One of the more pleasant surprises to emergein 2002—an exceptionally dreary year in the Middle East—was the inaugural volume of the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR). That path-breaking document, prepared by a group of courageous Arab researchers under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program, broke the mold of Arab scholarship (and of UN documents!) in speaking about the failings of Arab societies. Titled Creating Opportunities for Future Generations, it highlighted core problems—or “deficits”—in the three areas of education, freedom, and the status of women, and it challenged Arab regimes to change the way they do business lest the world’s 280 million Arabs be effectively shut out of the 21st century.

By any reasonable standard, the report was a triumph. Time named it the most important publication of the year. A remarkable one million copies were downloaded from the Internet. As for the Arab governments at which it was aimed, whether they accepted its findings or not, they had to respond, and most did; some even refashioned their policies to take at least nominal account of the report’s recommendations.

Now, amid much fanfare and publicity, a follow-up installment has been published as the first of three planned volumes on the three “deficits.” This particular tome, Building a Knowledge Society, takes aim at Arab education, a field where there is certainly much to criticize, from mind-numbing rote learning in overcrowded pre-schools to the paltry sums spent on high-tech research and development. Whether it fulfills and extends the promise of last year’s report is, alas, another matter.

Although highly polished, handsomely presented, and often insightful, this report is deeply flawed. Unlike last year’s AHDR, which was largely devoid of political correctness, the sequel brims with it. Whereas the earlier volume rested on impeccable scholarship, this one reaches questionable conclusions based on suspect and sometimes easily refutable sources. Worst of all, the ideas and policies advocated in the report run counter to the interests and well-being of millions of people on whose behalf it claims to speak.

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In saying this, I do not have primarily in mind the report’s highly tendentious view of the United States and Israel—although that view is unmistakable. Whereas the original AHDR paid lip service to the Palestinian cause, this volume frequently cites both America and Israel as sources of a “grave threat” to Arab national security, to Arab dignity, to Arab economies, even to Arab education. The evidence it adduces for each of these charges is ludicrously thin.

The report’s main criticism of U.S. policy is that the Bush administration reacted to the “bloody events” of September 11, 2001 with “extreme” counter-terrorism measures, which, by leading “to the erosion of civil and political liberties . . . diminish[ed] the welfare of Arabs and Muslims living, studying, or traveling abroad.” The net effect of this “cutting off [of] knowledge-acquisition opportunities for young Arabs,” according to the report, was “an average 30-percent drop in Arab student enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities between 1999 and 2002.”

In fact, a closer look at the new AHDR‘s meager documentation tells a different story. The “30-percent drop” is derived from an odd source, namely, numbers kept by a total of four Arab missions to the United Nations—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and Yemen. Of the four, one, Saudi Arabia, sends a disproportionately large number of students to the U.S., and does indeed appear to have racked up a 31-percent drop in enrollment over the years in question; but it also happened to whisk hundreds of its nationals out of the country in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, well before passage of the USA Patriot Act with its supposedly “extreme” counter-terrorism measures. The Saudi story overshadows the other three countries, whose statistics paint a much more nuanced picture, with one—Yemen—reporting barely any drop at all (188 students in 1999, 181 students in 2002).

The larger story, not mentioned in the report, is that Arab enrollment in the United States has been dropping for years. Chief among the reasons for this is the long-term Arab economic recession, which has prompted even “oil-rich” Gulf states to tighten their belts; instead of sending students abroad, many have expanded opportunities for university education at home. Even so, however, it is emphatically not true that America’s post-9/11 policies have driven thousands of students away.

The most authoritative source on this issue is the Institute of International Education (IIE), whose website provides a detailed, country-by-country breakdown of foreign students in the United States. In a survey released in April 2003, the vast majority of U.S. educators reported “no noticeable change” in enrollment from Arab countries. While it is undoubtedly true that many students have encountered bureaucratic difficulties, and some may have chosen other educational options as a result, the AHDR‘s claim is sheer bunk.

