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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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"