Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Christianity and Individualism Part 2: A Look at Arab-Christians in Israel and the Copts in Egypt.

Some notable Arab Christians in Israel examples of individualism

This is a follow up on my previous post about the role of Christianity in the promotion of individualism. I was thinking that if Christianity really is a vehicle for individualism, then this would be manifest in the value that Christians everywhere put on the development of the individual, which would then be expressed in terms of investment in education. I also thought that such an effect would be seen most clearly among Christians living in collective societies, in other words among those people who straddle both cultures. In this post I'll examine two such cases of Christians living in or adjacent to Muslim collective societies: Israel and Egypt.

My thoughts on this subject started years ago, when I used to live in the Galilee, next to a large Arab village populated by Christian Arabs, Druze, and Muslims. All three groups lived, of course, in the exact same material conditions, yet the differences between them were, to me, quite striking. The Arab-Christians that I encountered always seemed more light-hearted, more themselves, and less pre-occupied with the surrounding society. The uniqueness of Christian-Arab society is evident throughout the entire country as well. 

In a recent article, Hanna David[1] reports that Arab-Christians in Israel have better and higher levels of education than any other group in the country, including Jews. For instance, in the year 2011, 56% of Arab-Christians that graduated from high school met higher education entrance requirements, compared to 50% among Jews, and only 34% of Muslims. Arab-Christians schools are considered the best Arab schools in the country, and actually set nation-wide records for highest percentage of students matriculating successfully, with the highest grades in the country. Christian schools also have an inordinate number of students that are considered excellent. These achievements are shared equally by Christian women. The Arab-Christian educational advantage also manifests itself in the workplace where Arab-Christians are disproportionately represented in science and white-collar professions. Clearly, Christian-Arabs in Israel are over-achievers, but are they unique in this respect? Do other Christian populations invest more than their Muslim counterparts in the development of an autonomous individual - as measured by education?

An examination of the Copts in Egypt, shows mixed results. According to Saleh[2], non-Muslims in Egypt had better educational systems and better educational outcomes as well as disproportionate representation in white collar occupations throughout the medieval ages and the 19th century. For instance, in 1848, school enrollment among male children 5-14 years of age in Cairo was 34% for Muslims, 51% for Christians, and 80% for Jews. He also notes that Muslims schools did not teach practical subjects, only religious matters. Saleh attributes these differences to the Muslim conquest and the subsequent levying of the jizya tax on non-Muslims, which caused the poorer Copts to convert, creating a small but well-educated minority, whose advantage was preserved due to traditional occupational structure and policies. It is unclear, though, by what power the dhimmi population forced Muslims to teach only religious subjects in their schools. 
Pennington marks the rise of modernity in Egypt in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a period of prosperity and progress for the Copt community in Egypt. At this time many barriers were removed from their participation in public life and liberal ideas took hold, for a short while, in Egyptian society. According to Pennington, by the end of the 19th century Copts made up 45% of the civil service, mostly due to their attention to quality education.[3] In fact, the decline in the civil and economic fortunes of Egypt can be traced, among other factors, to the dispossession and exclusion of the Copts through Nasser's socialist-economic and political reforms, which began a wave of Copt immigration that continues to this day.[4],[5]
According to a recent survey, the current differences between Copts and Muslims in most demographic variables, including education, are slight, though Copts are still a bit more well-represented in white collar jobs and slightly better represented in higher education. It is noteworthy, though, that about 21 percent of both Copts and Muslims do not have any education at all, and this in the year 2008[6] (the 2005 Human Development Report for Egypt puts the illiteracy number at 35%. I'm not sure where the discrepancy comes from). Saleh attributes this leveling of educational and occupational attainment in Egypt to Nasser's forced modernization program.[7]

The thesis that Christianity promotes individualism among Christian populations seems a bit simplistic in the sense that many other factors may contribute to the current situation of the two populations discussed above. There is the obvious difference between Christians living in a liberal democracy that does not impede their advancement (that would be Israel, in case you're wondering), as opposed to an Islamic dictatorship that has discriminated against Christians for centuries (Egypt). In fact, the current situation of the Copts in Egypt is probably the worst it has been in recent memory. Also, both Christian populations discussed here belong to the Eastern Church, while individualism in the form we know it today developed in Western Christianity. That probably makes a difference as well.