Similarly unsupported is the charge that, post-9/11, “the U.S. introduced ethnic profiling of Arabs and Muslims,” and that “[m]any ordinary people were arrested for no reason except their affiliation to Arabs or to Islam.” Although individual Arabs and Muslims may have undergone unpleasant experiences and even indignities as a consequence of heightened security procedures, every airline traveler—from elderly Swedish grandparents to Japanese schoolgirls—suffered, too. In fact, the federal government has consistently opposed the introduction of even commonsensical profiling based on age, gender, or ethnicity.

More alarming than these wholly unsubstantiated charges is the absence of even the slightest acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the fight against terrorism. Indeed, the word “terrorism” itself hardly appears in the text, and when it does it is invoked with derision. The events of September 11, 2001 are described as “bloody,” “horrific,” “fateful,” and “tragic,” but nowhere is this politically motivated, premeditated murder of thousands of innocents called “terrorism.” (The report does not even make mention of the Arab terrorists who have struck Arab countries since 2001.) Nor, in its lament over the “Anglo-American invasion and occupation” of Iraq, does the report even hint at the possibility that the demise of Saddam Hussein might offer the people of Iraq—more than 8 percent of the combined population of all Arab countries—their first chance at real freedom.

Finally, when it comes to Israel, the new AHDR regurgitates charges so egregious that even United Nations bureaucrats—hardly known for their Zionist sympathies—have rejected them. The most disreputable of them concerns the Israeli military operation in Jenin in 2002, which gave rise to grossly inflated claims of a “massacre” and of “war crimes”; the charges, long since disproved by a UN fact-finding mission, are accepted at face value by the authors of the report. And while they find space for a footnote about Rachel Corrie, the pro-Palestinian activist who died at a home demolition in Gaza, one need not bother looking for a reference to any of the hundred-plus Palestinian suicide bombings that have claimed hundreds upon hundreds of Israeli lives.

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Of course, the AHDR was not written for Americans, Israelis, or other Westerners. It is designed as a clarion call to Arabs, to “activate” what it calls “a dialogue among Arabs on ways to change the course of Arab history.” What, then, does it tell Arabs, especially about the state of Arab education?

The diagnosis itself is extremely valuable. “Knowledge acquisition” in Arab countries, the report attests, is bad and getting worse. Spending on public education is on the decline, the quality of education is awful, women’s illiteracy remains at alarmingly high levels, and the Arabic language has atrophied as a tool for creating and disseminating knowledge. Arabs have fewer computers, newspapers, radios, and television sets, and less access to the Internet, than people in virtually every other region of the world. The media in Arab countries suffer under sharp restrictions: censorship is rife, and most outlets, especially electronic ones, are owned or controlled by the state. Arabs write few books and translate even fewer, and, to judge from the number of scholarly publications and patents registered, they contribute far less than their rightful per-capita share to the sum of human knowledge.

Arab states spend billions in capital investment—buildings, factories, machinery, and equipment—but very little on research and development and virtually nothing to promote innovation, curiosity, or creativity. Arab students, and Arabs generally, know how to import technology but not how to adapt and internalize it, let alone improve it. As a result, most Arab countries have been left with aging infrastructure, obsolete technology, and millions of unskilled and unproductive young people. Even the good news is bad: the tens of thousands of Arabs who do succeed in acquiring marketable degrees in medicine or technology or the sciences tend to flee their homelands for the West, contributing to an enormous “Arab brain drain” over the past decade (a fact the authors conveniently forget when complaining about the alleged decrease in Arabs allowed to study in the United States).

So, what is to be done? The AHDR strikes a necessary but deliberate balance, recalling the appreciation for learning that once animated Arab civilization while simultaneously chiding today’s Arabs for their frequent resort to nostalgic appeals to bygone days of glory. Speechifying about past intellectual grandeur, they argue, does little to prepare Arabs for the challenges of today. Rather than “living on history,” Arab culture “has no choice but to engage in a new global experiment.”

