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The most successful institutions of higher learning in our part of the world have been those that were bold enough to break the mould of traditionalism by edifying their students, especially those majoring in the humanities, on how to think, not what to think.

The American University of Beirut (AUB), which has been a fixture of the world of academia in the Middle East since it admitted its first batch of students — 66 of them — in 1866, was last week ranked by QS, the higher education think-tank, as the number one university in the Arab world for the 2017-2018 scholastic year. A well-deserved award, I say. In our time, its alumni included some outstanding figures, such as Charles Malek, the Lebanese philosopher and diplomat, who served as the president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1958; Omar Al Saqqaf, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs (1968-1974); Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize; George Habash, leader in his heydays in the 1970s, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and, yes, lest we forget, Eliyahu Eilat, a Russian Jew who immigrated to Palestine in 1924 and went on to become Israel’s first ambassador to the United States in 1948.

All well and good. But what happens when our university graduates, who enter the adult world with heightened expectations of themselves and of their societies, hit an iron wall of constraints placed on their intellectual inquisitiveness, certainly on the critical role they are meant to play in transforming the Arab world’s existing political, economic and social structures? What happens is this: The educational resources of these young men and women, which are part of their respective nation’s social capital, remain fallow. As simple as that.

The Arab world cannot achieve progress so long as those tasked with being the engine of change in it fear retribution for freely advancing their innovative, and at times adversarial ideas as journalists and social critics, theoreticians and ideologues, educators and activists.

Clearly, most of us are familiar with those eight splendid Arab Human Development Reports released between 2002 and 2009, sponsored by the UN Development Programme, which provided leading Arab scholars with a platform through which they analysed the shortcomings that afflict the Arab world and offered a kind of (very serious and very earnest) magic bullet to their resolution — namely the need to respect human rights, gender equality, free speech and assembly, the diffusion of open ideas — unpopular though they may be — a broadminded elementary and secondary school educational system where students learn not by rote but via debate, the coupling of economic prosperity and basic human needs, and the rest of it. The exhortations were all there, short of one — kill all the lawyers first.

What these folks were really saying can be summed up in a few words: A civil society that respects the need of citizens to be who they are — to live as they please, to exercise the right to be wrong — without fear of retaliation is a society that will be able to thrust itself beyond its fixed meaning with impressive ease.

In 1664, John Milton, the polemical author, poet and scholar (and who amongst us who had majored in English Literature at college was not assigned the task of reading Milton’s On Liberty?) delivered that famous speech of his to the then republican English parliament, where, opposing the body’s rigid stance on censorship, he hollered that freedom of expression was more than just an inalienable individual right — it was the most important pillar of human liberty. Striking a Hegelian note, long before Hegel and Hegelian phenomenology became fashionable, he had said: “Even a false statement may be deemed to make a valuable contribution to the public debate, since it brings about a clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Then, to top it off, he added: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Deny young Arab graduates, or other cultivated Arabs, irrespective of their academic credentials, this liberty that is “above all other liberties”, and they will pack their bags and move elsewhere. And there’s nothing worse for a developing country than having to haemorrhage socially from the brain drain.

Former US president Barack Obama, in that iconic speech that he had delivered in Cairo on June 4, 2009, reminded Arabs that they are heirs of an Islamic Golden Age of civilisational splendour, “When Islam carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Reformation”. Heady stuff, to be reminded by the foremost leader of the free world of the glories of our Golden Age, when the Islamic Commonwealth of Nations was civilisationally ascendant in the global dialogue of cultures. It is, however, gloomy stuff to remind yourself that your world today — at least for the most part — is defined by an anti-rationalist, anti-intellectualist bent of mind.

Obama’s reference to the Golden Age of Arabs was, in effect, an evocation of a lost Eden, where our tormented thinkers, whether graduates of the AUB or belonging to the school of hard knocks — forever throwing furtive glances over their shoulders — would have felt very much at home.

It’s about time we rolled up our sleeves and got to work on the recommendations made by those folks from the UN-sponsored Arab Human Development Reports, in order for us to overcome our failures, for when nations fail, they fall by the wayside, becoming easy prey for predatory entities like Israel and pathological groups like Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.