Teaching Critical Thinking in the Middle East

Whether a conflict involves enraged spouses or a nation embroiled in sectarian warfare, feuding parties can de-escalate by employing civil discourse and rational argumentation. They can talk and reason empathically, for example. They can call out each other’s logical fallacies and agree to stop using them. They can pinpoint irreconcilable differences, accept them, and negotiate a compromise. But doing so is hard enough in the heat of an emotional exchange; it is much harder under the yoke of a religious dictate, or in an environment where rational argumentation is neither taught nor even available to learn in the local language.

There are many such places, and one is Saudi Arabia, according to Omar al-Anazi, a 23-year-old medical student at King Abdelaziz University in the Saudi port city of Jedda. “When people talk to each other here,” he says, “too often they make arguments based on logical fallacies, impossible to resolve. It’s detrimental to the country to leave them that way.” In his view, an “ignorant movement” advanced by extremist clerics, reactionary media, and schoolteachers under their influence has effectively suppressed the use of logic and reason. It is possible to combat the movement, he says, by teaching critical thinking and the scientific method, and instilling a fascination with the many branches of science and technology which these techniques have enabled throughout history. In July 2013, Anazi and three friends launched a project aiming to do so: an online media platform called Asfar (“zeroes”) named after the world-altering numeral invented in ancient Babylon. Through audio, video, and prose, Asfar conveys ideas about logic and science in humorous, Saudi-inflected Arabic, tailored to the sensibilities of its audience.

There is a handful of projects like Asfar in the Arab world today, and more is riding on their success than the gratification of the volunteers who staff them. Amid massive bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, civil strife in Lebanon and Bahrain, political polarization in the post-Arab Spring states, and the proliferation of jihadist ideologies throughout North Africa and the Middle East, equipping Arab societies to think critically and negotiate their internal differences can help marginalize extremist groups, foster national reconciliation, and, by extension, improve regional stability and security. Asfar’s modest initial success as well as the challenges it appears to face provide a case in point as to what any homegrown Arab media effort to promote civil discourse would require in order to gain substantial ground.

Omar al-Anazi came to critical thinking intuitively, he recalls, as a ten-year-old in 2001. Some prominent Saudi clerics had issued a religious edict against Pokémon children’s games and playing cards, alleging that the franchise promoted “Zionism.” “Everybody was throwing away their Pokémon toys,” he says. “I had a lot of those cards and didn’t understand why I had to give them up.” He went online and researched the meaning of the purportedly subversive names and symbols on the cards. He found all the cards to be benign, he says, and decided to hold onto his collection. “But I noticed that a lot of my friends didn’t think the way I did,” he adds, “and so I kept my head down—for years.”

Saudis who share Anazi’s inclination to challenge orthodoxy tend to gravitate to the sciences, Anazi explains, and they gain courage to express their views by discovering that they are not alone. Only after Anazi entered the department of medicine at King Abdelaziz University two years ago did he begin to speak more openly about his ideas, in the company of peers. Asfar is an outgrowth of his friendships with Baraa Orabi, a computer engineering student minoring in philosophy; Rakan al-Mas’udi, a self-described “humanist and enthusiast of equality” born in Syria and studying in Jedda; and Mohammad Al-Hamrani, a medical intern and amateur musician. All fluent in English, mainly from their study of the language at home (Anazi, for example, has never visited an English-speaking country), the young men supplemented their studies with online American university courses about secular reasoning and the latest research in their fields, and established an informal weekly salon to discuss what they learned. From essays by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, they discovered Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. They found a website, yourlogicalfallacyis.com, that gave them a framework to perceive patterns of conversation in Saudi Arabia that seemed to stifle public discourse. And by listening intently to comedian Joe Rogan’s weekly online radio show, they learned about what makes a podcast entertaining. Early last year, they bought a microphone and set up a makeshift recording studio with echo-absorbing fabric.

