December 15th, 2013

On Fareed Zakaria GPS, the problem with U.S. education

CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS features a discussion with Sal Khan, educator and former hedge fund analyst, Joel Klein, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Wendy Kopp, founder and chairwoman of Teach for All, and Tom Friedman, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for The New York Times and author of From Beirut to Jerusalem about the American education system and how it compares globally. Kurt Campbell, the former assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also spoke to Fareed about the execution of Kim Jung-Un’s uncle and what it says about the North Korean dictatorship to the rest of the world.

Additionally, Mustafa Akyol, journalist and author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (2013) discussed liberal, democratic Islam, and if the strictures of conservative Islam have a basis in the Koran.

Video and full transcript are available after the jump.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST:  This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE.  Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world.  I am Fareed Zakaria. We’ll start today’s show with a simple question.  Are America’s kids falling behind the rest of the world?  The recent release of international test scores suggests the answer might be yes.  I have a powerhouse panel to talk about the problem and solutions.  Former New York City’s schools chancellor Joel Klein.  Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp.  Sal Kahn, one of the most innovative educators in the world.  And Tom Friedman of the New York Times.  Then, to understand the protests that have roiled Ukraine over the past weeks, you have to go back a bit, to 1654.  And an execution in the hermit kingdom.  Why did North Korea’s Kim Jong Un have his own uncle killed and what does it mean for the world?  

Finally, how well do you know your world?  You’ll be surprised at what you don’t know. 

But, first, here’s my take.  In the midst of the extraordinary spectacle of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, in a stadium with some 90,000 mourners, including more than 90 heads of government, a small gesture caught the world’s attention.

Barack Obama moved to greet Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil.  On his way, he shook hands with the person to Rousseff’s right.  The photograph of that handshake ricocheted around the world.  Understandably, because the man Obama shook hands with was Raul Castro, president of Cuba.

Remember, the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba, and has a tight trade embargo in place against the island nation.  So, many wondered whether this handshake was the beginning of a great shift in policy.

I hope so.  Let’s begin by asking whether the existing policy is working.  In 1960, the United States enacted an embargo against Cuba.  Its purpose was simple and explicit: regime change.  

Did it work?  Well, until he retired from the presidency in 2008, Fidel Castro was the longest serving head of government in the world.  Surely that’s about as powerful evidence as one can get that the policy did not work and is not working.

The truth is that Cuba’s miserable economy is almost entirely its own fault. The Castro regime has coupled political repression with communist economic policies and the result, predictably, has been total failure and stagnation. 

But things are changing in Cuba.  The government has been experimenting with opening up elements of the economy.  By some estimates about 20 percent of the Cuban economy is now in the private sector.

The best path forward for Washington is one that has been recommended by many experts, from Jorge Casteneda, the former Mexican foreign minister to Human Rights Watch.  The United States should shift from a policy of regime change in Cuba, which has not worked, to one that promotes reform and human rights aggressively.

President Obama should offer the Cuban government a series of steps that would relax restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba, but only if they are matched by real economic and political reforms in Cuba. 

Let the Cuban people know, for example, that if its government were to free all political prisoners, the United States would be willing to relax the embargo.  

Americans should have greater faith in the power of markets, trade and travel to eat away at the Cuban dictatorship, strengthen Cuban civil society, including private business, and thus change the character of the country. 

Washington has tried isolation, sanctions, and embargoes against Cuba for more than five decades with dismal results.  Why not try capitalism for five years?

Let’s get started.

“An absolute wake-up call for America,” that’s what U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the recent release of test scores showing how American kids compared with their peers around the world.

The test is called the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA. Here’s how American kids ranked:  17th of 34 countries in reading, 21st in science, 26th in math, which doesn’t look good.

How do we improve them?  I have a terrific panel.  Joel Klein is the former chancellor of New York City’s school system.  Wendy Kopp is the CEO and co-founder of Teach for All and the founder of Teach for America.

Sal Khan, well, Sal Khan is one of the most innovative educators in the world and, of course, the founder of Khan Academy.  And Tom Friedman is the three-time, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times.

Joel, you’ve seen these results for years.  What do you think is the big takeaway from this set of results?

