The Growing Education Gap in the Islamic World -
Can the Tide Be Turned?- Part-2
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
twenty-first century civilizations and regional clusters will compete on the
basis of knowledge. Those that excel in the acquisition and application of
knowledge will triumph. Economic influence and military power will be theirs for
the asking. Those that lag behind will be vanquished and marginalized.
Knowledge, material resources and energy are the ingredients of wealth and
power. Of these, knowledge is by far the most important. When material is in
short supply, knowledge can find a substitute. When energy is depleted,
knowledge can generate new sources of energy. But material and energy cannot
produce knowledge. Knowledge is an inexhaustible ocean. Material and energy
resources are finite and exhaustible.
As we scan the globe and project the current trends into the future, China, the
United States, India and Europe are positioned to dominate the second half of
the twenty-first century. The Islamic world, with its oil wealth depleted, runs
the risk of becoming an intellectual wasteland.
Given these emerging realities, what can the American Muslims do to stem the
tide of a growing knowledge gap between the Islamic world and the dynamic
powerhouses of Asia, Europe and America?
The options, alternatives and strategies must fit within a global vision. The
ancients said: where there is no vision, a people must perish. Over fifteen
years ago, I presented a vision for American Muslims which I summarized with the
acronym SEEEC, where S stands for spirituality, E for ethics, E for education, E
for economics and C for cooperation. This article focuses on education.
The American Muslim community is in a unique position to articulate a vision for
the global Islamic community and become its spiritual and moral spokesperson.
Muslims in the old world are hamstrung by their territorial, ethnic or tribal
affiliations. They can speak only for their own nation or their own region. By
contrast the Islamic community in America is a melting pot wherein Muslims from
all over the world have come together and have mingled with the local population
creating a universal community representing the entire globe.
The question is: Are there any social or economic paradigms that offer some
guidance to American Muslims for them to play the role that destiny has thrust
Recently, Dr. Mohammed Yunus of Bangladesh was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for
his work with the Grameen Bank. The impoverished province of Bengal has
historically been at the mercy of moneylenders and loan sharks. A poor farmer
who borrowed a hundred takas (the local currency) often ended up paying two or
three times that amount in a year. Ever since the British occupied the erstwhile
province of Bengal in 1757 and looted it to fill their own coffers, the
sociology as well the politics of this province has been a reflection of a
tension between the moneylenders and the impoverished peasantry.
The concept that Dr. Yunus implemented was elegant and simple. Provide a micro
loan to a poor person to buy seeds for sowing, start a home-based trade, or
pursue a micro business. As collateral for the loan, four neighbors signed on.
By their commitment, the collateral signatories became a party to the success of
the borrower. It was in their interest to ensure that the borrower succeeded and
paid off the loan.
Most of the borrowers were women. The genius of Dr. Yunus was to unleash the
economic potential of the impoverished women of Bengal and turn them into net
producers of wealth. The moneylenders were shunted out. The men, who were
initially skeptical of womenfolk becoming earning members of the family, were
won over. The status of women rose in proportion to their economic worth.
Society was transformed. The power of the exploitative moneylenders was broken.
Women were empowered. Abuse and mistreatment of women decreased. A peaceful
revolution took place based on economic transformation, business formation and
The strategy of the Grameen Bank can be successfully applied to the education
There is a one to one correspondence between chronic poverty and illiteracy.
Poverty begets poverty. Similarly, illiteracy begets illiteracy. Children of the
poor cannot break out of poverty without a helping hand. Children of illiteracy
cannot break out of illiteracy without outside encouragement.
The challenge is so immense that it requires a simultaneous “bottoms up” and
“top down” approach. Although governments bear the primary responsibility for
education, individuals can make a difference.
Under a North American Adopt A Student (AAS) program, those among us who have
the financial means may adopt a student either here or abroad. “AAS” stands for
hope in old Urdu. The stipulation is that the student, once he graduates,
undertakes in turn to sponsor and support four students in his lifetime. Through
this process the tree of knowledge will grow. There is no reason why a hundred
thousand students cannot be adopted from North America. The payback period in
education is much longer than it is in a monetary loan. But the benefits are
many times larger.