On a side note, I remember reading an article (I wracked my brain and computer but couldn’t find it) pointing out the differences between Christian Arabs and Muslim educational achievements in Israel. The author claimed that the gap was caused by the fact that the Christians benefited from the many excellent private schools that the European powers opened through their church missions in Palestine in the 19th century. There may be some substance to that argument and I'd like to pursue that idea for a moment.

In a fascinating historical document published in the year 1932, Dr. Khalil Totah[8], a Christian Arab scholar (of course), surveys the educational landscape at the time of the Mandate but he also refers to earlier periods. First an amusing anecdote: Totah points out that the British established a Department of Education to administer the government schools and supervise the private ones. In 1930 the department's budget was 150,000 pounds…compared to Israel's current educational budget of 46 billion NS(!).

At the time, 70% of the children receiving an education attended private schools. 40% of Jews went to such schools compared to 21% of Christians and 9% of Muslims. The first Christian schools were established in Byzantine times by the Greek Orthodox Church, but Christian educational institutes really made their mark only after the Western powers gained a powerful foothold in Palestine following the Crimean War (1853-1856). As a result, the Catholic and Anglican Church established many schools in the Holy Land, both primary and secondary. These schools served both boys and girls, taught secular subjects alongside religion and in general trained their students to be a part of modern society. Often the language of instruction was not even Arabic but rather English or French. At the same time, Muslims also established their own private schools, though on a lesser scale, but they were funded and administered locally. The author does not say what exactly was taught in these schools so for this we turn to another survey of educational practice during the Mandate, by Tibawi.[9]
First Tibawi states that the British inherited – and did not change - the Turkish system of millets, in which every religious group had its own school. The Turks did establish states schools with a secular (as well as religious) curriculum as part of their modernization reforms, but these were populated by Muslims only and they were resisted by the local religious authorities. Thus there was uneasy competition between Muslim religious and secular schools during the 19th century, before the British takeover. 

The British inherited the Turkish secular schools (these are the government schools that Totah refers to) and controlled them to a much greater degree than the Turks before them. The Supreme Muslim Council, established in 1921 by the local Arabs (at the time they did not think of themselves as Palestinians), resisted British control by establishing its own department of education and gaining control of Muslim private schools. The curriculum in these schools was secular but heavily influenced by religious and nationalist ideas. Since most Muslim children studied in government schools out of the control of the Council, which were secular but did teach Islam as a subject, it turned its attention to informal education where it greatly succeeded in forming boy scouts, youth clubs and Young Muslim Men's Associations (to compete with the Christians ones, which were now accused of being missionary and harming "Arab Unity") all of which were heavily politicized.

What are we to make of all this? To the extent that the schools established by the Turks were inferior to those established by the various Christian churches, than it is true that the Christians had a head start over the Muslims. On the other hand, as in Egypt, investment in education is a choice. Also, even when the Muslim leaders in Palestine decided to invest in education it was mostly for instrumental (political/religious) reasons, not humanitarian ones. The development of the individual per se was never – and still isn't – a primary goal of Muslim education. The reasons for this difference in attitude towards modern education, besides the obvious difference between a collectivist and individualist culture, will be discussed in a future post.

About Dr. Khalil Totah
Dr. Khalil Totah seems to be an interesting character. He was born in "1886 in the Christian Village of Ram Allah, Palestine only ten miles from Jerusalem" and his biography is worth reading in its entirety as it reflects an important piece if history. For instance, he refers to Ramallah as being a Christian city, a fact that today seems incredible. Like many people who tried to help the Arabs, he too was castigated. This is the story (italics are mine):
Schools in Palestine went on strike. In fact November 2, which is Balfour Day, has always been observed as a strike day by the Arabs. My students and some of my teachers struck and urged me to join them. My attitude to Arab strikes, which are too frequent and usually futile, was negative. I preached strenuous toil for the Arabs and not strikes, if they wished to stand up to the Zionists. I told them that every day's loss of work was permitting the Jews to get ahead of them by just that much. I would not join in the noisy mob in the streets nor march with the demonstration. The students went to such extremes of violence that my college was temporarily closed. The mob was after my scalp as a traitor to the Arab Cause. Like Pontius Pilate, the British authorities let me down in order to appease the crowd who cried, "crucify him, crucify him!" That was my reward for sticking to my principles, for faithfulness to real Arab interests and  - incidentally - for loyalty to Government orders which were issued to its officers in writing forbidding the strike. But of course, that was not an unusual performance on the part of the British politicians or politicians of any other country either.
I resigned and accepted a fellowship at Columbia University to work on the Contributions of the Arabs to Education. In 1926 I received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and published my dissertation on Arab Education.
For the third time I turned my face toward Palestine, as I loved the country and was happy in its service. Soon after my return I was invited to take the principalship of Friends Boys School, which I accepted, a position which I kept for seventeen years.
During an educational career of about twenty-five years with and for the Arabs, I was overwhelmed with the political, economic and social problems confronting them. Having known America and the West, I was consumed with the passion of doing my bit towards the creation of a new Arab World. Arab life needed an infusion of new blood. A new mutuality was needed, a fresh outlook and a modern approach. It was as clear as crystal from the very beginning that the Arab way of life could not compete with the new life brought in by the Zionists. While the Arabs talked, quarrelled among themselves and went on strikes, the Jews were gaining. Jewish gains were consistent and irresistible. In and out of season I preached to the Arabs to learn from the Jews, to improve their soil, to change their ways and to march with the times, but to no avail. The catastrophe finally came. Through their own drowsiness and the aggression of their foes they lost everything.
Sadly, not much has changed since these words were written in Israel or in the Middle East in general. 