JOEL KLEIN, FORMER CHANCELLOR, NEW YORK CITY SCHOOL SYSTEM:  The clear takeaway is we’re stuck and we’re not getting the results we need with our kids and we’re going to pay a huge price if we don’t change, change quickly and change rapidly.

Two points that people should understand, PISA tests the kind of skills that the market is going to demand, the kind of higher order, complex thinking that, in a global, high-tech economy, our children need to have if they’re going to succeed.

And a failure to have those skills is going to me they’re not going to be able to get the jobs they want.  The world is changing so rapidly.  That’s the first takeaway.

And the second takeaway, this is not a problem of poor children or children who grow up in deprived environments.  This is a problem across the board in America.  Our highest performing kids are not remotely getting the results that other countries are getting.

We’re losing by 2 to 1 at the top of this challenge as well as at every other level below it.  It’s no longer acceptable.  We really need to change, Fareed, and we need to change quickly and dramatically.  Tinkering is not going to do it.

ZAKARIA:  Tom, you went to the highest performing school in the world with Wendy.  What was your takeaway going to that school in Shanghai as to what the secret to their success is?

TOM FRIEDMAN, PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING COLUMNIST, NEW YORK TIMES:  Well, Wendy and I went to this school, it was grades one through five, Fareed.  And the most interesting thing about it, we went – or I went looking for the secret.  What is the secret? How do you all do this? Do you have kids stand on their head in the morning?  Do they hold their breath?

And what we discovered was the secret, the big secret, we found it.  There is no secret.  They just execute across a system the best practices that we all know are the things that are differentiating in education.

They are giving teachers an enormous amount of time to work on their own professional development and to collaborate and learn from one another.  Teachers there teach about 70 percent of the time and work on their own skills about 30 percent of time.

They work intensively with parents.  We talked to a reading teacher there who said she talked to parents about three times a week of every student either directly or through e-mail.

They even tutor parents so they’re better able to help their kids with their homework.  And they have a culture of learning where kids are expected to come to school ready to learn.

Now, what you have when you have a systematic solution like this, Fareed, is you make the weakest teachers really much better across a wide system so you deliver a consistent education and you’re able to direct your best teachers at the hardest kids.

And the most important thing about this school that Wendy and went to is 40 percent of the kids came from migrant families.  So this was not some elite school whatsoever.

ZAKARIA:  Sal, you’re not as worried I sometimes think when we’ve talked about this, about these test scores.  You think that there’s a lot more to education than these –- than just test scores.

SALMAN KHAN, FOUNDER, KHAN ACADEMY:  The place where I’m less worried – you know, sometimes when you see these national rankings, you start saying oh, the countries at top, these are going to be the ones that are going to eat our lunch one day.

I’m less worried from a U.S. perspective.  I think actually the U.S. is in a very good position.  We’ve been middling on these country-wide rankings for actually about 50 years, but we’ve – but the amount of innovation and economic creation that’s been happening in the U.S. has only been accelerating.

So I think the U.S., in that dimension, in a good position because of its natural –- its dynamic economy, because of its inventiveness, because of its culture of creativity.

What we need to do, and I think I agree with everyone whose talked before, is try to get that more into the school system, try to get the school system to make sure that people have the skills so that everyone can participate in this economic engine.

ZAKARIA:  Wendy, what do you make of –- it seems to me what Sal is saying is we don’t need to become more like South Korea, we need to become more like the very best of America.  A kind of combination of rigor and inventiveness and open-mindedness and creative thinking.

WENDY KOPP, CEO, CO-FOUNDER, TEACH FOR ALL, AND FOUNDER, TEACH FOR AMERICA: I mean, I –- of course I agree.  I mean I think what the PISA shows us though is how much wasted potential there is in this country.  You know, it shows us what’s possible.  

And I think what Tom spoke to about what we saw in Shanghai was just that, you know, this is not some magic, it’s not something that’s unique to the Chinese culture.

And I thought this was so fascinating, you know, we go in there and we’re listening to the man whose really led not only their engagement in PISA, but the education system for the last two decades.

And he said let me tell you the number one driver of our success was our “open door policy.”  It was the fact that we sent our educators to other countries and that drove a pedagogical, you know, revolution in this country.

And I just think it’s so fascinating because I would say we’re far from that. I mean we look at the PISA rankings and it’s like, you know, let’s defend America rather than let’s go find out what are they doing differently in these countries that are so far ahead?

