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Education Is No Guarantee: Why Education in the World's Rich Oil States Has Increased, Rather Than Curbed, Religious Extremism

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Education is no Guarantee: Why Education in the World's Rich Oil States has Increased, Rather Than Curbed, Religious Extremism

A Superficial Examination of the Effect of Education on Security in Saudi Arabia and Jordan

Some Student Email@mail.someuniversity.edu

Since the attacks on 9/11, many citizens of the West have labored to understand the world from which the terrorists were spawned. Rather than being the expected downtrodden, no-prospect sons of destitute families trapped in the economic wreckage a post-colonialist failed state, most of them were college students from well-to-do families in country which has never been a western colony. Their ideology, which not only accepts but promotes suicide attacks, seems incongruous in an age in which the world is supposedly becoming more empathic. Throughout the rest of the planet, people are understanding and accepting, even celebrating each others' differences more than ever before; only in the Muslim Middle East is there a major movement towards monolithic intolerance. Even other Muslims (the vast majority of whom live outside the Arab Middle East), who nominally share some common beliefs with the Arabs, are confused and alienate by the behavior of Arab religious extremists. Furthermore, the 350 million Arabs themselves are a huge, disparate group bound together by the adopted label of 'Arabs;' they are as different from each other as they are from American or Europeans, and resent being stereotyped. At the same time, they feel themselves drawn towards some of the aspects of the belligerent ideology with its simple solutions and purely emotional appeal.

Western intellectuals have long seen education as a panacea for all the world's ills. Regions are oppressed by deeply seated racism? Integrate their schools. A coal mine runs out of coal? The corporation should provide re-education for the miners. Youths are joining drug gangs? Their schools must be letting them down. Ex-cons usually return to crime? Prisons should rehabilitate rather than punish. Was not education the singular factor which brought Europe from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in only a few centuries?

As with most complex questions, the answer is "yes and no." This article will explore how some of the world's richest (per capita) nations have provided limitless educational opportunities, yet have failed to ameliorate, in fact have mainstreamed, religious intolerance and racial hatred as an ideology.

In the United States and Western Europe, and to lesser extent elsewhere, education has been the signal catalyst of change from which all current freedoms and benefits have sprung. The Enlightenment, so-called because it ended centuries of church-controlled inflexibility, placed value on literacy and individual opportunity. With the acceptance of universal literacy came irreversible changes in the political nature of the world. Martin Luther was able to get his message out because he wrote both in Latin and in his native German, and a 2002 British Broadcasting Corporation documentary refers to Guttenberg's printing press as "the machine that made us." A pamphlet by Thomas Paine could now inspire a colony to nationhood, and Napoleon Bonaparte used written propaganda as another weapon in his arsenal. Mainly illiterate nations such as Russia and China were made literate, and in the process were indoctrinated into their new political faiths.

Universal education has shaped everything in our world, but it is still evolving, and is currently at a low point in the United States. High school graduation rates leapt from 50% in 1940 to 77% in 1969, then back down to the dismal rate of 68.9% today. Ongoing demographic shifts, from rural to urban to suburban, continue as America shifts from a foundation of heavy industry to production of intellectual capital. Social upheaval in the 1970's, followed by massive economic changes in the 80's, have left the country on shaky economic ground. The technological revolution has polarized the work force into highly-skilled on one end, and virtually-unskilled on the other. Our attempts to create a perfectly egalitarian public education system have caused the demise of many of the time-proven vocational programs which used to be the bedrock of public education. Our multicultural society, devoid of any single clear set of values or behaviors, continues to evolve, with education trying to keep pace.

But it could be a lot worse.

The religious center of the Muslim world, and the self-appointed cultural center of the Arab world, is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The location of Islam's start in A. D. 622, Saudi Arabia was always on the fringes of empire, due primarily to its low population density and harsh climatic conditions. The rise of the Islamic religion resulted in the spread of the Arabic language throughout North Africa and Southwest Asia, and in various existing ethnic groups adopting the moniker "Arab." Obviously the Egyptians were there long before the Arabs showed up, but they now refer to their nation as the Egyptian Arab Republic, and likewise Syria, an erstwhile Armenian-speaking province of Rome, now refers to itself as Arab. But Saudi Arabia is the religious heart of the region, home of Islam's two holiest sites (the third holiest is Jerusalem). The holiest of these is Mecca, the birthplace of the religion and its prophet, and the destination of the mandated pilgrimage made by Muslims once in their lifetimes. The kingdom is a theocratic monarchy, but absolute power is shared between the royal family and the fundamentalist Wahhabi religious sect.

In addition to being the home of a religion, Saudi Arabia is also the owner of the world's largest pool of easily accessible petroleum, giving it unquestionable leverage over the world's developed nations. When the Saudis pushed the organization of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC) to enact an oil embargo against the United States in 1974, our economy came to a virtual standstill. The Saudi Gross Domestic Product skyrocketed, and an entire generation of Saudi Sunni Muslims won, what was in effect, a lottery. Saudi Shi'a Muslims, about 25% of the population, get virtually none of the benefits of this wealth, and are routinely deprived of both political and educational rights.

Until the 1960's most of Saudi Arabia's population was still nomadic, literally seasonally migrating on camels (slavery was outlawed in 1962). Virtually overnight, after the 1974 rise in oil prices, the majority moved into cities, and schooling was an option. The population exploded, and today over half of Saudis are under sixteen.

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