There is a sentence that has been repeated while welcoming Barham Salih as the President of Iraq and Adel Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister-designate and which is “he has studied in Western universities”.
The same refrain was made when Omar Razzaz was tasked with forming the current government in Jordan. This sentence works like a double edged sword, as it comes in the backdrop of various revolutionary upheavals and coups over the decades, and implicitly refers to a time of “renaissance” when “education” was described as the pre-requisite for development.
As for the reference in the sentence to the “West”, it is part and parcel of the idea of “renaissance”. Didn’t the whole renaissance saga began when Rifa’a al-Tahtawi and Ahmad Faris Shidyaq, among others travelled to the West? Their approach implied a tendency that was fought for many decades – the tendency of dealing with the West as a source of knowledge and enlightenment, and not as a source of aggression and colonialism.
In this regard, studying in some of the best Western universities carries with it the tag of having good morals that are regarded as guarantees against corruption and towards protecting public money. The refrain also comes with an air of nostalgia for the times few of us lived in and most of us have only heard or read about. The other face of nostalgia is a protest over a time when the officer, security figure, preacher and suspicious millionaire replaced the graduates of Western universities.
The resumes of Salih, Abdul-Mahdi and Razzaz raise optimism, without serving the theory of optimism in the principle of studying in the West. First, there are still doubts about the real capabilities of these sincere graduates who have become politicians as long as issues of political authority and sharing it is not yet settled in any Arab country. We are aware that many Arab regimes have exaggerated the term “technocrat”, where it means holding the capabilities of power but without having any real power. Salam Fayyad’s experience in Ramallah is probably the best example in this regard.
This optimism which has its reasons points to the naivety of many. Just as a reminder, we belong to societies where rulers believe that they own and inherit the nation. Our half-baked identities stilt our progress and foment civil wars. Battles tear us apart — with their savagery, dissipation of wealth and medieval ideas. Such challenges cannot be confronted just by a bunch of educated and honest people whom optimism pictures as alternatives to much needed popular movements and broad intellectual changes. What is more dangerous is that being sanguine about “education” as the agent for “improving conditions” might end up with having people who are merely optimistic about “working” to reconstruct what “wars have destroyed,” similar to what is being said about the “reconstruction” of Syria. We should not forget that Bashar al-Assad almost became the graduate of a Western university.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Hazem Saghieh is a Lebanese political analyst and the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat.