Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

Education and the Management of Populations


At the beginning of this chapter I stated that Mitchell's Foucauldian analysis of Egyptian schools, focusing on the theoretical principles behind mass education and its disciplinary conventions, was inadequate to understand the school's ambiguous role in Egyptian society. While it is true both that increasing numbers of students were enrolled in public education projects during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and that the patrons and planners of such projects hoped they would thereby become useful, productive, and contented citizens, it does not follow from this that the latter goal was necessarily achieved. Nor does it follow that no other, unanticipated results were achieved by the institution of mass schooling. As Mitchell himself recognized, even though the colonial order penetrated local discourse “through its textbooks, school teachers, universities, newspapers, novels and magazines,” still

this colonising process never fully succeeded, for there always remained regions of resistance and voices of rejection. The schools, universities and the press, moreover, like the military barracks, were always liable to become centres of some kind of revolt, turning the colonisers' methods of instruction and discipline into the means of organized opposition. (Hence the rise after the First World War of disciplinary political movements opposed to European occupation, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whose leaders were almost invariably school teachers.)[131]

As another example, the role of Egyptian schools as cradles of nationalist sentiment and the consequent participation of students in nationwide anti-British strikes and demonstrations in March and October of 1919 gave officials pause and indicates some discrepancy between theory and practice. The dilemma of “disciplinary spread” from the point of view of political and cultural elites is, as we saw in the introduction, a serious problem, and highlights the inability of policymakers and educators to reconcile reality to their theories about it. If schools, universities, the press, and the military barracks act as centers of revolt, it is because the spread of their unique disciplinary practices across the whole of society is accompanied by the spread of the distinctly new techniques and potentials for revolt associated with them. A new system of power uniformly diffused, serves, among other things, to surround dominant classes with new sources of anxiety and threat. One way of tracing the historical genesis of the Jihad group that assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 leads back to Sadat's own encouragement of Islamic student organizations on Egyptian university campuses in the early 1970s, which he intended to wipe out the leftist organizations who supported the policies of his predecessor, Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser.[132] Quickly losing control over the forces he had purposely unleashed, Sadat engaged throughout the decade in a series of repressions and rapprochements with Islamist and other opposition groups that resulted in the alienation of substantial portions of the country's intelligentsia and eventually in his death at the hands of members of his own military. Neither the barracks nor the school had done its job.

So society's elites as well as its working classes are caught up in the “self-damnation” (the image is Paul Willis's) of contradictory process of cultural and social reproduction. If the working classes help reproduce their own subordination, so cultural and political elites regularly make choices that threaten their own power in the very attempt to ensure its spread. By relying on techniques of power that are “slow, uninterrupted and without external manifestation,” [133] imperial and Egyptian elites began in the nineteenth century to relinquish the predictability of control they sought to gain, for as Raymond Williams has pointed out with respect to Europe, “There was no way to teach a man to read the Bible… which did not also enable him to read the radical press” [134] —precisely the problem about which Eldon Gorst complained in 1909.

And yet we continue to face the problem of historical narratives that describe Egypt's passage into “modern” politics and culture (either of the modernization or the Foucauldian brand) as a glacial transformation: homogenous, all-encompassing, and ineluctable. Before continuing with our own narrative of educational change in Egypt, it is worthwhile to pause momentarily and examine this tendency, for it will tell us something important about how scholarship, in creating the objects of its study, often acts to reproduce the very intellectual categories it argues explicitly against. Christopher Herbert, in his recent book Culture and Anomie, has argued—with respect to Williams himself—that “the presumption that history is logically coherent and intelligible, and therefore subject to extensive operations of summary and synthesis without serious distortion,” is mistaken. Instead, history (and its reflection in literature) “is bound to be an affair of paradoxes, dense textures of implication, logical disjunctions and circularities, ambiguities and illegibilities.” [135] While understanding the complexities of history would seem to require not only recognition of this fact, but a conscientious attempt to address it, much historical writing—including some of the most theoretically informed—serves to reproduce standing metanarratives of development with very old historical roots.