At the social level, the AHDR recognizes that building a “knowledge society” requires input from all segments—“decision-makers, the business sector, the civil society, and the household sector” (by which artless term it presumably means families)—and it offers specific suggestions for each. Most importantly, the report breaks new ground in drawing a link between education and freedom, arguing that “democratic transformation in the Arab world is a fundamental condition for the independence of knowledge.” This can only be achieved by guaranteeing the key freedoms of opinion, speech, and assembly “through good governance bounded by the law.”

As for practical recommendations, the AHDR offers dozens of wise and creative ideas to improve Arab education and enable Arabs to become full partners in the information revolution. These range from giving priority to early-childhood learning, to extending compulsory education to grade ten, to developing systems of “life-long learning.” (Given the vast sea of Arab underemployment and unemployment, one wonders why vocational training does not even rate a mention.) The authors outline ways to promote Arab translation capacities, increase public-private partnerships in basic and applied research, and make Arab universities and industries more attractive targets for international investment. And they call for a fundamental overhaul of the Arabic language in order to render it a flexible and accessible medium in which the hoped-for new generation of Arab scientists, technologists, and researchers can pursue their work in their own countries.

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If the AHDR stopped there, it would be, in all these respects, a triumph. For Arabs to be urging their fellow Arabs to look inward for solutions rather than demanding some international entitlement program is an act of political maturity that deserves respect and admiration. So important (and, in Arab terms, revolutionary) is this message of self-help that one is inclined to hold one’s nose at the outbursts of “blame-America-and-Israel first” and simply applaud.

But there is more to this year’s report than that. If one reads the text closely, a different and less attractive image emerges. It is the image of a group of 21st-century Arab intellectuals repackaging old and tainted wine in shining new bottles.

The name of the wine is pan-Arabism. Like Islamism, with which it shares certain characteristics, it is a politics of grievance, whose basic idea is that the Arabs have been victimized—first by the Ottomans, then by the hands-on colonialists of Europe, and now by Europe’s Zionist implant and its faraway American guardian. Mixing myth, history, and tradition, pan-Arabists bemoan the demise of an ethnically cohesive, politically seamless Arab empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Gulf, and view their artificial and arbitrary partition into separate countries as the supreme act of a strategy by foreign powers to divide and rule.

Historically, the pan-Arabists’ solution for this enforced predicament has been Arab unity, sought through ever more radical means. After World War I, the conservative Sharifians of Mecca wanted to create a single state in the Arab East. (They settled for ruling separate entities in, briefly, Syria and then Iraq and Transjordan.) Then came the republicans, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose grand design to erase borders—the United Arab Republic, created in 1958, joined Egypt and Syria in a single state—ultimately collapsed when the Syrians realized that Nasser’s formula for unity meant subservience to Cairo.

While the hearts of millions of Arabs were swept up by Nasser, the minds of many Arab intellectuals were attracted to Baathism, an ideological movement, originally conceived by Christian Arabs in the 1940’s, that infused Arab unity with socialism. Taking a cue from fellow socialist states, Baathist parties seized power by force and then ruled with an iron fist in two of the three great Arab capitals, Baghdad and Damascus. (The third is Cairo.) Ironically, bitter competition for regional preeminence and ideological purity between the Syrian and Iraqi Baath parties eventually produced more Arab disunity than ever before.

To ordinary Arabs, pan-Arabism offered little. While providing adequate bread and considerable circuses, it failed to promote real progress. In numerous areas of public life—from politics to art, from health to education, from economics to national security—Arabs talked about working together, but talk was about the sum of it. The result was a region increasingly defined by Potemkin politics, in which monuments to cohesiveness—the Arab League, the Arab Collective Security Pact, and various Arab-unity projects—were hollow shells.

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As a political movement, pan-Arabism died with the Six-Day war of 1967 and was buried with Anwar Sadat’s journey to Jerusalem a decade later and the subsequent Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel. If the war underscored the emptiness of pan-Arab sloganeering, Sadat’s initiative brought into the open the dark secret that all Arabs knew but did not want to admit—that hard national interest would trump the phantom of trans-border unity. Thereafter, nominal pan-Arabists of various stripes would continue to wield power—in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya—but their rule increasingly centered on survival, not ideology. Arab leaders today may go through the motions, but words cannot blur the reality of Arab disunity, which reached its nadir (so far) with the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the impotence of the intra-Arab response to it.