Photo: Top left is Salim Joubran, a permanent member of the Supreme Court of Israel. Bottom right is Masaad Barhoum, Director of the Galilee Medical Center, the largest hospital in the Galilee. The lovely lady on the left  is Huda Naccache, who earned distinction by posing in a bikini on the cover of a popular Israeli-Arab magazine a few years ago. This was considered a revolution at the time. I admit that her achievements somewhat pale compared to the other two figures, but she is far prettier than both and considering the topics that I write about, it is not often that I have the opportunity to post some eye candy for my readers...

Bynum, Caroline Walker. "Did the twelfth century discover the individual?." The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 31, no. 01 (1980): 1-17.
David, Hanna. "Are Christian Arabs the New Israeli Jews? Reflections on the Educational Level of Arab Christians in Israel." Journal of Educational and Social Research 4, no. 5 (2014).

Elliott, Michael A. "Human rights and the triumph of the individual in world culture." Cultural Sociology 1, no. 3 (2007): 343-363.
Ibrahim, Fouad N. "Social and economic geographical analysis of the Egyptian Copts." GeoJournal 6, no. 1 (1982): 63-67.
Mohamoud, Yousra A., Diego F. Cuadros, and Laith J. Abu-Raddad. "Characterizing the Copts in Egypt: Demographic, socioeconomic and health indicators." QScience Connect (2013). 

Pennington, J. D. "The Copts in modern Egypt." Middle Eastern Studies 18, no. 2 (1982): 158-179.
Saleh, Mohamed. "The Reluctant Transformation: Modernization, Religion, and Human Capital in Nineteenth Century Egypt." Unpublished Manuscript (2011).
Tibawi, Abdul Latif. "Religion and Educational Administration in Palestine of the British Mandate." Die Welt des Islams (1953): 1-14.
Totah, Khalil. "Education in Palestine." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1932): 155-166.

[1] Hanna David, "Are Christian Arabs the New Israeli Jews? Reflections on the Educational Level of Arab Christians in Israel," Journal of Educational and Social Research 4, no. 5 (2014),
[2] Mohamed Saleh, "The Reluctant Transformation: Modernization, Religion, and Human Capital in Nineteenth Century Egypt." Unpublished Manuscript (2011).
[3] J.D. Pennington. "The Copts in modern Egypt." Middle Eastern Studies 18, no. 2 (1982): 158-179.
[4] Saad Eddin Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt (Cairo: The Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies). According to this report, Copts lost 75% of their property and jobs in Nasser's revolution. 
[5]  Ibrahim, Fouad N. "Social and economic geographical analysis of the Egyptian Copts." GeoJournal 6, no. 1 (1982): 63-67. Foud points out that Nasser's reforms included making Islamic belief a condition of joining the civil service, which naturally reduced the  historically high Copt participation. In the Finance ministry, Copt share of middle positions fell from 60% before the revolution to 16% in 1974.
[6]Mohamoud, Yousra A., Diego F. Cuadros, and Laith J. Abu-Raddad. "Characterizing the Copts in Egypt: Demographic, socioeconomic and health indicators." QScience Connect (2013).
[7] Saleh, p. 31
[8] Khalil Totah, "Education in Palestine." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1932): 155-166.
[9]Abdul Latif Tibawi, "Religion and Educational Administration in Palestine of the British Mandate." Die Welt des Islams (1953): 1-14.

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