A typical Asfar podcast, from Valentine’s Day 2014, is called “The Biography of Love: Attraction and Human Psychology.” The four talk through an online lecture by Yale University president Peter Salovey that examines the theory of the “love triangle”: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Hamrani points out that though love is experienced by the brain, “It’s not the same as a headache,” in that it cannot be explained in strictly chemical-neurological terms. “The difficulty of explaining love begins with a problem of language,” Anazi says. “In English there are distinctions between ‘I like you,’ ‘I love you,’ and ‘I’m in love with you.’ In Arabic we have distinctions of our own.” Riffing on Anazi, Hamrani points out that love between two people plays a different role in an individualistic culture such as Salovey’s than in a traditional society like Saudi Arabia, in which “larger groups, like families and clans, are more deeply vested in a couple’s relationship.” Later the discussion segues from Salovey’s lecture to books the group has read, like Gerald Schoenewolf’s The Art of Hating. Mas’udi points out that love and hate are not polar opposites but rather twins in intensity, equidistant from apathy. Sounding a note of optimism, he adds, “You might be surprised to see hate very easily turning into love.”

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These productions, says Anazi, “are intended for a more patient and sophisticated audience.” For browsers with a shorter attention span, Asfar’s cartoons on YouTube offer a three-minute educational fix. Take “Critical Thinking” (Al-Tafkir al-Naqdi), posted here with English subtitles. It is an animated cartoon illustrating philosopher Daniel Dennett’s “Seven Tools for Critical Thinking,” with an eighth added by the Asfar team as well as adjustments tailored for the Saudi audience. Other cartoons explain the scientific method and topics ranging from the theory of evolution to Pluto’s demotion from planetary status. The cartoons are tightly scripted, with a soundtrack, crisp animation, frugal use of text, and several laugh lines per minute; they speak to the group’s passion for science and reason.

Asfar is not the only program aiming to teach critical thinking to Arabs, but some of its rivals use the term to mean something altogether different. Renowned Saudi Salafi cleric Murid al-Kallab produced a four-part series on the subject titled “Skills of Thought: Critical Thinking,” disseminated via the popular YouTube channel “IslamAcademy,” which is funded by clerical elites in the kingdom. After presenting a crude definition of critical thinking, he says,

The candle of critical thinking must be extinguished, and its light must be turned off, when it contradicts a proof text from the Qur’an or prophetic Hadith. In this situation, there is no place for critical thinking. We must simply believe and surrender. If not, I would be violating logic. . . . In this situation, logic says that God’s wisdom cannot be understood by humankind . . . [and] you don’t have the right to choose what of God’s wisdom to apply or not apply.

This perspective is the definition of orthodoxy—a mainstay of some other religions too, to be sure. But in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Muslim countries, religious figures who advance such principles wield overwhelming force against their secular rivals, such that a sufficiently blunt rejection of their message can land someone in prison. Among the more well-known Saudi examples was the case of poet and journalist Hamza Kashgari, who faced a prison sentence in 2011 after posting a series of tweets that allegedly insulted the prophet Muhammad. In May 2014, having lost a court appeal, he was sentenced to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes, and a fine of a million Saudi riyals (roughly $267,000).

Asfar, still a tiny, all-volunteer operation with only a few thousand fans, has so far not provoked the ire of the Saudi religious establishment. “We’re proceeding cautiously, keeping it light, and avoiding confrontation,” Anazi explains. The group studiously avoids presenting scientific perspectives on God, and never comments about politics. Anazi recalls,

There was one series of episodes we were frantically cautious about making, which was the three-episode series on evolution—because by discussing evolution you are immediately throwing out the idea of a ‘Design.’ When we launched the episodes we were really worried about a negative backlash from the community. But we only got a few—you know, two or three—confused comments, and the rest of them were actually excited about the topic. Some of them said, ‘We never knew this before. Thank you very much.’ So the community, currently, is a lot more enlightened than we thought.

Though Asfar is just a drop in an ocean of Islamist media productions, itis not alone in advancing its core ideas. Another modest operation, “Scientific Saudi,” subtitles American video shorts about science without comment. An anonymous Facebook page, “I believe in Science,” is a forum for Arabic-language discussion of the world’s latest discoveries. A handful of individual enthusiasts, like Riyadh’s Khalid al-Judi’, have videotaped themselves expostulating on the merits of critical thinking and posted the clips to YouTube. While some of these youths have established contact with one another, others I have interviewed produce the content without encouragement or support, and say they feel intellectually isolated.

