ESSAY: Teaching at Georgetown-Qatar: Liberal Education Amid Illiberalism


By Gary Wasserman

A couple of years after she graduated Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, a former student stopped by my office. Dressed in a traditional black abaya robe and brushing strands of brown hair off her forehead, she explained that she wanted to apply to graduate school in England. The problem was that she was vague about what she actually wanted to study. I told her that it would be difficult to write a recommendation if I wasn’t sure why she wanted to attend.  Finally, she blurted out the truth. “I don’t really want to go to graduate school, but if I stay in Qatar my family will make me get married. Going to London for grad school is acceptable to them. That means I can put off getting married and not have to confront my parents.”

I wrote the recommendation. In a sense, my student was offering a lesson in how to use a liberal education to carve out autonomy from her traditional society. Underlying Georgetown’s educational mission in Doha lie a set of values summed up as a liberal education. American universities, Georgetown included, in the six schools now in Doha, Qatar, embrace a free marketplace of ideas: a diversity of scholars in an unhindered search for truth. Above all is the encouragement of an individual’s freedom of thought and expression. Closely aligned to this intellectual freedom is an inevitable embrace of humanitarian values in a flattening 21st Century global political economy. This means tolerance and personal liberty for individuals regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, religion or political beliefs.

Our community’s embrace of liberal freedoms is not limited to classrooms, bookshelves and websites. It is reflected in a host of beliefs about our students’ and scholars’ personal and professional lives. I have heard colleagues in Doha declare their teaching goals to be, ‘teaching students to think for themselves.’ This is true to a point. Analyzing facts and reaching evidence-based conclusions is central to scholarship. But equally valid is that we don’t expect students to come to illiberal conclusions on racism, sexism, tribalism, religious intolerance, etc.

Educators teach abroad to eviscerate these biases, not to reinforce them. We are not just offering training in research methods for acquiring knowledge. We are teaching liberal values that we hope will be applied in a lifetime of tolerant relations with other people-- women, minorities, migrant workers and religious dissenters included. Scratch a liberal academic and you’ll find a missionary.

Yet American universities in the Middle East dwell in an imperfect realpolitik world of wealth and exploitation, politics and oppression. They live in rapidly transforming societies populated by embattled fundamentalists, suspicious of modernizers undermining their traditions. Western education may be generally endorsed. But when applied on the ground it will produce uncomfortable tensions as foreign professionals and domestic allies struggle to implement their progressive approaches to learning. America’s higher education transplants, Georgetown included, are taking root in illiberal soil. Dorothy’s iconic observation in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” applies here.

Tolerance for nonconforming speech and behavior, for civic culture, for workers rights, for an independent press, and for religious differences are only grudgingly and inconsistently allowed. At their grassroots these are fundamentalist societies resting on loyalty to family, faith and tribe. Conformity to orthodoxy and group stability are elevated far above individual freedom. Nor is it a coincidence that America’s universities overseas have generally located in states run by top-down, autocratic governing elites. Curiously, if western academics’ progressive ideas of popular participation were implemented in these societies foreign universities that educate the heirs of leadership groups might be shunned as an unwelcomed, luxury import. It may be just as well that public support for funding American higher education has never been put to a democratic vote by their Arab hosts.

The complexity of this interaction is reflected in our students’ lives. For many of them education is not seen with the same narrow gaze of young Americans that focus on individual achievement. Instead their learning serves, or at least coexists, with their ties to family, community and religion. While historically liberalism has helped individuals’ escape from group identities, for these traditional societies education needs to bolster collective roles. Students in Doha may only be seeking credentials of admission to the global political economy from their university degree, but their exposure to Enlightenment ideas is an unavoidable byproduct. The tension from the pull of tradition and the push of liberalism leaves many in unresolved conflict. This can be seen most clearly in the dilemmas facing women graduates, including my former student, as they negotiate traditional expectations with their own ambitions. If forced to chose only one measure of Georgetown’s success in Doha, one could do worse than ask: what are female graduates doing after they leave school? Have they been reabsorbed into prescribed roles in their families (which they have a perfect right to do)? Or have they pushed the boundaries a bit, becoming the innovators that their countries so badly need. Which way the Muslim world goes is also the question of where their women lead. The outcome of this interface is unpredictable, with little guidance from history for what Georgetown and others are attempting.

For now, our universities need protection and independence. Books ordered by faculty cannot be stopped in Customs or banned by faceless bureaucrats; co-ed education with no discrimination toward women in lifestyle or careers must be a given; universities cannot violate their own charter by conforming to boycotts or quotas that exclude students and faculty because of their national origin, Israel included. Multiple identities from a world of ethnicities, religions, nationalities and political beliefs should be reflected within Doha’s academic walls. They are needed because they provide the diversity students require to compete on a global playing field in their careers. Georgetown’s novel educational experiment in Doha requires Arab and American guardians sharing a vision of a future not yet realized.

Gary Wasserman was a professor of government at Georgetown University in Doha for eight years.  His memoir, The Doha Experiment, has just been published by Skyhorse Publishing.