy; the declining standards of education and the lack of an independent judiciary, not to mention the burgeoning seeds of violence and the fragility of social peace. Anyone concerned about the deficiencies and breakdowns afflicting many sectors in societies like Egypt cannot afford to ignore Pakistan’s identity crisis. For Egypt and other Arab societies are going through a crisis that is in its essence similar to the one besetting Pakistan in that both base identity on religion not citizenship.

In 1938, Dr. Taha Hussein published his seminal work entitled The Future of Culture in Egypt. Among the many topics he addressed in the book was the issue of identity. He began by questioning who we are culturally: Are we part of the Arab world, the Islamic world or the Mediterranean basin? We could add yet another dimension to the question: or are we, given our geographical location, part of Africa?

I believe the last six decades have brought about a great deal of confusion in the minds of Egyptians as to just what their identity is. If we were to ask a cross-section of Egyptians today to define their identity, some would say Muslim, others Arab and yet others would reply Egyptian.

The ambiguity surrounding the all-important question of identity in the country derives from political choices at the leadership level. During the Nasser era, emphasis was placed on Egypt’s Arab identity; in the post-Nasser years the emphasis gradually shifted to its Islamic identity. Today, Egypt is in dire need of concerted efforts in the cultural, information and educational fields aimed at dissipating the confusion and ambiguity in the contemporary Egyptian mindset over the critical question of identity.  In my personal opinion, Egypt needs to come to terms with itself, so to speak, on the question of identity. But this cannot be achieved by promoting one aspect of the Egyptian identity over the others.

I believe the most suitable formula for the Egyptian case is a cultural defense of the compound nature of the Egyptian identity, which, like an onion, is made up of several layers. Only such a defense can dissipate the confusion and prevent partisanship and divisiveness. Moreover, it is the only defense that reflects the reality of the situation. There is no doubt that Islamic culture has played a major role in forming the Egyptian identity. But it is by no means the only factor. Arab culture too has played a major role in developing the contemporary Egyptian identity but it would also be wrong to claim that it is the only factor. It does, however, constitute a vital part of our identity. In this connection, it is interesting to recall the late nationalist Coptic leader Makram Ebeid and a current Patriarch of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, great orators both, whose mastery of the Arabic language enabled them to play leading roles in Egyptian public life and for whom Arabic culture is a component element of their identity.

In the final analysis, the compound nature of Egypt’s identity derives from its geographical location. Instilling a sense in the national psyche of the multi-layered composition of Egypt’s identity, with its Arab, Muslim, Coptic and Mediterranean dimensions is the only way to avoid falling into a trap similar to the one in which the Pakistani identity now finds itself.

I can see no better way of stabilising the erratic needle on the compass of our Egyptian identity than through the medium of education. However, we are faced here with a massive and extremely complicated challenge. It would be all too easy to stuff educational programmes with material aimed at giving precedence to the Arab layer of our identity at the expense of all the others. It would be just as easy to churn out graduates with a sense of identity based on religion. But these are options that carry within them the seeds of social fragmentation as well as of society’s isolation from the modern age. The ideal option, on the other hand, is not easy. It would require the development and introduction of educational material designed to teach young people that they are Egyptians first and foremost and that their Egyptianness is the end product of a shared past and common heritage made up of millennia of ancient Egyptian history, of a Coptic era, of Islamic centuries, of Arab culture and of countless influences linked to Egypt’s status as one of the main countries abutting the Mediterranean sea. Difficult though it may be to put into effect, this option is the only one capable of achieving two primordial objectives at one and the same time: the first is social peace and harmony between the various components of society; the second is the ability to join the march of human progress.


2]   Education: The question of education has been at the forefront of a vigorous national debate over the recent period. The consensus that seems to have been reached is that setting in place a modern and creative educational system is the only solution to the problems we are facing in the political, economic, cultural and social spheres, as well as the only antidote to the spread of an understanding and interpretation of religion running counter to science and the realities of the age. But though all agree that educational reform is the key to Egypt’s salvation, they differ when it comes to how best to go about it. Some are unable to see that discipline, though essential in all educational establishments, indeed, in any institution, cannot in and of itself create a modern and creative educational system capable of rising to the challenges of our age. Others see the solution as lying in the construction of more educational buildings. Actually, the essence of the challenge is related to three issues: the first is educational philosophy, the second is educational material or curricula and the third is the teacher.

By educational philosophy I mean the formulation – at the official level – of an answer to the following question: What are our aims when it comes to education? To answer this question we need to come up with what is known in modern management science as a vision. Our vision in regard to education could be based on the following: putting in place an educational system aimed at forming citizens [and a sense of citizenship] in step with the realities of our time, who believe in science, humanity and progress, who possess the tools of research, dialogue and criticism, who believe that science and technology are capable of creating better living standards, who believe in the universality of knowledge and science and who have struck a successful balance between pride in the past of their society and a determination to link their future to the march of human progress, to science and to civilization. The educational system should also aim at instilling in the minds and consciences of Egypt’s youth the values of progress. The most important of these values is the acceptance of criticism, the practice of self-criticism, pluralism, tolerance in all its forms, acceptance of the Other, a belief in the supremacy of education and progress, in humanity and peaceful co-existence between different cultures, in the sanctity of human rights and in the rights of women as partners in the creation of a better future.

It is vitally important for educational philosophy to recognize the imperative need to move from the current educational system based on learning by rote and memory tests to a modern system based on encouraging free thinking, initiative, dialogue and debate and on fostering the creativity and imaginative thinking of students, even if they end up forming opinions different from those of the teacher.

Educational curricula should on the one hand serve the agreed upon educational philosophy and, on the other, respond to the latest innovations in applied and social sciences.

As to the teacher, who is the cornerstone of any educational system, he or she must be capable of translating the educational philosophy into a workable formula for the students and of making the transition from the current educational system into one based on free thinking, initiative, dialogue, debate, research and critical thinking.

3]   Democracy: Despite the theory propounded by some that each culture has its own form of democracy, the inescapable reality is that the essence of democracy does not change from one geographical location or culture to another. The essence of democracy is based on three essential factors. The first is that the ruler should come to power in response to free popular will. The second is that the ruler should govern in accordance with constitutional rules and be answerable to the people during and beyond his term in office. The third is that the ruler should leave office in a constitutional manner and that his term or terms should not extend in perpetuity.

Undemocratic forces in many societies pay lip service to the formal aspects of democracy by holding elections. But real democracy is not a question of elections as such but the step-by-step process of selection from beginning to end. It is a modern constitution in mature civil societies with solid institutions, parties enjoying equal rights, duties and opportunities, an independent judiciary, systems that guarantee transparency and mass media that rise above finger-pointing scandal mongering and finally, the voting process.

There is an obvious dialectical relationship between the issues of identity and education on the one hand and the issue of democracy on the other. Confusion in the area of identity can have a severe adverse effect on the process of selection that is at the heart of democracy. The same applies in regard to education. A modern educational system based on developing creativity, free thinking and critical faculties is what can transform the democratic process from a formalistic framework into a genuine tool for translating selection into decision.

* Translated from Arabic into English by Tarek Heggy.

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