Arab Universities

East Discovers West

Trying to eradicate prejudices, Arab universities are beginning to offer courses in Western culture to their students. But some experts fear that these efforts won't do much to change entrenched views. By Rafael Heiling

photo: AP
Can courses on Western culture prevent this?

​​The Middle East discovers the West: In Dubai, for example, the private Gulf Research Center is offering students a series of events about the future of the enlarged European Union. In March, Werner Weidenfeld, a political science professor from Munich, lectured at the center, which was founded by Abdulaziz Sager, a Saudi business man.

The American University in Cairo recently opened a center for American studies, mainly financed by Saudi prince Waleed bin Talal after the New York Mayor turned down a donation.

Interest in the West is not a new thing: Many academic institutions in the Arab world already offer their students courses in Western languages. But these programs usually don't include lessons about Western culture, politics and society in general, according to experts.

"There's a general lack of knowledge," said Martin Beck, a researcher for the German Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg. He added that many Arab students go abroad, but usually focus on technical or science subjects.

State-run universities a problem?

History plays a role in explaining why European or American culture has received little attention in the Middle East so far, said Omar Kamil, an Egyptian political scientist who currently works at the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at Leipzig University.

During the 1950s, many countries in the Middle East took over universities that were privately run until that time.

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"They no longer were places of free thinking, but became centers for state propaganda instead," Kamil said, adding that until today only literary works approved by the establishment can be read in the humanities.

"Instead of following the reason of modernity, universities revert to the past, which hampers, if not blocks, our steps towards modernity," he said.

On the other hand, several universities have begun to research the Western way of life. The U.S. takes on a central role in this respect. "The United States have practically become neighbors," said Beck, who taught at Palestinian Birzeit University for three years. "They've become a major force in the region."

Enormous interest in the West

While teaching at Birzeit, Beck realized that his students there knew much more about Europe and the U.S. than their contemporaries in the West. Their knowledge might not always be correct, Beck said. "But the level of interest is enormous, and not only in the Palestinian territories."

Beck said he rarely encountered religious fanatics or nationalists among his students. Kamil saw things differently.

"The state-run universities produce ideologists, chauvinists and religious fanatics," he said, adding that self-criticism was not something people were interested in.

An outdated fear of the Christian West prevents an opening towards its culture, Kamil said. Beck, who conducted a survey on anti-Americanism, disagreed. "People distinguish between U.S. foreign policy and American culture," he said. But he added that the distinction was starting to blur after the war in Iraq.

While universities could help in that respect, Beck said that it was difficult to change negative feelings towards the America.

"U.S. policy will not be judged differently when people study American culture," he said.

Kamil also said he fears that interest in the West is "fashionable." To counter that, he is thinking about opening an institute "dedicated to European history and culture" in the Arab world.

Rafael Heiling


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