And Arab political reformers? Although their numbers are larger than is generally believed, they long ago discarded the romance of pan-Arabism for the hard work of achieving local change. Hence, for example, the mushrooming of tens of thousands of groups at the neighborhood, village, town, and provincial levels, groups that eschew ideology to make incremental improvements in the lives of real people.

While American officials continue to talk about the “Arab world,” most Arabs know that it does not really exist. Lebanese have more in common with Cypriots than they do with Yemenis; Tunisians consider themselves closer to southern Europeans than to Omanis. Many Arabs would be surprised to know that Mauritania and Djibouti are Arab states at all.

This diversity reflects the way Arabs in different countries actually live and, properly appreciated, is not only congruent with political reformism but potentially one of the most hopeful components of a future democratic Arab world. But not all Arabs subscribe to it, and intellectuals least of all.

Some of these intellectuals are dinosaurs—especially the denizens of Cairo’s lecture halls and newsrooms who espouse Nasser’s themes of unity and confrontation as though British and French fleets were still steaming ominously toward Suez. But others, including a new generation, have made the transition from old-school ideologues to practical problem-solvers. They have attended Western universities or the local variants in Beirut and Cairo, and have escaped the crushing vise of Arab journalism and Arab academia by pursuing successful careers in international institutions (especially the UN), non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. Through it all, however, they have retained the essential element of pan-Arabism—which is that the 280 million inhabitants of the 22 Arab countries constitute a single nation, forged by history, defined by language, inspired by culture, and driven (for better or worse) by religion.

The new AHDR fits this mold. Even as it condemns the all-powerful Arab despotisms that have sucked the oxygen out of Arab societies for the past half-century, it appropriates some of the same thinking that has led Arab societies to their current sorry state. That may sound like harsh criticism, especially of a group of scholars whose noble goal is to inject the concept of “citizen” into the Arab political landscape. But precisely because people of ideas—from Baathists to Islamic fundamentalists—have a history of setting political agendas in the Arab world, one needs to hold Arab intellectuals to strict account.

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The Pan-Arabist disposition of the AHDR authors is evident in three main areas. First, after their powerful recitation of the faults of Arab education systems, they display an almost Nasserist preference for all-Arab solutions to what in large part are country-specific problems. In fact, they reject attempts by countries to solve their own problems by themselves. “Experience suggests,” they write—without further documentation—“that attempts by each Arab country to belong to the world on its own usually result in that country assuming a marginal and dependent position.”

The AHDR‘s preferred alternative is classically pan-Arabist. It explicitly proposes the creation of “a strong pan-Arab information policy”; calls for a “centrally coordinated regional creativity network” to foster the cross-country study of sciences; and lobbies for establishing “an authentic broadminded and enlightened Arab general-knowledge model”—whatever that may be. In its most sweeping suggestion of all, the report sketches a vast language project to Arabize education, including higher education, throughout all Arab countries.

To the uninitiated, a suggestion that Arabs learn in Arabic must seem both obvious and innocuous. But in many Arab countries, few questions of social policy are as controversial as this one. That is because a sizable minority of “Arabs” are not Arabs. They range from the approximately five million Kurds and two million Turkmen in Iraq to the Berbers of North Africa, who constitute the vast majority of the population in the Algerian and Moroccan countryside, or perhaps 20 percent of all “Arabs.” Many of these people do not speak Arabic as their mother tongue, and do not wish to learn Arabic in state schools.

Indeed, the quest for Berber cultural rights is one of the great swept-under-the-rug stories of the contemporary Middle East. In Algeria, it formed a key element of that country’s bloody civil war; in Morocco, it has led the government to accept, in principle, the teaching of Berber dialects throughout the kingdom’s school system. Shamefully, the AHDR barely touches on any of this; the word “Berber” appears just once in the entire text. Its zest for Arabization vitiates any concern for the indignities faced on a daily basis by millions whose language of choice has denied them access to government-sponsored public services, including elementary health care.