ZAKARIA:  To the point of, you know, it’s not that there’s some magic to Chinese culture, what I was struck by was the Shanghai school is two-and-a-half years ahead of the Massachusetts school, which is our top performance school.

KOPP:  Yes.

ZAKARIA:  Now, if you just do the math, China has a 230-day school year.  We have a 180-day school year, that’s 50 days a year.  At 15, you’ve done 10 years of school, that’s 500 days.  So the 15-year-old Chinese kid has been school two-and-a-half years longer than the Massachusetts school.

KLEIN:  It’s such an important point and I really hope the viewers get their head around it.  The kid in Shanghai is going to school 50 days a year, we’re not talking about two or three days, 50 days a year difference and America is still the most dynamic, innovative economy in so many ways.

ZAKARIA:  OK, so and in age-old fashion, we’re going to hope that somehow technology will solve all this.  And so I will, of course, ask Sal Khan whether he’s going to save American education when we come back.


ZAKARIA:  And we are back talking about education and the PISA test scores with Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp, Tom Friedman and Sal Khan.

So, Sal, you are part, in fact, at the forefront of what is often described as this revolution.  The finally the Internet and information technology is going to revolutionize education and, you know, to the extent that that’s happening, it’s happening in the United States more than anywhere else.

Can this online learning that the Khan Academy and so many of its imitators and new forms of online learning like the massive online courses that colleges offer — is this going go get is around what otherwise seems like a very rigid bureaucracy which hasn’t been able to adapt to the new challenges that education needs?

KHAN:  So it’s still a very very early days to know for sure, but it does feel like something special is going on.  What’s exciting, if we talk about Khan Academy which is more focused on K through 12 or these MOOCs that you mentioned, which is more focused on higher education, is that you’re now seeing very serious institutions really rethink their models.

And so it’s not about hey, technology’s going to solve the problem.  It’s much more about technology allows us to think from a blank slate.  

If students can get exercises, videos at their own time and pace, they can get personalized information, then maybe class time doesn’t have to be about lectures, maybe you don’t have to move everyone at the same pace, maybe teachers can spend more of their time doing what some of those teachers in Shanghai were doing, having more autonomy, doing more projects, being able to spend more time one-on-one with students.  

So it’s very early days, but we’re starting to see kind of cracks in the ice. And, you know, I think this goes to the solution.  I think it’s going to be led by America where it’s not us emulating other folks.  We can definitely learn from what they’re doing, but it’s us rethinking the entire model.

And I don’t think this is just going to benefit America.  I think this will actually take Shanghai and Singapore and Finland to new heights.

ZAKARIA:  Tom, your worry is though that American culture almost does not support learning in quite the same way.  I mean you had this great line in one of your books where you said, “In China, Bill Gates is Britney Spears.  In America, Britney Spears is Britney Spears.”

And you have a teacher in Oregon who sent you a letter.  I want you to describe what this letter says.

FRIEDMAN:  Yes and I’ve gotten several of these and it basically, you know, describes his class which is, you know, got a lot of A students, got a real lot of F students with kids just don’t do their homework, they don’t come to school prepared and they don’t appreciate the connection between skills and their job opportunities.

And a lot of the distractions, Facebook, Twitter, you know, all of these things, I don’t think we appreciate how much of a distraction this is and there’s too many parents who become enablers.
You know, Johnny and Susie are stressed, they need time for soccer, they need time for Facebook and, you know, as Michael Mandelbaum and I said and that used to be us our last book, you don’t know what stress is.

Stress will be not understanding the thick Chinese accent of our kid’s first boss.  That will be stress.


ZAKARIA:  Joel, when you look at this other countries what I’m struck by is there’s almost no athletics involved.  You know, if you were to go to Finland, Germany, South Korea, Singapore and say I want to play soccer, they’d say there’s a league next door.  Don’t — why are you asking us?  We’re an educational institution.

And, yet, if you look at high schools in America, the degree of in time, energy, money devoted to say football is huge.  That must be a distraction.

KLEIN:  It is.  And part of the problem is — goes back to we start with so little time to begin with and then we try to move the time away from some of the basics.

