(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
In a world afflicted with various forms of racism and exclusion, universities are often seen as saviors from these practices through their role in educating generations and shaping awareness as part of their moral responsibility toward the societies that embrace them.
However, universities in the Arab region are often accused of being part of the problem rather than the solution because of their deviation from the political and social reality surrounding them and their administrations’ focus on what is going on on campus only, which may result in practicing some of the policies that increase the inequality they are supposed to address.
As universities are part of their societies and share their sufferings and problems, even if they lock their doors upon themselves, they are still vulnerable, in one way or another, to the occurrence of racist practices on their campuses or against their students.
This calls us to reconsider the required role of universities as educational institutions that are more involved in promoting the values of tolerance and harmony among the world’s population on humanitarian issues; in other words, supporting what is known as global citizenship.
The concept of global citizenship calls for the rejection of local, regional or national prejudices, so that a person becomes a global citizen belonging to all parts of the world and is busy finding solutions to its issues. This leads to the production of a harmonious global society dominated by mutual respect that works to serve humanity despite the differences in religion, race, color and ethnicity, and this contributes to transforming the world into a better place than we know now.
Humanity’s Common Fate
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons the world is supposed to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic is that the fate of humanity is one, and that its future is shared. The virus does not differentiate between its victims on the basis of color or gender, nor does it distinguish between a developed and a developing country, where the safety of everyone has become linked to everyone.
Unfortunately, awareness of such a lesson has been absent in the midst of international racism, as many governments have chosen to achieve their own interests at the expense of other peoples, and some of them may even exploit the fear of the pandemic to implement racist policies toward the most vulnerable segment of the societies, like refugees or foreign students as in the decision to deport foreign students, which the US administration retracted after raising the matter to the judiciary recently.
Moreover, talking about promoting universality and confronting racism is not a scientific or moral luxury. Racism in its various forms is the main reason for failing to face the major challenges threatening humanity; such as climate change, weapons of mass destruction, crimes of ethnic cleansing, genocide and the subjugation of vulnerable peoples, as it was among the main causes of the First and Second World War. That is why it is not an exaggeration that racism is considered one of the most dangerous evils of our times, if not the most dangerous of all.
Universities in the Arab region are often accused of being part of the problem rather than the solution.
Responses to Racism in the U.S.
Recently, the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by white police officers in the United States and the unprecedented protests that followed constituted an opportunity for a number of major universities around the world to declare a position on racism, thus reinforcing the values of global citizenship. Many of them have made good use of this to push suspicions away from themselves. However, much work is still needed, as in Britain alone, universities fail to confront tens of thousands of racist incidents that take place on their campuses every year, according to the government equality watchdog.
If we look at Arab universities, we find that many universities did not express any position on the issue of Floyd’s death, even though it is primarily a humanitarian issue, or turned a blind eye to it. It could have constituted a review point for any racist policies practiced, or at least have been a starting point to discuss some of the international racist practices of which our universities themselves may be victims.
Among the striking examples of discrimination practiced by some Arab universities is the expulsion of Qatari students from universities in other Gulf states and shutting down their accounts on the official websites of these universities without legal justification. (See a related article, “Arab Students Caught in Regional Conflict With Qatar.”)
Of course, there is not a lot of statistical data on racist behavior on our campuses as research is not done in a neutral and transparent manner. However, a study published by the National Society for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, which included 170 female students in a Saudi university, indicated that 32.4 percent had experienced discrimination on the basis of their origin, while 35.5 percent answered “I don’t know.” As for the type of discrimination, tribal discrimination occupied 52.4 percent and religious discrimination formed 15.9 percent.
A Bigger Role for Universities
Many may believe that universities’ mission is limited to producing knowledge. This is undoubtedly true, but the knowledge produced by universities should never be separated from the values of global citizenship, because knowledge by itself is not separated from globalism, as it always opens new horizons and ways to see the world. This does not mean that universities should be separated from their local reality, because this reality is not global, just as it is not purely national, but rather an interactive reality between the two, and from here it had a bigger role in promoting the values of citizenship, instead of being confined to the narrow concept of the nation-state.
One of the goals that our educational curricula should pursue—regardless of the nature of the subject being taught—is for students to acquire global competencies, in order to open horizons for them beyond the local context in which they live, and make them realize that their lives are connected to the lives of others despite the geographical distance. This matter is now possible more than ever due to the tremendous communications revolution in our times, which was tested and activated well during the coronavirus crisis.
If we look at Arab universities, we find that many universities did not express any position on the issue of Floyd’s death, even though it is primarily a humanitarian issue, or turned a blind eye to it.
For example, we can now hold joint semesters attended by our universities and a number of other universities, and open joint seminars and research projects to promote this. We can also engage in a serious international alliance with a number of universities to achieve this purpose, and benefit from the strategic plan proposed by UNESCO for education (2030) through which it committed itself to support global citizenship education (GCED). To achieve global citizenship, is not enough for our universities to have students of other nationalities only, or to establish memoranda of understanding and cooperation, which do not exceed, in most cases, a signature.
Today, there is a good opportunity—I hope it will not be lost—to reconsider the role of our universities and the opportunities available through them to build a fair society in which everyone shares the opportunities to build a better tomorrow away from the evils of racism.
Hossam El-Din Khalil is a senior researcher at Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s College of Islamic Studies, in Qatar.