Whence this unyielding emphasis on the primacy of the Arabic language? It is assuredly more political than pedagogical. Arabic, we are informed, “is the main pillar of Arab solidarity, national unification, and Arab cultural unity.” It is also the “bulwark against fragmentation emanating from ‘Information Age Orientalists’ who defend the multiplicity of Arabic dialects.” In pan-Arabist lingo, there are few more damning epithets than “orientalist.” With this dismissive put-down, the authors of the AHDR have loftily turned their backs on the tens of millions of Berbers, Turkmen, Kurds, and those Arabs who use idiosyncratic, local dialects every day but whose vast human potential is presumably of secondary importance compared with the needs of “Arab solidarity . . . and Arab cultural unity.”

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This connects to a second symptom of the pan-Arabist inclinations of the new AHDR. Its authors appear to have erased from both history and politics the mosaic of minorities that makes up Arab societies.

Despite the common perception of the Arab world as a religio-ethnic monolith, the large majority of states are actually multicultural entities. Sunni Arabs may predominate, but the region boasts a kaleidoscope of Berbers, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Shiites, Circassians, animists, and a smattering of Jews. In at least four Arab countries—Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Oman—Sunni Arabs do not even comprise the majority. Only in the heartland of the Arabian peninsula does one find a minority-free zone of pure Sunni Arab stock.

A reader of the AHDR would be hard-pressed to find any acknowledgment of this reality. Instead, a few passing sentences combine traditional Arabist paternalism toward “sub-cultures” with a willful blindness toward inter-ethnic tensions. “Christians,” notes the report, “have a recognized and dignified position in modern and classical Arab culture”—a condescending phrase that amounts to a gloss on the time-honored status of heavily taxed, socially burdened dhimmis in Muslim-majority societies. The report conspicuously refuses to address such contemporary scandals as the exodus and death of Arab Christian communities in the Levant or the enslavement of Christians in Sudan. A reader will look in vain for reference to the intra-Muslim mass murder of non-Arab Kurds and non-Sunni Shiites in Iraq—let alone any mention of inter-Arab indifference to these atrocities. Nor, perhaps needless to say, does the report deign to notice the rising flood of anti-Semitism in Arab countries, whether those (like Egypt) that until recently had sizable Jewish communities or those (like Saudi Arabia and Jordan) where Jews have not lived for millennia.

Although it throws a bone to the idea of “enriching, promoting, and celebrating cultural diversity,” the AHDR is actually an intellectualized endorsement of the old-time, pan-Arabist approach to non-Sunni Arabs in Arab countries—disregard, disdain, and dismiss. (Saddam’s innovative contribution to this litany was to dismember.) This has profound implications for the report’s larger mission: to promote Arab democracy. After all, there are few more important emblems of democratic development than respect for minority rights. While there is no reason to doubt the democratic commitment of the AHDR authors, what type of democracy they have in mind—that is, how “Arab democracy” might differ from accepted notions of the term—remains open to question.

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And this leads finally to the third way in which the authors display their pan-Arabist tendencies. In their discussion of the role of religion in Arab public life, they commit the same sin for which they condemn Arab despots: exploiting religion to advance their political goals.

The AHDR does a commendable job of skewering the sympathetic relationship between Arab regimes and their cowed religious establishments, in which each benefits at the expense of ordinary people. (The report turns timid, however, when it comes to naming individual regimes.) From the censorship of novels to the forced divorce of “apostates,” these two institutions—the state and the mosque—have found common ground in policing thought and controlling civil life. Freedom from these twin shackles, the report rightly contends, is a precondition for entry into the “millennium of knowledge.”