Let me just pick up one point, which I think is a point you asked Sal about will technology.  The thing that will change education is teaching and learning. It’s at that interface where it happens.  

Technology can make teachers more empowered, more effective.  The kinds of things that Sal’s doing to help them.

ZAKARIA:  And you have a company which is also doing things …

KLEIN:  I have a company, Amplify, doing the same kind of thing and I think that’s right.

But I really — you know, what you’re struck by when you listen to Wendy and you listen to Tom and they went to visit this school in Shanghai, what that was about was great teachers.

And we got to get great teachers constantly getting better and give them the tools and help so that their kids learn …

ZAKARIA:  And, to you, that means teacher evaluations, that means longer school years …

KLEIN:  Teacher evaluations, better pay.  It means more time on task and it means a constant improvement that Wendy, Tom and other have long talked about.

When you talk about these teachers constantly working with each other getting better at their craft and using technology to empower and enable them and to engage kids, there’s where technology can change the game for us.

ZAKARIA:  Wendy, when you’ve looked around because your Teach 
for All, which you started, is now in 36 countries.  

KOPP:  Yes.

ZAKARIA:  So what seemed to be the best practices that are applicable?

KOPP:  I mean one thing is, I mean just to go back to the Shanghai example, it was about teachers.  It’s also about school leaders and it’s about, you know, system leadership.

Like, you know, we were blown away by the caliber of the folks who have, over a long time, driven the change.  And if you get under the covers, some Shanghai schools are stronger than others and they take those school principals who are running the best schools and pair them up with the principals of the other schools so that they can transfer the practices.

Like this is a people business.  I actually couldn’t agree more that technology can give a ton of leverage to really strong people.  

But, to me, we need, and this is what Teach for All is about, but we got to start channeling our top talent towards this challenge of improving educational outcomes and especially taking on educational outcomes for the most disadvantaged kids.  And that needs to happen all across the world.

ZAKARIA:  Tom, when you look at this problem and you see the obstacle.  I mean longer, longer days, teacher evaluation, longer years, teachers unions, in general, are opposed to all this.  Is this politically feasible?

FRIEDMAN:  You know, I think it is politically feasible.  It’s going to take wise leadership.  Obviously, you know, the Democratic Party is dependent on teachers unions, but my wife is a member of the teachers union.  My daughter was a member of the teachers union.

I find that many many of the teachers, you know, that I interface with, they want to do better, they want to excel.  And there are teachers unions that have been trying to work with reformers across the country.

I think the thing we have to keep in mind is yes, we need better teachers and it starts there and they have to address this, but we also need better parents more focused on their kids learning.

We need better neighbors who care about the public school in their neighbor whether they have a kid in it or not.  We need better political leaders who want to compare themselves with the best Chinese schools not just the district next door.

We need better business leaders who care about what happens in the school, don’t just outsource the jobs wherever they can get them.  And, most of all, we need better students who come to school ready to learn, not to text.

Now, you give me better parents, better neighbors, better business leaders, better political leaders and better students, I’ll make every good teacher great and I’ll make every outstanding teacher better.

It’s a — it takes a village.

ZAKARIA:  Thank you all.  This was terrific.  Tom Friedman, Sal Khan, Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp.

Up next, What in the World.  Protesters in Kiev pull down a statue of Vladimir Lenin.  I’ll tell you why this is not going to be Ukrainian spring.


ZAKARIA:  Now for our What in the World segment.  Take a look at the extraordinary pictures from Ukraine, protesters in Kiev knocking down a giant statue of the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin.  

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians cheering them on as they hack the fallen statue with hammers.  The incident last Sunday was one of the most symbolic moments of the protests underway in Ukraine.

At the heart of these protests is a widespread frustration not only with the government in Kiev, but more so with Russian interference.  To some, the moment recalled another defining moment from 1989. That was the year Communism fell across eastern Europe, leading to the end of the Soviet Union, and, of course, to Ukraine’s independence.

But you need to go much further back in history to understand what’s really going on in Ukraine.  First, here’s what sparked the crisis. In November, President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of a proposed deal to forge closer ties with the European Union. Why? 

Well, one reason was that he had another offer, from Moscow.  Russia wants Ukraine to join its Eurasian Customs Union, which already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.  This is not a new story.  The tug-of-war over Ukraine is rooted in history.  