More aggressive Arab efforts along the lines of Asfar have been waged in Egypt, where schools have a similar reputation for failing to teach critical thinking but the social mores are considerably more liberal. In 2012, Egyptian internet activist Wael Ghonim, whom Western journalists touted as a prime mover in the 2011 Egyptian revolution, donated revenues from his bestselling memoir to create a media foundation for the production of online learning videos. Tahrir Academy aims to combat “the deteriorating state of Egyptian culture [caused by a] mind-numbing educational system based on rote memorization.” With support from a production team in Cairo, volunteer lecturers have posted nearly 600 videos to YouTube, altogether garnering 2.5 million views. Among the most popular clips, winning close to 100,000 hits, is an 11-part lecture series that teaches critical thinking and gently explores its social and political implications. The speaker is U.S.-based Islam Hussein, an Egyptian virology researcher at MIT who has established an Egyptian expat student group on campus to contribute videos on other topics as well.

Part one of the series explains that people who lack critical-thinking skills “think only they are right” and “find conspiracies in everything in life.” If you embrace the approach, “your mind will be yours alone. . . . No one will be able to easily control you, or manipulate you to serve his goals. . . . It will affect every aspect of your life: personal, social, political. . . . [Critical thinking] will also be your defense against any distorted news spread by the media.” In part two, “Intellectual Integrity,” he says that the process begins with self-criticism. “Look into the mirror,” he says. “Set aside your racial, political, and social identities and try to view things in an unbiased way.”

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Hussein’s advice has obvious bearing on efforts by establishment media and Islamist parties to manipulate the Egyptian population, but he resists the temptation to draw any direct connection between his ideas and current affairs. “One of our team had suggested we include some examples from Egypt’s political and religious discussions where critical thinking is lacking. But we worried that if the series came across as politically motivated, people would reject the whole thing. So we avoided any specifics and hoped that the audience would interpret the material on their own.” Though powerful social and political forces essentially share an interest in preventing Egyptians from acquiring critical thinking skills, Hussein says, Tahrir Academy has not yet fallen under attack. But it has hardly garnered much support, either. According to Hussein, none of the country’s television networks has lent a platform to the organization, and no prominent political figure has expressed an endorsement. Earlier this year Hussein was heartened, however, to learn that a primary school teacher, enamored of the lectures, had asked Tahrir Academy’s permission to screen them for her students.

Like Hussein, Anazi believes that hopes for their efforts to meaningfully impact their society hinge on their success in influencing young people. “People who are currently in charge are already far gone and we can’t do anything about them,” Anazi says. “The ones we are targeting are the young people who are going to be in charge at some point in their future life. Those are the ones we can change, and those are the ones we want to change.”

Social and political circumstances differ sharply between monarchical Saudi Arabia and republican Egypt. In both countries, however, proponents of critical thinking and scientific reasoning face similar challenges in attempting to magnify the impact of their work. The challenges, in turn, reflect a broader social predicament across North Africa and the Middle East, with implications for people and institutions outside the region that would like to support these young people’s efforts.

Whereas Saudi Arabia’s Asfar is an informal, all-volunteer operation, Egypt’s Tahrir Academy is an NGO with physical headquarters, paid, full-time staff, professional production facilities, and an international network of expat Egyptian volunteers, all thanks to the Academy’s backer, Wael Ghonim. But the difference in scale between the two projects evens out when either is stacked against its country’s dominant machinery of inculcation—that run by the clerics of Saudi Arabia or by Egypt’s military-led establishment and to a lesser extent Islamist groups. Such power elites dominate most of the popular broadcasts, the government-run educational institutions, and networks of religious instruction run through mosques, Islamic seminaries, and secret gatherings of radicals. Even in the present era of social media, these platforms remain the only proven means through which new ideas can reach millions of young people consistently over a generation. Is it possible for the likes of Asfar and Tahrir to access those platforms without compromising their essential message? If not, can they build an alternative structure that can seriously compete?

