Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

Indeed, when I delivered my second lecture on globalization early on a Saturday morning, the room was filled with students, more women than men (upward of half the student body at the University are women), who grilled me about the assumptions underlying my research and methodologies. Would that most of my students back home were as interested in what I was teaching as were they.

As I walked around the campus, and met faculty and students who'd come from all over the Muslim world to study there, the role of the IIU in the larger context of Islam globally became evident.

The University was carving out a much-needed space in Muslim intellectual, and through it political, life through its bringing Muslim and Western traditions into dialogue.

Yet it was receiving, and continues to receive far less attention from scholars, commentators, or policymakers than the fully American-style universities being opened across the Persian Gulf. This is most recently evidenced by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, just established with great fanfare and a $10 billion endowment from the king in Jeddah.

Such a venture is surely important, not just for having one of the world's fastest supercomputers or giving every newly hired professor $400,000 in research money – I got $3,000 when I was hired at University of California, Irvine, and that was when the university was flush with cash.

Yet the singular focus of KAUST on hard sciences is ultimately myopic and will likely produce little in the way of the larger societal change in Saudi Arabia predicted by the new university's boosters. Such changes come only with a robust public sphere where citizens who are educated broadly and humanistically are equipped with the social knowledge and skills to challenge the dominant political and social-religious discourses.

Building such an active Pakistani citizenry was and – I imagine despite the bombing – remains a major goal of the IIU.

Sadly, it's just such a goal that probably made it a "legitimate" target for the Taliban, for whom a healthy public sphere populated by educated citizens willing and able to challenge, potentially democratize, and clean up their government would pose at least as big threat to its position in the country as the army they are now fighting in the country's northwest.

Not surprisingly, the core mission of the IIU would also not win it many friends among the country's corrupt economic and political elite, who, as many of the senior education and religious officials I met confided to me, share the Taliban's desire to silence any kind of critical scholarship or societal debate.

With this attack, the Taliban has struck what until now was a sanctuary, however fragile and inchoate, where the emerging generation of Pakistanis and Muslims could determine on their own terms how best to bring together their cultures and traditions to grapple with the profound challenges faced by their societies.

I hope it doesn't weaken the spirit and resolve of the thousands of students who've come to the IIU from across the Muslim world to help build a better future. They are not just the future of Pakistan, or of Islam; they are the future as well.

Mark LeVine is a history professor at University of California, Irvine and currently a visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He is the author most recently of "Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam" and "Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989"

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