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Arab Youth Face Limited Educational and Job Opportunities

In a recent issue of the government-owned Riyadh Daily newspaper, a distressed mother voiced her concern about some Saudi educators. “The day after September 11, my younger son told me that his art teacher told him to draw the planes as they hit the World Trade Center [in New York City]. We kept our children from watching these violent scenes at home, but evidently the teachers had a different point of view. For four years, I suffered silently from all of this and then the day came when terrorists attacked the Saudi Interior Ministry in Riyadh. My son said that he recognized one of the attackers from his school. How can a mother send her kids to school when she knows they might fall pray to a terrorist teacher?”

Using a computer as a metaphor, Islamic scholar Mamoun Fandy, a Senior Fellow at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas, says much of the Arab world is in crisis. “Most of us conceptualize the problems of the Muslim world as hardware problems -- that's development and building infrastructure. The crisis is one of a software problem -- what is being uploaded in the minds of the young. “

Mr. Fandy recently examined educational systems in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan -- countries that have produced the majority of al-Qaida terrorists. He says many Middle Eastern educators were influenced by extreme Islamist movements in the 1970s and 1980s. These groups used similar strategies to “take over the ministry of education, take over the curricula and take over training of teachers. Then all of a sudden, the whole software of the nation is re-wired. What these students learn in school is the vision of a glorious Islamic past compared to a contemptuous present [that they live in today]. “

Mamoun Fandy says the disconnect between belonging to a revered Islamic civilization and the reality of day-to-day life amplifies a sense of hopelessness for young Arabs.

Many analysts say numerous textbooks in Arab countries focus more on religion and Islamic traditions while neglecting science, technology and critical thinking. The International Youth Foundation is a non-sectarian charity working with schools to create new curricula and computer-training centers in the Middle East. The foundation's president, William Reese says “critical thinking is something that schools and teachers need to teach kids -- to ask questions, to talk amongst themselves and learn in teams. Critical thinking is what will ultimately produce democracies or better democracies, and will promote better economic growth situations. It breeds innovation and invention.”

Innovation is what a recent United Nations report on Arab human development -- written by Arab scholars -- says is critical for societies to foster political freedom and stay competitive in a global economy. Unemployment and lack of opportunity are massive problems in countries like Egypt were less than one-third of college graduates found work after leaving school last year. Many have ended up with jobs for which they are overqualified. International Youth Foundation President William Reese finds this troubling. “Too often we think of disaffected young people as becoming terrorists or bombers. In a few cases that will happen. But clearly, disaffected, alienated, unemployed young people are not going to be contributing to their neighborhood, their community or their nation by being workers and paying taxes. So you want to get young people thinking they have a stake in the future. It is hard to feel they have a stake if they don't have a job. “

In addition to the stress of finding work, many young Arabs are frightened by what they perceive as a belligerent United States, according to Judith Kipper, Director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington. “The job of the West is to communicate better and not to communicate with an imperial or superior attitude and not to reduce all issues between western and Muslim countries to a slogan, a war on terrorism."

Judith Kipper and many other scholars agree that the problems in the Arab world stem from within, where reform must take place to ensure a bright future for their youth.

This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.