Whatever strategic options Asfar and Tahrir have are severely limited by financial considerations. In Egypt, tough laws against foreign funding for non-governmental organizations make the risk of accepting even a modest grant from, say, the National Endowment for Democracy too high to be worth taking. In February 2012, the government brought criminal charges against 43 members of NGOs in Egypt, largely arising from accusations that they served a “foreign agenda.” (A notable exception to the stigmatization of foreign donors is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], from which Tahrir Academy has already received modest support.) There are indigenous sources of philanthropic capital in Egypt, but according to Hussein they carry tradeoffs of their own: “Any of the big names in Egypt that might give you a donation are also playing other roles in the society, with a political orientation. If you’re funded by a tycoon who’s well known for supporting this or that faction, you’re seen by Egyptians as being in the same boat with him: You’re not about education; you’re about advancing your donor’s agenda.”

Even the seed funding provided by Ghonim is a mixed blessing. In 2012, Ghonim ran afoul of Islamists for his outspoken opposition to the government of Mohammed Morsi, and the military leadership and state institutions have viewed him with suspicion since he began to act against the Mubarak regime in 2010. In Egypt’s public discussion, Ghonim predictably has been denounced as an “American spy” and a “Zionist collaborator,” and is even accused of secret membership in the International Order of Freemasonry, which is perceived in Egypt as an ancient conspiracy against Islam. For that matter, numerous movers among the young Egyptian activists he represents face precarious circumstances in the country, with some in jail and most locked out of the corridors of power.

Thus the fear of incurring a verbal assault (or worse) from entrenched elites inhibits the growth of ventures like Tahrir Academy and Asfar, not only by restricting their prospects for raising money but also by constricting their ability to communicate directly with the audience. Since neither group can afford to anger its country’s powerbrokers, both must walk on eggshells—for example, presenting ideas about critical thinking in the abstract while avoiding a frank discussion of their implications for domestic affairs. In one sense, maintaining a firewall between the explication of critical thinking on one side and the burning issues of the day on the other may be salubrious for these projects, in that they transcend partisan divides and thereby protect the purity of the message. On the other hand, when the news media feature an important statement or debate in which critical thinking is dangerously lacking, it behooves these young proponents of reason to weigh in from the moral platform they have earned. Indeed, the long-term goal of improving the society by promoting knowledge, deliberative discourse, and the scientific method ultimately will not be served without clear connections between theory and practice. In any case, doing so would make the content less abstract and more visceral—vital in growing the projects’ niche audience from thousands to a mass audience in the tens of millions. The fact that Asfar and Tahrir are effectively inhibited from doing so presents a serious long-term disadvantage.

But however bleak the situation may seem, these projects carry great promise—sometimes to be found in unexpected places. In May 2014, the Saudi Minister of Education, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, became the first Saudi royal to acknowledge the problem of radicalization in the Kingdom’s educational system. “The [educational] domain was totally left to [the radicals], such that there was no chance for Saudi moderate thought or [to teach] a moderate way of life. We abandoned our sons and daughters, and they kidnapped them.” This stunning comment shocked many Saudis, and sent a signal that the royal family would like to fundamentally change the way young Saudis learn. Locals I have spoken with perceive the comment as an invitation to the population at large to develop and propose new educational curricula for the Ministry to consider. Should the Asfar boys decide to develop and propose a multimedia learning module for science classes, for example, they would undoubtedly find themselves embroiled in the internal politics of the Saudi educational system—as fraught as any other, only with hardline Islamists calling the shots. Though it would be difficult for the likes of Asfar to win the day, there appears to be new political support from on high to give their ideas a chance.