In his book The Clash of Civilizations, the political scientist Samuel Huntington pointed out that the divide between Western and Eastern Christianity runs right through the heart of Ukraine. 

And that divide, between two kinds of Christianity and thus two paths of political development, dates back to the Middle Ages and it resonates in Ukraine’s politics to this day.

Take a look at the map from Ukraine’s 1994 presidential elections.  Shaded in gray on the left are the provinces that voted for the incumbent, Leonid Kravchuk. On the right, those for the pro-Russian Leonid Kuchma.  Both took 13 provinces each: an even split reflecting Ukraine’s deep historical, cultural divide.

While Ukraine might have mixed feelings about its destiny, power politics has pushed it in one direction.  Huntington notes that in 1654 this was the defining moment, the Cossacks pledged allegiance to Russia in return for help fighting off Polish rule.  From then on, until independence in 1991, Ukraine was controlled by Moscow. 

The question is, will this domination continue into the 21st century?  It shouldn’t.  Much has changed since 1654.  The forces of democracy, globalization, trade, and technology give Ukraine much greater freedom of action. 

And it shouldn’t be one person’s decision to align with Russia or Europe. That’s the anger that you see on the streets of Kiev.  The people want to be involved in this fateful decision.
The choice on either side is clear.  Europe will want Ukraine to modernize, to become more liberal and free, and to undertake serious economic reforms if it wants to become closer to the West.  That choice is difficult in the short-term, but has long-term payoffs.

The alternative is rather different.  Under Vladimir Putin, Russia essentially wants to maintain a sphere of influence, which would enhance Russian power.  Putin will use a mixture of threats, bribes, and his own media resources to reach this goal. 

I was struck by one moment last week on Russian TV.  A Russian journalist was narrating a revisionist account of what he was seeing in Kiev.  Then, suddenly, a Ukrainian journalist pops in the picture…and awards him what looks like an Oscar.  It was for good acting, I suppose.

This battle for people’s hearts and minds will continue in the coming weeks. But the real decision point comes in 2015, when Ukraine next goes to vote.  Perhaps one day, 2015 will be seen as a turning point, like 1654.

Up next, why North Korea’s Kim Jong Un ordered the execution of his own uncle. What on Earth is going on in the hermit kingdom?  I have a great insider account.


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR:  I’m Candy Crowley in Washington with a check of the headlines.  South Africa bid a final farewell to Nelson Mandela today as he was laid to rest in his ancestral village of Qunu.  A military escort accompanied Mandela’s coffin to his grave site, as family members watched from a nearby tent.  Earlier, thousands of mourners attended his funeral, including Oprah Winfrey, Britain’s Prince Charles and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.  

Anti-government protesters in Ukraine received a show of support today from Senator John McCain.  Protesters are upset with their president for refusing to sign a trade deal with the European Union, instead opting for closer ties with Russia.  Earlier on “State of the Union” McCain said Russian President Vladimir Putin is putting pressure on Ukraine because he sees the former soviet bloc country as key to increasing his own influence.

Secretary of State John Kerry is back in Vietnam.  Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, visited the country’s Mekong Delta where he once patrolled a Naval swift boat in search of Vietcong fighters.  Kerry’s in Vietnam to discuss the country’s partnership with the U.S. on climate change and trade issues.

A student who was wounded by a gunman in a Colorado high school shooting is in critical condition.  17-year-old Claire Davis is suffering severe head trauma after being shot at point blank range Friday at Arapahoe High School.  The gunman was a fellow student who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Winter is still one week away, but a big snowstorm is already walloping the northeastern U.S.  The storm is expected to dump more than a foot of snow from New York to Maine.  Those are your top stories.  “Reliable Sources” is at the top of the hour.  Now back to “Fareed Zakaria, GPS.”

ZAKARIA:  The family dynamics of the ruling Kim family of North Korea are fascinating to begin with.  The patriarch of the family and the founder of the nation, Kim Il-sung is afforded god-like status.  His son, Kim Jong-il was brutal once handed the reins of dictatorship and it was hoped that his son, the current leader Kim Jong-un would be the kinder, gentler Korean dictator.  The news on Friday from North Korea’s official news agency seemed to put that hope to rest.  Kim’s uncle, a man who had been regarded as the second most powerful man in the kingdom, has been executed.  What to make of all of this, what does it mean for North Korea’s neighbors, what does it mean for the United States?

