Francis Ricciardone during the interview. He was in the UAE last week for the ‘AUC in Dubai’ event. Image Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News

Dubai: Extremism should be openly discussed at universities to counter fanaticism and bridge civilisations, the president of The American University in Cairo (AUC) said last week in Dubai.

Francis J. Ricciardone, a former diplomat, told Gulf News in an interview that such discussion is “vitally more important now” in today’s world where hardliners are driving a wedge between the East and the West.

Boston-born Ricciardone — who has served as US ambassador to Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines and Palau, and deputy ambassador to Afghanistan — was speaking on the sidelines of the ‘AUC in Dubai’ event held last week.

It [extremism] should be discussed at university because they [extremists] represent the failure of civilisation. It’s important to analyse, when we see the failure of civilisation, what led to the failures.”

 - Francis Ricciardone, American University in Cairo president

He pointed out that, while discussing the perils of extremism, it was also essential to espouse “an affirmative mission” of rebuilding human values that transcend divisive thought.

“It [extremism] should be discussed at university because they [extremists] represent the failure of civilisation. It’s important to analyse, when we see the failure of civilisation, what led to the failures. But, at the same time, it’s important to have an affirmative mission for the strengthening and the building of civilisation, human dignity, human creativity, human worth, and that’s our mission. Our mission is an affirmative one,” Ricciardone, who speaks Arabic, Italian, Turkish and French, said.

“The fanatics, the terrorists, the extremists have a negative [mission] — they aim to divide … even dividing within the world of Islam. We’re not about dividing. We’re about bringing people together, not trying to make them one big mush; letting people have their distinctive faiths and identities and passions, but also valuing that someone has a very different one and seeing that as a good and positive thing.”

He said reinforcing tolerance of diversity through “communication and collaboration” was the need of the hour.

The AUC, which will be celebrating its centenary next year, has carried “the purpose to bridge East and West from the beginning”, Ricciardone added.

“That’s how we started out — an English-language, American-style liberal arts education in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world — purely as a labour of love. Americans believed 100 years ago — and even now do — that education is something we need to bring us together. And we, AUC, saw it as a two-way street.”

Speaking about ‘AUC in Dubai’, Ricciardone said one reason for choosing Dubai to hold the event was to reach out directly to Emirati students, as well as Egyptian students and students of other nationalities in the UAE.

“We encourage them, as they are looking at their alternatives for international education at university-level, to include AUC among their considerations. If they want an American-style, inquiry-based education, we supply it and we’re only two time zones from [the UAE], not nine time zones to the [US] East Coast and 11 time zones to California. So we’re closer and we’re American — yet in an Arab, Muslim country and culture, which is a fascinating one. Egypt is so attractive.”

Another main reason, he added, was that “there are visionaries here who see the importance of education on a global scale and for the advancement of this entire region. There are philanthropists here, but they are visionary ones”.

Ricciardone provided the example of Dubai-based Abdullah Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, which supports high-achieving Arab students who would otherwise remain underserved.

He said the foundation also “looks to advance the pedagogy and the curriculum for the entire region. So we work with visionaries like them to up our game to meet the needs of the people here, and in a country as dynamic as the UAE, there are the resources and the vision to make an incredible collaboration”.