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Students’ Lack of Political Engagement Is Cause for Concern, Author Says

AMMAN, Jordan—The level of political awareness among students at Jordan’s universities is on the decline, writes the author of a new book, and universities are putting themselves at risk by not doing enough to counter this trend.

The author, Hussein al-Amoush, a researcher and professor at the Hashemite University, warns that this failure has consequences both for the educational process and for society at large.

“The low level of political awareness among students is transforming universities from a place of discussion, exchange of ideas and scientific research, and the establishment of an intellectual, cultural and scientific society, to a place of violence and entrenchment behind deadly sub-identities and an environment of regional and tribal polarization,” al-Amoush said in an interview.

The researcher, who holds a doctorate in education, believes that universities have a pivotal role to play in the “political socialization” of students and communities.  In his book, Developing Political Awareness at Universities, published by Dar Wael for Publishing and Distribution in Amman, al-Amoush argues that a “political vacuum” among students “pushes them to break the law, enhances the tendency of violence and threatens the educational process.” (See a related article, “Stay in University or Join the Islamic State?)

Jordan’s king,  Abdullah II, and government officials have issued statements acknowledging the need to develop political awareness among university students and urging them to participate in the political process.

But al-Amoush and some students here say there is a disparity between the public statements and what is happening on the ground. The pace of university punishments against students who have engaged in political activities or made demands appears to have increased markedly over the past two years. (See a related article: “Jordanian Student Suspended for Opposing Tuition Hike.”) Yet universities may counter that restrictive policies are justified by the episodes of political and factional violence they’ve had to contend with on campuses. (See a related article, “Tribal Violence Plagues Jordanian Public Universities.”)

In a recent example of such policies, on November 28, the University of Jordan summoned six students to be investigated for participating in a sit-in opposing the normalization of relations with Israel.

According to Alaa Hajja, a civil-engineering student at the university and one of the students summoned, it was the organizers of the event who listed his name among those to be investigated.

“The provost canceled the inquiry committee and asked us for a meeting, in which we were told that we should obtain permission for any future event,” said Hajja. But in fact, he said, the university has not agreed to any student requests to hold political events or present demands. “So all the on-campus events are always without permission,” he said.

Bara’a Abu Mahfouz, who is in her final year as a mass-communication student at Yarmouk University, said she always felt a sense of fear after participating in political events on campus. “I feel like I’m doing something outside the law, especially when students who take part in any event are summoned to investigation afterward,” she said. “We need to express our political positions without fear.”

In his book, al-Amoush presents a vision of how Jordanian universities can promote and develop political awareness among their students.

The proposal includes teaching several courses during the undergraduate years on topics including recent developments and popular movements like the Arab Spring, focusing on national cultures instead of individual achievements. It also calls for offering a number of elective courses dealing with related issues, such as political and social sciences, political history, political law and human rights.

Al-Amoush also proposes broadening this process from the university to the society’s political thought through conferences, seminars and activities open to all people  across the political spectrum.

Still, some students do not think that al-Amoush’s proposals are strong enough.

Abu Mahfouz, the mass-communication student at Yarmouk, said it is not the number of courses  on political issues that matters, but how the topics of these courses are discussed.

Most of her courses deal with political issues in one way or another, she said, and the university offers elective courses on topics like military sciences and civics that also deal with political issues. But how the classes are taught varies. Some professors frame the discussions with their own concepts, while others “are already afraid to discuss political issues with their students.”

Hussein al-Khuza’ie, a professor of sociology at the University of Jordan, agrees that it’s important to raise political awareness among professors as an essential step in developing students’ engagement.

“What will the student benefit from courses that raise political issues,” he asked, if the professor lacks “a political awareness capable of communicating information and raising debate about it?”

Al-Khuza’ie attributed the hesitation among university professors to engage in such discussions to a number of reasons, including the fear of losing their job, coming under a security prosecution or otherwise being held accountable by the university administration.

Al-Amoush is aware of this concern and underscores the importance of dealing with it. “It is necessary to give guarantees to a faculty member to freely put forward political issues, as well as to support scientific research on political issues,” he said. “This is quite essential.”

Al-Amoush is not the first to raise concerns about the lack of political awareness among students and professors. A study by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Research came to similar conclusions nearly two years ago. However, Jordan’s universities continue to follow restrictive policies on student activities, leading many to avoid political engagement within the university and finish their studies quickly and without any potential problems.

“I have never participated in any political activity on campus or outside, despite my constant follow-up to all the political events in my country and the region,” said Aseel Al-Fasatla, a recent graduate of Yarmouk University’s mass-communication department. “This is because of fear of being classified politically in a way that might harm us, especially with my being a media student.”


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