By Allan Siao Ming Witherick
Most will have heard of the European Union or Arab League, some will have come across ASEAN and ASEM and of late the news has had coverage of the BRICS coming together. Many of these can find their roots in economic drivers, more so than peace and security. There are of course more culturally motivated groups, often starting in one country, organisations like the British Council which could be seen as ‘soft diplomatic’ power or indeed the Commonwealth.
Perhaps this focus helps to explain a bit about the lack of Western knowledge and awareness of ISESCO, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, our host here in Morocco. When you go to the Wikipedia entry, used for many English speakers as their point of reference, the article is barely two paragraphs, a ‘stub’. For an organisation that represents 50 states, it says a lot about how little attention we give to those outside our Westernised focus and sphere of influence.
This can be set in stark contrast to the UNAOC entry and perhaps reflects the different emphasis placed on the importance of self promotion that we experience in the West. A systems where we end up in a cycle of hearing about an organisation, wanting to learn more and the resultant pressure causing an increase with more knowledge being shared.
Where we don’t hear, we risk not asking and thus not learning about, or relying on what is often a biased media representation. Hence some of the value of this programme in broadening horizons.
They themselves agree that in many ways ISESCO are the UNESCO for the Islamic world, and the educational and cultural arm of the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference). Perhaps the positive difference they experience within this broad ‘church’(or perhaps this should be Mosque in this cultural context) is that, with greater ties to join them, they have not suffered the uncertainties of funding experienced by other organisations such as the afore mentioned UNESCO, where a major donor can cause huge disruption in reaction to a democratic vote.
Of course we must not fall in to that common trap of seeing a large title, such as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’ and assuming that the groups which sit underneath this vast umbrella are homogenous. I know most readers would not make this mistake with the different flavours of Christianity and equally we should not do that with the Muslim world which sees a split between Sunni and Shia such that the same road might have two different mosques in the same way that many Westerners are perhaps more likely to experience two different Cathedrals in close proximity. And indeed the organisation works both on internal dialogue, between different countries, ethnicities and groups as well as externally facing within the wide scope of its activities.
The difference is perhaps that the religious motivator is one where, in an increasingly apathetic Western culture, we are less in touch and able to understand it’s values. Indeed, some of those taking part in the decision making are not Muslims, but recognise the benefits which might be realised by working together. It would not be too extreme to say that where there is ignorance, then often it is easy for fear to be fostered and this is part of why the external facing aspect of this work is so important.
In terms of our groups questions and the discussion, this was extremely wide-ranging, reflecting our lack of knowledge combined with the breadth of ISESCO.
Like any international organisation their work has focused on multilateralism to ensure not just the number of partners participating, but also the added value that each might individually bring to the table. So for example when questioned about their work on education, literacy and women’s rights, issues which are sometimes seen to be a Western focus, we find that actually the concerns are not dissimilar. We raised queries on whether there was resistance to the push for literacy, in particular for women, in rural areas? Where females are employed does it lead to the same opportunities?
The response back was refreshing. As, what might be described as, a liberal Arabic country, there had been little issue in terms of stigma against education or females, indeed later on in the day we heard how the parliament even had a youth and women’s list to help address inequalities in representation. There were positive movements, with most of the staff of ISESCO being female. Further questioning revealed that they were present throughout all levels with many being experts or Heads of their respective fields. The example was cited of the Scientific Research section which was recognised as an important area being headed by a female.
In terms of literacy they have recognised that the issue is far wider than the simple concept of basic skills. There are new forms of illiteracy developing as it changes to include critical thinking, and even the use of ICT. Technology can exclude almost as much as it enhances the opportunities thanks to the changing skill set required. This of course leads to diversification in training and capacity- do you train towards a specific job or role as quicker and easier to be effective, or the sake of learning with a broader scope and self-fulfilment?
Some of the experiences reflected issues shared not just with the Arabic world, but with the global community. Work around youth and the employment of youth, ‘Fear of Failure’, creating the space for risk taking, questioning and analysis, is something that in recent years many countries have tried to capture, especially in the BRIC countries where the Chinese and Russians are working hard to develop entrepreneurs to in-turn boost their own economies.
Of course, as with all things to do with young people, the definition itself was more wide ranging than many are used to: including those up to the age of 40. This is in comparison to Europe which reaches to 35 or the UK for example which only reaches to 26. A subtle reminder that even when we think we are speaking the same language, there are clear differences in expectations.
Something we will be questioning and learning more about as we continue.
You can find out a little bit more about what they’ve got in store for us from ISESCO itself.