Institutionally, American Muslims must work with American governmental agencies
as well as authorities in Muslim countries to further education. There are many
groups, organizations and NGOs in America working for the betterment of Muslim
life. However, the slant tends to be towards politics and religion. I propose
that the focus shift to education. Politics is important but it is less
important than education. The P of politics and the D of Dawa must be augmented
with the E of education.
Wars do not make civil societies. Education does. The way to fight extremism is
through books, not through bullets. The United States, despite its rhetoric of
democracy and civil societies has made a bad situation worse through its myopic
foreign policy and military interventions. The situation in Iraq offers a
glaring illustration of misplaced priorities. Reportedly, the war in Iraq has
cost us 350 billion dollars. Other estimates project the cost to be over a
trillion dollars. If the United States were to invest a fraction of this sum in
the educational infrastructure of the Middle East and offer scholarships and
incentives to deserving students, the Islamic world would be miles ahead on the
road to democracy and the evolution of civil societies. Muslim organizations in
America, working with other religious and non-religious organizations, must
continuously strive to convince the decision makers within the beltway that
education, not military intervention, is the way to democracy and civil society.
American Muslims must seek a voice in the global Islamic organizations such as
the OIC. The six million strong Islamic community of North America and the
twenty million strong Islamic community of Europe cannot be denied a voice in
global forums. We are less interested in the politics of the Islamic world and
more in the education, history and culture of the Islamic world. Let there be an
education arm of OIC whose mission is to eradiate illiteracy. The transformation
of the global network of madrassahs must be part of the agenda so that they
become once again beacons of progressive Islam.
The challenge is huge and investments will be large. An autonomous non-political
arm of OIC is required. A ten-year, ten-billion dollar global plan, funded by
governments, private donations and charities would be a good beginning. To be
effective such an effort must be totally dissociated from politics and must
include representatives from the large Muslim minorities of Russia, China,
India, Europe and the United States. I also propose the establishment of ten
world class international universities of the caliber of Harvard, MIT and
Caltech, funded by the education arm of the OIC, and located one each in
Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria
and South Africa.
Muslim and non-Muslim students from China, Russia, India, the United States,
Europe and Africa must be encouraged to enroll so as to foster goodwill and
I am not naïve to assume that there are no roadblocks to such a grand vision. My
own experience with bureaucrats within the beltway in Washington, DC, has given
me a first hand taste of how difficult this task will be. And the Islamic world
is rife with dissension and turmoil. But continuously strive we must. Allah does
not change the condition of a people unless they change what is within
The burden on Muslims from the subcontinent is particularly large. The Islamic
community in the subcontinent, some four hundred and fifty million strong, is
mired in illiteracy, even more so than the communities of Southeast Asia and the
Middle East. Discussing the possibility of reawakening the Muslims of the
subcontinent and empowering them with the capability for Ijtihad, Allama Iqbal,
in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, wrote in 1931: “The
transfer of the power of Ijtihad from the individual representatives of schools
to a Muslim legislative assembly which, in view of the growth of opposing sects,
is the only possible form Ijma can take in modern times, will secure
contributions to legal discussion from laymen who happen to possess a keen
insight into affairs. In this way alone we can stir into activity the dormant
spirit of life in our legal system, and give it an evolutionary outlook”.
Alas! Seventy-five years later, Iqbal’s vision remains unfulfilled. How can an
illiterate population participate in constructing an edifice of enlightened
Islam? Illiteracy, abetted and reinforced by abject poverty, drives the Muslim
masses into the arms of ignorant mullahs. Let American Muslims in North America
use their privileged position to work, together with fellow Americans, to remove
the blight of illiteracy and lit the lamp of knowledge so that the masses can
reassert their God-given rights and contribute to the evolution of enlightened
and just civil societies around the globe.