Joining me now is Kurt Campbell who until earlier this year was the administration’s point man on Asia, the assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Kurt, just first give me your reaction.  What do you make of what’s going on? Because nobody really understands this black box that is North Korea.

KURT CAMPBELL, CHAIRMAN, THE ASIA GROUP:  Yeah, well, Fareed, first of all it’s great to be with you.  I would simply say that, you know, it’s easy to forget, but the Korean Peninsula is still the most dangerous place on the planet, and the North Korean leadership is deeply unpredictable under the best of circumstances, and this new leader, who is really just a kid, Kim Jong-un, has proven himself time and time again over the course of the last few years to be dangerous, almost uncontrollable, and with very few touchstones in Asia.  China normally had the ability to engage North Korea, and control its destiny somewhat.  I think that process, that period has passed.  He is taking North Korea in a very dangerous direction, high tensions with Japan, with China, with South Korea, and the United States.  They really stand alone on the global stage.  They’re well-armed, and I think increasingly will become desperate. 

ZAKARIA:  Could the nature of this whole thing, as itself fascinating, they released photographs of 3,000-word document alleging that the uncle was planning a military coup, was trying to destroy the economy, and then plan a military coup so he could take over and then spend lots of money and raise the economy.  The core of that question, why did they feel they needed to do that and is there likely to be a very strong faction of the military that is, that was and remains against Kim Jong-un and in favor of the government?  In other words do we have a danger of a real power struggle within North Korea?

CAMPBELL:  The fundamental truth is we really do not know.  We know that Jang Song-thaek probably was — probably, the most sophisticated interlocutor, probably the most internationalist, the person who understood the most about how the economy functioned, how the party cohorts worked together, he had the closest relationships in China.  He, in many respects, was the person that the international community was counting on to provide some stable counsel to this young upstart.  I think we saw pretty clearly on, however, that he had unusual powers, and that people were looking to him in a way to play this role, and for a young, inexperienced leader prone to violence, he could be threatening.

I think it would be fair to say that Kim Jong-un spent seven or eight years out of North Korea in schools in Switzerland.  We went to pains, great pains to interview and engage with almost everyone, classmates, others, to try to get a sense of what his character was like, even at an earlier period in his life.  The general recounting of those experience led us to believe that he was dangerous, unpredictable, prone to violence, and with delusions of grandeur.  Now, obviously, subsequently find out that he’s the leader of North Korea, so those were probably based on some expectation of what his future would hold for him.  But we’ve seen so many zigs and zags, and really, this is only the most recent experience of public execution over the course of the last couple of months.

I think that that, these actions will be destabilizing internally, and will create more internal sense that North Korea may not be on the right track going forward.  

ZAKARIA:  Kurt, we have 30 seconds.  China supports this regime, 90 percent of the energy, 50 percent of the food.  At the end of the day, they fear North Korean collapse more than anything else, and so with all this said, my guess is the Chinese will still very reluctantly keep this regime afloat.

CAMPBELL:  I agree with that.  One of the great diplomats of China, enormously experienced, described North Korea like this, he said, “North Korea is like a can of dog food.”  We were all shocked when we heard that.  He said, “If you leave it on the shelf unopened it can last forever, but as soon as you open it, it will spoil rapidly.”  That’s what China’s fear is currently.

ZAKARIA:  Kurt Campbell, the Obama administration’s point man on Asia until very recently.  Thank you so much.  Fascinating conversation.

CAMPBELL:  Great to be with you, thank you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA:  Up next, a really smart take on why Islam has a perception problem and what it would take to reform it.  Right back with the Turkish thinker, Mustafa Akio.


ZAKARIA:  Modern Islamists full of contrasts, conflicts and contradictions.  Some of the fateful seem stuck in the 15th century or even earlier while others are racing into the 21st.  One of the sharpest takes on modern Islam that I’ve read in a long time is a new book by Turkey’s finest political analyst, Mustafa Akyol.  It is called “Islam Without Extremes:  a Muslim Case for Liberty.”  It’s a past GPS book of the week.  Akio joined me recently to discuss the futures of Islam.

Mustafa Akyol, pleasure to have you on.

