University blasts in Pakistan and the future of Islam
The International Islamic University is carving out a much-needed space in Muslim intellectual, and through it, political, life.
When the Taliban attacked the International Islamic University in Pakistan this week, many were shocked that militants were targeting an Islamic school. In fact, the double suicide bombers were going after a university that is at the forefront of changing the way Islamic and Western knowledge are brought together in the Muslim world.Skip to next paragraph
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I also had some misconceptions before I had lectured in the very building where the second bombing took place. But the encounters I had there in 2007 utterly changed my understanding of Pakistan, as well as the future of Islam.
I had only landed in Islamabad just a few hours before I was scheduled to give my first talk at the university, and whether it was the 13-hour time difference with Los Angeles, two nights flying in coach, or walking through an arrivals lounge that had recently been attacked by terrorists, I felt more uneasy about being in Pakistan than Baghdad or Gaza during their own periods of intense violence.
Matters weren't helped when I was introduced to a group of male religious studies students by my host as someone who'd lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew. In fact, my stomach sank a bit – especially as their long beards and traditional dress reminded me a lot more of the Taliban than the graduate students I normally spend time with.
But as with most things in Pakistan, appearances were deceiving, and the situation was far more complex, and inspiring, than I'd imagined.
It turned out that the students with whom I was meeting weren't merely studying Islam, they were PhD students in comparative religion. They were situating Islam, its history, and its religious dynamics within the broader study of religious experience worldwide.
Moreover, the recently established program in which they were studying was a model for the International Islamic University's drive to develop a new curriculum, one that would combine 1,000 years of Islamic learning with the latest developments in American and European humanities and social studies scholarship.
The students explained they were all learning Hebrew, as well as biblical criticism and contemporary approaches to religious studies as part of their course work. As we began to talk it became clear that neither students nor faculty had much time or desire to engage in spirited critiques of the United States or the West.
They were much more interested in discussing how to better integrate "Western" and Islamic methodologies for studying history and religion. And more telling, they were trying to figure out how to criticize the government without "disappearing" into the dark hole of the Pakistani prison system for five or 10 years, or worse.
Colleagues in the history and political science departments were just as eager to develop the most up-to-date curriculums possible, and in so doing lay a benchmark for the development of their fields, not just in Pakistan, but globally.
This is not to say that the members of the University community supported US policies in the Muslim world. Far from it. But as good social scientists (or social scientists in training), they understood the importance of the interplay of local and global dynamics, and of the problems in their own societies that contributed to the violent relationship between the US and many Muslim groups around the world.