But how does the AHDR suggest that Arabs free themselves from the stifling restrictions of a narrow, domineering interpretation of Islam? At the very moment when one expects a rousing appeal to the universal values of freedom, justice, and liberty—elsewhere, the report makes much of the need to incorporate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into Arab jurisprudence—one finds instead an appeal to, of all things, the Qur’an:

The time has come to proclaim those positive religious texts that cope with current realities. . . . Three fundamental conditions need to be fulfilled. . . . The first is to return to the moral, civilized, and humane vision that stands behind the essential objectives of Islam. The second is to free religion from the sway of politics and to free religious institutions from political authorities, governments, and radical religious movements. The third is to acknowledge intellectual freedom by reviving scholarship (ijtihad) and the protection of the right to differ.

The words sound nice and soothing, but the larger message is jolting. Apparently, the Arab intellectuals who wrote the AHDR believe the only hope for democracy in Arab countries is to beat the Islamists at their own game, by interpreting holy scripture in a way that will promote their form of liberal values. In so doing, however, they serve up a more palatable variant of the same religion-spiced stew that has been dished out for years. Thus, the report contains attractive boxes of quotations in support of learning and erudition taken from the Qur’an, from Muslim tradition (the Sunna), and even from the Bible.

To be sure, the clash within Islam between militants and moderates will determine the future of Arab (and other Muslim) societies even more than the clash between Islam and the West. Muslim voices of reason, compassion, tolerance, and moderation, whenever and wherever they are raised, deserve support and encouragement. But is the AHDR a proper setting for Qur’anic exegesis? Its authors are economists, sociologists, educators, anthropologists, and political scientists, not theologians. For them to base their call for a renaissance in Arab education on an appeal to religion, however moderate and forward-looking, only plays into the hands of those who argue that religion is, in fact, the proper context for defining all solutions to all problems. While it is reasonable for the king of Morocco—the scion of the prophet Muhammad and constitutionally recognized commander of the faithful—to issue a sweeping decree enhancing women’s rights by reference to specially selected Qur’anic verses (as he did in October 2003), it can hardly be business as usual for social scientists in the employ of UN agencies. Besides, if all the democrats can muster to their cause is their religious texts versus the fundamentalists’, the smart money will surely go to the Islamists, whose corner on divine inspiration is rather better established.

In brief, and at its most critical juncture, the AHDR cops out. Instead of speaking up against a skewed interpretation of religion that has poisoned minds for a generation, the authors tacitly extend succor to those who frame all debate in religious terms. Instead of making a straightforward case for political change on its own terms—the inalienable rights to liberty and democracy—it effectively cedes the playing field to the Islamists, thereby repeating the cardinal error of Arab governments for the last twenty years.

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What, in the end, accounts for the depressing turn taken by the 2003 version of the AHDR?

The vindictive diatribes against the United States and Israel may seem self-explanatory, but, as if in anticipation of raised eyebrows, the authors actually go out of their way to defend themselves on this score. It seems, as the foreword asserts, that some unnamed “observers” questioned the wisdom of even issuing a second report, fearful lest “special-interest groups might exploit [its] outspoken approach, to the detriment of Arabs.” But, the foreword explains, the majority of the report’s research team rejected that advice, certain as they were that “to leave the initiative to others would be the more ominous choice.”

Whatever this is intended to signal—does the campaign for Arab democracy enjoy such a surfeit of allies that it can easily forgo the support of those who will be rightly repelled by the report’s babbling anti-Americanism and disfiguring anti-Israelism?—the authors made their choice. Rather than taking the opportunity to inject some much-needed reason, balance, and scholarship into debates that have become intellectual gutter brawls, they chose to pour more fuel on the region’s political fires.

As for their resurrection of pan-Arabism, there is no ready explanation. But the evolution from the first AHDR is as disappointing as it is clear. While the earlier report contains hints of pan-Arabist thinking, its main call was only for enhanced “Arab cooperation,” which in itself is neither objectionable nor unwelcome. It is certainly a far cry from the numbing summons to conformity prevalent throughout the new volume, the effect of which is to obscure the many practical suggestions for repairing Arab education systems.

The Arab lands from the Atlantic to the Gulf are, admittedly, one tough neighborhood. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but these people—or most of them, anyway—still have to go home at night. Even so, the 2003 version of the AHDR is a disheartening reminder that, in the battle to reform Arab society, even the good guys have a great deal of explaining to do.

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