MUSTAFA AKYOL, AUTHOR, “ISLAM WITHOUT EXTREMES”:  It’s a pleasure to be on the show, Fareed, thank you.

ZAKARIA:  Why do you think Islam has such a kind of brutal image?  You know, even well-meaning people, even tolerant people basically believe that at the end of the day, there’s something in the religion that seems to breed fanaticism or intolerance or violence?  And that if you look at, you know, an event around the world, a terrorist event, something like that, there is a tendency to assume that it must be those Muslims out there somewhere, Nigeria, Indonesia.  Why do you think that is?

AKYOL:  Well, that is because honestly, there are fanatic intolerant Muslims who, of, course have been making the news because they’re doing or saying horrible things, but my argument as a fellow Muslim is that, well, Christianity had such expressions in the past.  There was a time Catholicism was not very liberal, the Middle Ages, the inquisition.  But it has changed.  But Islam can change as well.

ZAKARIA:  Now, you grew up in Turkey, which is a secular country, you grew up as a believing Muslim, but liberal.  What was your experience of growing up with regard to this issue?  Or did you watch extremism grow?

AKYOL:  While I was growing up I saw signs of authoritarianism in the name of Islam, which disturbed me, but on the other hand I loved Islam as a faith.  In my book, actually, I explain how I found the book in my grandfather’s library at the age of nine, which had beautiful quotes from the Koran, then a quote not from the Koran, but a medieval Islamic text, which said if your children do not start to pray at the age of ten, then beat them up.  Well, at the age of nine, when I read that, I got a little worried.  And I had a question in my mind.  I said like, would it be a good thing if I prayed because I wanted to away the slap in my face?  Would it be much better?

ZAKARIA:  If the only reason you’re praying is to avoid getting …

AKYOL:  Avoid.  Yeah.  And would it be much better if I prayed genuinely to worship God?  And I think that’s the question that is very relevant for some Muslim societies today.  

AKYOL:  But you found that a lot of the things that youths, that people think of as part of Islam are actually not in the book.

AKYOL:  Not in the Koran.  I mean there’s no stoning in the Koran.  The idea that you should execute someone for apostatizing from Islam doesn’t exist in the Koran.  The idea that women are not smart enough to advise men, that’s not in the Koran.  A lot of troubling issues that we find in the Muslim world today are actually — do not come from the core of the religion, which is scripture.  They come from historical interpretations, and they sometimes reflect just medieval, Middle Eastern culture rather than the religion itself, which makes it easier to make a case for reform of these.

ZAKARIA:  If you look at the issue that most people think of as the central part of Islam, the women in black veils, head to toe, the line in the Koran as I understand it, simply says women should dress modestly, comma, as should men.

AKYOL:  Exactly.  

ZAKARIA:  From that has been interpreted …

AKYOL:  Exactly.  I mean when you look at the Koran, there is — yes, women should stress modestly and some medieval scholars describe this modesty in the tenth century that nothing should be visible other than their eyes.  And when we freeze Islam in these medieval norms we are actually making — creating this big gap between the modern world and evolving modern world and some traditions.  And I think that also harms Islam because it makes people to choose between their fate and a more open liberal attitude.

ZAKARIA:  You noticed something very interesting when you went to Mecca, you know, where you did the hajj actually, what’s called the Umrah, the offseason hajj.

AKYOL:  Yeah.

ZAKARIA:  And you noticed something about the difference between being in the heart of Mecca, following the rules that have been in place since the seventh century, and Saudi Arabia today.

AKYOL:  Very interesting.  Indeed, when I went to the Kaaba, I did my prayers and the rituals.  What I noticed was that around the Kaaba, there is no segregation.  Men and women are together.  There is no physical barrier between a man and a woman in the very holy shrine of Islam.

ZAKARIA:  And the Kaaba is the holiest shrine.

AKYOL:  The holiest shrine in the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the birth place of Islam.  But the interesting thing is, and you leave the Kaaba and you go to Burger King or Starbucks, which is next to the shrine, you have to be separated.  Men and women go two different ways because the Saudi Kingdom physically separates men and women in every public space.  Thinking that that’s the pious thing to do.  But if there was — except in Kaaba.  So, isolate — if you want to talk to a lady in Saudi Arabia freely, that is the only way that you can — the only way you can do this, the only place you can do this, is the Kaaba.

