Tunisia marked the seventh anniversary of its Jasmine Revolution in January with large protests in response to new austerity measures, similar to those that followed the self-immolation of a street vendor in December 2010 that first set the region on fire. This year’s protests also turned violent. Security forces arrested 930 demonstrators — a worrying sign that the only Arab country to manage a somewhat successful transition to democracy may be starting to unravel.

Kim Ghattas
Kim Ghattas was a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
More >

But Safwan Masri, a Columbia University scholar on education in the Arab world, sees it differently. For him, the protests are a sign that democracy is alive and well in Tunisia, as Tunisians use their newfound rights to hold their elected leaders accountable. 

Masri’s new book, Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly (Columbia University Press, 416 pp., $35), explores the factors that allowed the country to succeed, albeit in a still-tenuous way, where others have failed. He credits Tunisia’s progress to its size and location, its fairly homogenous population, its long history of reform and liberal thought, and finally to Habib Bourguiba, the enlightened dictator who founded the nation and ruled for almost 30 years. This unique confluence of factors, Masri argues, is what allowed democracy to take root in Tunisia.

But one key factor stands out above all others — and it is one that Tunisia’s neighbors must learn from. In the best chapter of Masri’s book, he details how the country’s strong, secular education system and diverse school curriculums have fostered openness, critical thinking, and debate. The education system, he argues, allowed people to ask “why” even during the time of dictatorship and endowed Tunisian society with a foundation to build on after the fall of the despot.

Much has been written about the stifling impact of rote learning on innovation and critical thinking in the Arab world. The overcrowded and underfunded education systems across the region produce young adults who are woefully unprepared for the modern job market. Masri identifies some of the underlying societal factors that perpetuate this trend and ties it to what he describes as the “closing of the Arab mind.”

From Saudi Arabia to Libya, Jordan to Egypt, Masri writes, education systems are weighed down by religious or nationalist dogma. For the last few decades, young Arabs haven’t been taught to question the religious or political system; they’re simply expected to submit to authority instead. After years of authoritarian rule and the ever-growing influence of religion on the education sector — a combination Masri calls “intellectual despotism” — the muscle of critical thinking has atrophied.

Long gone are the days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the region witnessed a cultural and literary revival and engaged in public debates, led by reformist thinkers such as Muhammad Abduh and Taha Hussein, about the role of religion in society.

Tunisia has been the exception to this stultifying trend. Following independence from France, Bourguiba, who ran the country from 1956 to 1987, invested heavily in building up the country’s education system, maintaining bilingualism in schools, limiting religion studies to two hours a week, devoting close to 35 percent of the government’s budget to education, and appointing a playwright, Mahmoud Messadi, as minister of education. (The pursuit of a secular state did come with heavy repression, including forcing women to remove their hijabs.)

Meanwhile, countries such as Libya, Iraq, Algeria, and Syria, with ostensibly secular military rulers, imposed party doctrine and the cult of a leader, banned the teaching of foreign languages, and often spent more than half their budgets on defense. In Libya, students devoted hours to singing songs about the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi or studying his infamous Green Book, a collection of random thoughts and teachings dressed as political theory. Even after the removal of Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, not enough attention or resources were devoted to overhauling those countries’ education systems, particularly when it came to undoing ingrained rote learning.

In countries such as Jordan and Egypt, rulers used Islam to cement their hold on power but found they couldn’t counter the power of Islamists. In Jordan, King Hussein appointed the founder of the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood as education minister in the 1970s. Verses from the Quran can even be found in science textbooks there, much as creationism is still taught in some American schools. When the Jordanian Education Ministry recently tried to lessen this religious slant, even the teachers’ association protested, decrying what it described as damage to Islamic values and urging educators to ignore the new textbooks.

Literature and philosophy, subjects that feed questioning minds and open new horizons, are absent in most curriculums around the region. In Saudi Arabia, Masri writes, “[b]etween 20 and 30 percent of weekly hours at the primary and secondary school levels are dedicated to [religious study].” And that’s without counting history and Arabic-language classes, which are shaped by religion.

