Religion, Politics, and Education

It’s impossible to conceive of (never mind to live in) the Middle East without giving due consideration to subjects Americans tend to consider off-limits in polite conversation, viz. religion and politics. This past week, events at Bethlehem University have started me thinking about how these two hot-button topics relate to a third, (somewhat) less controversial one: education. On Thursday, September 6, these three areas came together as the University’s five-day International Religious Conference, Exploring Christian-Muslim Relations in the Middle East and the West, entered its second day in Millennium Hall while, in the nearby Auditorium, students rallied for the political party Fatah.

(Above: the conference poster outside Millennium Hall)

That these two events occurred simultaneously, within a few hundred yards of each other, at a Lasallian school signifies and underscores not only the importance of religion, politics, and education in this region, but also the often-close relationships among them.

These relationships, I’ve learned, are organized fairly predictably. Speaking very generally, Christian and Muslim Palestinians, students and faculty members alike, tend to see themselves as Palestinians first, as Christians or Muslims second, and as students or teachers third. None of these identities is at odds with the others; indeed, the three tend to support one another. Aspirations for a Palestinian state mesh seamlessly with Christian and Muslim ideals of social justice, and education is seen as the primary means whereby such statehood might be achieved and such ideals realized.

(Above: a courtyard on the day of the Fatah rally)

Religion, politics (or, more accurately, governmental objectives), and education are also linked in ways that might surprise Americans. (1) The government’s curriculum determines the offerings of both public and private schools; (2) although private schools are typically founded and run by religious orders, these schools aren’t considered “religious” in the way Americans might think of, say, Catholic schools as “religious”; (3) religion—and by “religion” I mean only Christianity and Islam, as other faiths seem to be elided here—is taught in both public or “government” schools and private schools.
Moreover, religion is included in the Tawjihi, an exam somewhat similar to the American SAT or ACT that Palestinian students seeking to pursue post-secondary education are required to take. (Until this year the Tawjihi covered only Islam, as Christians of various sects couldn’t agree on how precisely to add their respective theologies to the test; but now that an agreement among them has been reached the Tawjihi will also cover Christianity.)

The educational system here is rather complex, and I’m only beginning to understand it. Please research it for yourself by following the blog’s many links to the websites of schools, news and opinion outlets concerned with education, and governmental agencies. A good starting point would be statistical data on Palestinian education, which are available here.

In an upcoming posting I plan to discuss politics on campus, and to describe the Fatah rally—which was quite memorable, and which I very much enjoyed. For now I’ll end where I began, with the recent conference on Christian-Muslim relations. It was perfectly placed and timed: although Bethlehem University is a Catholic institution, approximately 70% of its students are Muslims; Ramadan has just begun; and Christmas, the high point of the tourist season in Bethlehem, is only a few months away. Surveying the city from the University’s hilltop campus, I see a landscape dotted with both minarets and spires, and I hear the call of the muezzin mingling with the tolling of church bells. Here Christian-Muslim relations are much more than an academic subject; they inform everyday life, and their cordiality is a model of inter-religious harmony that the rest of the world would do well to follow.

What most impressed me about the conference were the presentations by Bethlehem University students, both Christians and Muslims, who described in striking and personal terms their experiences with members of the other faith. Within the next week or two, I hope to add the texts of those presentations to the blog. You may read about them here, visit the conference website here, and explore an overview of the conference here.


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