ZAKARIA:  What do you say to people who said fine, Christianity was intolerant 500 years ago.  Right now what we’re dealing with is that Islam is going through a very intolerant phase and it is, therefore, the problem?

AKYOL:  Well, I would’ agree with that, unfortunately.  Not about all Islam.  But we have Islamic groups, movements that are really intolerant and sometimes even violent.  My argument — I’m not someone who says there’s no problem with the Muslim world.  I accept that there are big problems especially from a liberal point of view, but I think they can be changed and reformed as Catholicism has changed immensely over the centuries as other religions have changed.

ZAKARIA:  And how do you do that reform?  Is there something that the West can do, that America can do or is this essentially an internal debate within Islam?

AKYOL:  This is essentially an internal debate within Islam.  But in my book I argued that the West can help indirectly, first by supporting principles of democracy, and not supporting militant or autocratic regimes in the Middle East like it happened for a long time.  Secondly, support the market economy because one thing that transformed minds is the economy.  In Turkey, for example, one of the reasons that Turkey is a successful country, democracy, with some flaws, you know, that we are discussing these days, is that Turkey has a market economy, which raised the middle class, which made people more rational, more pragmatic about their attitude to world and also in religious matters as well.  In the Arab world you have sometimes — you have oil money, which, really, is a curse as you also wonderfully explained in your book, so we need to have education and West can help in that regard.  We need to have cultural exchanges.  These are all very helpful, but violent confrontations do not help.  Like occupying a country to liberate it, it does not really that help that much.

ZAKARIA:  Mustafa, pleasure to have you on.  

AKYOL:  Pleasure to be on the show.  Thank you, Fareed.

Up next, a special quiz that will change how you think about the world, really.  Right back.


ZAKARIA:  Now, for our question of the week, and I’ve got three questions for you this time, all from a non-profit called the Gap Minder Foundation.  Here is the first one.  What is the average life expectancy in the world today?  A, 70 years, B, 60 years, or C, 50 years.  Hold on for the answer.  Here is the second question.  What percentage of adults in the world today are literate, that is how many can read and write?  A, 80 percent, B, 60 percent, C, 40 percent.  Again, hold off for the answer.  Here is the final question.  What percentage of the world’s one-year-old children are vaccinated against measles?  A, 20 percent, B, 50 percent, C, 80 percent.

Now for the answers.  The world’s average life expectancy is not 50, not 60.  70 years.  What percent of the adults in the world are literate, not 40, not 60, but 80 percent, and if you are spotting a trend, yes, 80 percent of the world’s one-year-olds are vaccinated against measles.  The questions all come from the Gap Minder Foundation started by Swedish professor Hans Rosling.  He runs a series of ignorance tests.  Basically, his point is that people understand the world by generalizing personal experiences, and so they often miss major trends.  We might think the world is doing badly because of the perceptions we once had, but in reality, things are much better than we imagine.  Go to to try all ten questions.  According to the Gap Minder Survey, most Americans surveyed got between one and four of the ten answers correct.  With only three possible answers to each question you’d likely do better if you picked at random.  Try it out.

My book of the week is “Reimagining India:  Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower.”  It’s a collection of essays compiled by the consulting firm McKenzie.  One of the essays in there is mine, but there are many others as well.  If you want a sense of the challenges that India faces and how it can overcome them it’s a comprehensive book and a very good read.

And now, a programming note.  At 2:00 P.M. Eastern today on CNN, I have a special report for you on a very important topic, guns.  The debate over guns in America is somewhat deadlocked, so I thought I’d look to the rest of the world for perspective.

For example, we often hear that violent video games are a factor in gun violence.  Well, we went to Japan.  They love violent video games, and they had only four gun deaths in the entire year 2010.  Or consider Australia, in the years since they passed a gun control law in 1996, gun suicides fell by 65 percent.  Gun homicides fell by 59 percent.  We’ll also go to Colombia and Switzerland for lessons.  It’s an important documentary, four continents, four very valuable insights for the United States.  Watch it at 2:00 p.m. Eastern on CNN “Global Lessons on Guns.”  That’s all from me for now.  I’ll see you in the short while.  Up next, “Reliable Sources” with Brian Stelter.