In an interview over breakfast in Beirut, Masri identifies a third factor that contributed to the decline of critical thinking: the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arab leaders, he says, “hijacked” the conflict for their own purposes, using it to silence dissent and alter history books to impose state-sanctioned narratives that explain away Arab defeats in the face of Israel. “When it comes to Israel and Palestine, there is no debate, there is no questioning. There is black and white,” he says. “Where did we learn to look critically at the history leading to 1948? Where did we learn about the mistakes of [the defeat of] 1967?”

Not everything is perfect in Tunisia, of course. The education system suffered during Bourguiba’s final years and under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in January 2011. During the 1980s, religion crept in, academic standards lowered, and the pursuit of high university enrollment came at the expense of quality. The disconnect between an education system built in the middle of the 20th century and the changing job market resulted in rising unemployment. Still, the basic progressive education established by Bourguiba has survived, and the system is now set for an overhaul that is expected to improve the quality of teacher training, upgrade the curriculum, and promote more research, with an expanded estimated budget of $2 billion.

Young Arabs in the region may look at Tunisia with envy, but Masri is not optimistic that other Arab leaders have the time and political will to truly reform their own education systems. He points to Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is busy changing the education sector with infrastructure improvements and more digital training for teachers. But changes to the actual curriculum are still sorely lagging behind. As Jordan’s example showed, reforming the curriculum requires facing down Islamists and the clerical establishment, a risk most rulers aren’t willing to take, according to Masri, lest their Islamic credentials come into question.

The role of religion in education will not be easy to roll back. This remains true even though more than half of young Arabs today say religion plays too big a role in the Middle East and a majority complain that the education they are receiving does not prepare them for the jobs of the future, according to the 2016 Arab Youth Survey by Asdaa Burson-Marsteller.

While they wait for their leaders to effect change, young Arabs are taking matters into their own hands. One such initiative is Afikra — a play on words for the Arabic expression for “on second thought” — which hosts a monthly salon-style event of presentations that encourages participants to question accepted truths and customs.

Launched in Brooklyn in 2014, Afikra is the brainchild of Mikey Muhanna, a 32-year-old former public high school teacher in New Orleans, who then lived in New York and is now back home in Beirut, where he grew up. Muhanna’s efforts to foster critical thinking started with his students from disadvantaged backgrounds after Hurricane Katrina. He then launched Afikra as a way for him and his friends to explore Arab culture and history. Afikra now holds monthly gatherings in Dubai, Beirut, Bahrain, Washington, New York, Montreal, and London, with more cities to come — all with the motto of “reigniting curiosity, building a community.”

At each gathering, two guest speakers present their findings on a topic of their choice, from “What makes Arabic music Arabic?” to “How did Gulf Arabs stay cool before air-conditioning?” Muhanna and his team help the speakers conduct their research and frame their presentations to help push the boundaries of their questions.

“Afikra was born out of my own frustrations and limits of my critical thinking,” Muhanna says. “There was an invisible border,” he adds, beyond which the mind didn’t venture.

The topics may seem bland or noncontroversial, but beyond heated political debates, what the region needs most is to rediscover how to question the obvious. At Afikra, no topic is off limits as long as the speaker isn’t pitching something. After 100 talks in seven cities and building an online archive that has attracted 50,000 views, Muhanna is now looking into how to expand his initiative, including into schools around the region.

Such initiatives remain a drop in an ocean of dogma and rote learning, carried out with little institutional support and few resources. Too much money is still spent on defense and ill-conceived counterterrorism programs, including by the United States, which gives and sells billions of dollars in military equipment to Arab countries. Meanwhile, Arab leaders do too little to shape young inquisitive minds. They fear their young populations and see them as threats and thus fail to treat students as assets who can help build the future.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.