With respect to Egypt, this is accomplished in part by downplaying the failures of disciplinary projects that can be used as central examples or tropes of wide-ranging social changes. Mitchell, for example, uses the minute disciplinary conventions of the nineteenth-century Lancaster school—developed in India and Britain to provide cheap instruction for the working classes—as the type specimen of the new Egyptian government school, despite scant evidence that the Lancaster model reached beyond a single model institution in Cairo and the writings of several Egyptian intellectuals and civil servants who had trained in the Lancaster method abroad. Despite the method's enthusiasts, proposals to revive and propagate the model failed.[136] The “model villages” established on rectilinear plans by the French in mid-century, attempting to use army methods in the village “to achieve the new order of the barracks,” are also used as a metaphor for disciplinary encroachment, but in reality these soon broke down and left neither plans nor remains.[137] In fact, again and again the plans made by the new educated elites can be read as a history of spectacular failures rather than insidious successes. Egyptians studying abroad in Europe in the 1830s and hoping to school Egyptians in European philosophies of discipline and development had their proposals for school construction rejected,[138] and those who idealistically translated works on European educational philosophy later became nationalist leaders rejecting European domination.[139]

The developmental sequences read into Egyptian history by Mitchell (and into European history by Foucault), namely, that personal and physical power gives way to disciplinary power, are precisely the same as those read by nineteenth-century evolutionism and twentieth-century modernization theory (arbitrary power gives way to rational power), merely with a different moral evaluation. We need a way to reconcile the confident and commonsense writings and records left to us by history, with the anxious, ambiguous, and asymmetrical experiences those writings reflected and provoked within their lived context. Let me suggest—as a prelude to the textual analyses in the following chapters—that administrative memoirs and educational planning documents are neither descriptive nor strictly hortatory, but performative and hegemonic in Williams's sense, representing

a saturation of the whole process of living…to such a depth that the pressures and limits of what can ultimately be seen as a specific economic, political, and cultural system seem to most of us the pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense.…[Hegemony] is a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values—constitutive and constituting—which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming.[140]

This hegemony, the cultural level through which Willis sees structural determinants being mediated, hides structural tensions and cultural contradictions both from subordinate and dominant classes. The articulate ideologies of educational theorists and colonial administrators are among the elite's tools of self-construction, tools they use to create for themselves consistent experiences of inconsistent social processes. But the creation and application of a plan, the attempt to transform reality into the facsimile of a specific text, is a complex process whose results do not simultaneously or efficiently serve all the interests of the dominant groups or classes in society. It is always historically contingent, problematic, and uncertain. Although colonial educational policies were in some ways relatively generic European blueprints for the imposition of social order, most policies were tailored by and for specific populations at specific times. In Egypt, popular schools were restricted to Arabic to prevent flight from the fields, and religion was retained as the primary focus of instruction in inspected kuttabs. In Morocco, on the other hand, French policy toward the education of Berber children made French the language of teaching and prohibited instruction in Arabic and in Islam to prevent alliance of the mountain tribes with the Arabic- speaking Muslims of the plains.[141] In the Arabian desert, education for bedouin children derides nomadic values and practices, stressing urban values and settled life-styles, but the results have not been the settlement of mobile populations, but the avoidance of too much schooling in favor of practical training in the military and a subsequent reinvestment in herding.[142] Each of these policies has had different and largely unforeseeable empirical effects. One of the interesting and significant questions to ask, then, is not about whether strategies of social control are implicit in educational systems (they always are), but how elites use such strategies as part of their self-definition with respect to specific subordinated populations, and how these latter populations appropriate educational systems for their own purposes.

During the course of the nineteenth century the Egyptian kuttab was made to take on new subjects (arithmetic, geography, etc.). It also continued to fulfill its original function, the transmission of religious culture, but in a different way, and with a different manner of articulation to the community and to the state. The development of new forms of teacher training and certification, the institution of “a scheme of practical instruction in the principles and religious history of Islam,” the spread of testing in specific subjects and of inspection and accountability to a distant bureaucracy, all served to alter the social and spiritual role of Islamic instruction. The fiqhi's responsibility to the men who sent their sons to learn from him was first joined, and later replaced, by his responsibility to the Ministry of Education or to the provincial council.

Likewise, these bureaucracies assumed the responsibility to provide for the spiritual and intellectual well-being of individuals in the communities where they aided or administered schools. Thus not only the kuttabs themselves, but the social relationships (between parent and fiqhi) that had constituted them, were functionalized, appropriated by outside forces for the satisfaction of outside ends. In order to effect this and other important transformations in the social and mental life of the Egyptians, schools would in principle have to overcome what Europeans viewed as the cumulative intellectual degradation that education had allegedly suffered through the centuries at the hand of the “barren tradition” of Islam. It is this effort to which we now turn.

Education and the Management of Populations

Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.