A deal between Asfar and Saudi state television for the production and broadcast of their program might be in the offing, as well. On a spring 2014 visit to the government-owned Saudi Broadcasting Corporation in Riyadh, I showed the Asfar YouTube clips to a senior official with influence over programming decisions. He manifested enthusiasm and a desire to connect with the youth. I followed up with a note of mutual introduction recently. How serious SBC proves to be about granting the program a platform remains to be seen, but the official’s initial surprise that such a program exists in the Kingdom suggests that the government has been remiss in seeking out young talent or new media trends. At the same time, his apparently genuine show of interest indicates that there are new opportunities for enterprising Saudis to partner with government media. This was news to the Asfar team, who had not previously considered delivering a pitch to public television there.

Meanwhile, Tahrir Academy’s strategy to enter Egypt’s educational system and media begins with the principle that neither is a monolith, and that it may be possible to forge alliances with influential people who can advocate for the group within the establishment. In April 2014, the Academy welcomed Dr. Faruq al-Baz to join its board of directors. ِAs brother of the late Osama el-Baz, longtime senior advisor to former president Hosni Mubarak, he enjoys credibility with stalwarts of the military-led government. And as a scientist, he straddles the politics of Egyptian academia (as an Adjunct Professor of Geology at Cairo’s Ain Shams University) and the American scientific community, where he participated in NASA’s early moon exploration and sits on the Board of the Geological Society of America.

At a media event, Baz heartily endorsed Tahrir Academy, dubbing the group “an ambitious, patriotic project.” “The energy and zeal of the Academy’s young volunteers is enough to show that a better future lies ahead for Egypt,” he said, and predicted that the group would become “influential within a short few years.” Ghonim, Tahrir’s controversial founder and benefactor, used the occasion to hold out an olive branch to the Egyptian establishment: “Connecting Egypt’s students and youth with [the country’s] senior scholars—and benefiting from their expertise and experiences—is one of our institution’s strategic goals.” In other words, despite the Academy’s initially harsh comments about the “mind-numbing [Egyptian] educational system based on rote memorization,” Ghonim would now like to be seen as a team player who wants to contribute something new and constructive to the system. With establishment voices like Faruq al-Baz vouching for the Academy, Ghonim gains advocates within government, and perhaps by extension some latitude, both in terms of the Academy’s capacity to stand up for its principles in the public discussion, and in terms of its outreach to potential foreign backers.

It is reasonable to hope that over time Tahrir Academy will stabilize its position in Egypt enough to pursue and accept foreign (including American) funding. Support from the United States can come in many forms, moreover, and need not be tied to a grant-making institution that has been stigmatized by local media and politicians in Cairo. The all-volunteer Egyptian Students’ Association at MIT, founded and run by Hussein, shows that an Egyptian expat who has gained expertise in a distant superpower can win acceptance back home where others are held at arm’s length. Thus American-Egyptian “clubs” and “friendship societies” have an important role to play as conduits for talent and resources, both intellectual and financial. Meanwhile, the formidable grant aid which the United States earmarks for Egyptian education can also find its way to Tahrir, to the extent that the Academy manages to engineer internal consent for such an arrangement within the Egyptian system.

Anazi, for his part, sees another potential way to gain a wider Saudi audience, involving business investment rather than private philanthropy: “There is currently no equivalent to the Discovery Channel or [the National Geographic Channel] in the Arabic language,” he says. “We can become one of these, if we try hard enough. We already have our microphone, we have an isolated room with no echo. We need editors, designers, to take a little bit of the load off [Asfar co-founder] Rakkan because he does most of the work by himself.” An angel investor, he explains, could help the group upgrade its rudimentary setup to produce more content—and more sophisticated content—and could persuade a large media company to partner with the group in building a profitable commercial venture. While the Saudi government was slow in spotting the talent at Asfar, local entrepreneurs were not. “We got a few calls from some of the big local media companies,” Anazi says, “but we’re still discussing it amongst ourselves, because if we do go with them, we’ll turn from nonprofit and completely spontaneous to something business-driven.”

Asfar, Tahrir Academy, and similar nascent efforts throughout the region face a Rubik’s cube of dilemmas in attempting to build their audience and, ultimately, to change the culture of discourse and deliberation in their societies. But amid breathtaking change in nearly every Arab country, new doors are opening for them as well. With enough strategic acumen, perseverance, backing, and luck, they might just pull it off.

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