Islam and Academia in the Shadow of the Arab Uprisings

Posted on April 08, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Amidst the struggles for freedom of expression and the right to free speech following the onset of the Arab uprisings, freedom in the academic world has become another struggle. A couple very intriguing articles recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in a special called “After the Arab Uprisings,” that examine academia and education in the Arab world.

Unfortunately, the Chronicle of Higher Education is under a paywall. For those who do not have access to the website, Tadween Publishing has provided some highlights to the articles below. 

“Islamist Movement Challenges Universities”

The struggle between a religious life and a university life existed long before the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with the most visible of these struggles in recent years usually revolving around the wearing of the niqab or face veils. Yet, in the aftermath of political and social uprisings that promised greater freedoms, that same struggle persists.

an article on the struggle between new political openings, Islamic fundamentalism, and university settings, the Chronicle’s Middle East correspondent Ursula Lindsey, writes:

Two years after protesters first took to the streets in the Arab world, universities there are facing more upheaval. Even as two key countries, Egypt and Tunisia, held their first free elections in decades, the revolts have unlocked radical Islamists' demands, brought to power Islamist governments, and triggered political fights that some say now threaten academe.

Sami Brahem, a specialist in Arabic and Islamic civilization in Tunisia, is quoted in the article as stating the “university has become an ideological battleground” now that conversations held freely without the fear of reprisal from oppressive regimes.

In the article, Lindsey followed the story of Eman, a young Tunisan woman who was expelled from the University of Manouba for wearing the niqab. Eman is not alone in her insistence to wear the niqab or invoke Islam on campus, and following the election of Ennahda in October 2011 other students demanded the right to wear the niqab and for prayer rooms to be create on campus. Rejections of such demands ignited a struggle between faculty and students that resulted in the dean of faulty,
Habib Kazdaghli, being put on trial for allegedly slapping a female student who was protesting with another student over their expulsion for wearing the niqab.

In Tunisia, the struggle between university administrations and students vowing to intertwine their religious and university life has largely been attributed to the burgeoning Salafist movement. Lindsey writes:

In the last two years, Salafis have sometimes taken violent action against institutions and individuals they accused of insulting Islam, including professors. For Tunisia's largely secular faculty, the demands of Salafis are an opening gambit in a systematic assault on the liberal values of their profession.

“If it wasn't the symptom of a bigger project, I wouldn't really have a problem with the niqab in class,” says Nabil Charni, a professor of literature and media at Manouba. “But there's a tendency to push things further, because it's not a matter of rights but a matter of changing society, starting with state institutions. Behind the niqab there are other demands. One way or another it's an Islamization of the university. We can see it coming.”

Ultimately, the debate comes down to what role, if any, religion has in higher education.

In another nearby country struggling with persistent protests, Egypt’s position in the religion versus the university debate takes a different turn. As Lindsey analyzes, “Islam permeates Egyptian public life and institutions, and academics tread carefully in matters pertaining to religion.”

At Egypt’s al-Azhar University, one of the world’s most recognizes institutions for Islamic learning, ideas of reform are not uncommon, particularly in order to address the concern over the number of unemployed graduates of the university’s religious schools. However, such ideas, such as adding new courses in information technology, sociology, or languages, have met resistance. “To religious conservatives,” Lindsey writes, “education reform means strengthening, not diluting, the Islamic component of education.”

According to Lindsey’s article, the current struggle for academic settings is answering the question, “Is there a contradiction between Islam and academic freedom?” The question is not related only to Islam and the academic world, as other religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, have struggled with ideas of academic freedom throughout history. However, as both Tunisia and Egypt, in addition to other countries across the Arab world, react to increasing involvement of Islamists in politics and society, it is important not to overlook their effects on the academic world.

“Arab Protests May Open Doors for U.S. Scholars”

In a more positive approach to the future of academia in the Arab world,
David L. Wheeler and Ian Wilhelm write that some “scholars see some hope of an Arab renaissance and a new opening for American involvement” as Arab universities seek to revive critical thinking.

However, the biggest challenge at the moment is classrooms overburdened with too many students due to large youth populations across the Arab world. Wheeler and Wilhelm state that, “students who graduate from such institutions have few skills and compete for few jobs, but are educated enough to know that they are idle bystanders in the global economy.”

In order to increase the quality of education, some countries have increased funding to education-based projects and planning, such as Qatar’s Education City, which “has attracted six American universities, the business school HEC Paris, and, soon, University College London.”

Amidst this desire for an increase in education quality, scholars from across the United States have been reaching out to Arab universities and academic institutions in order to create new projects and foundations for learning. The Civilian Research and Development Foundation, a US-government-supported fund that fosters scientific collaboration, has agreed to provide $1.5-million in funding to build a virtual library for Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, with the hope of also doing the same in Egypt.

In addition to new projects, academic exchange, whether facilitated by study abroad programs or visiting US scholars in the Middle East, is crucial to fostering new relationships and increasing cooperation between universities.

Such exchanges are meant to aid turns toward reform, while allowing Arab universities to learn about the process of education in American universities. Wheeler and Wilhelm point to the American University of Beirut as an example for adapting new programs and structures of learning.

Hassan B. Diab, the vice president in charge, says the office has helped about 25 universities with services ranging from standard consulting to providing temporary deans or building institutions from the ground up.

“We don't come in and say this is the curriculum of AUB and the liberal arts as it is done in the US,” says George Farag, an assistant vice president in the external-programs office. “We put forth a model that takes into account local thought.” Coed education will work in Lebanon but not in Saudi Arabia, for example.

According to Jamie McAuliffe, chief executive of the Education for Employment Foundation, American universities can help teach universities in the Middle East how to blend classroom teaching with real-world experience, particularly with the creation of internship programs in order to give Arab students experience in a professional environment.

Given the known hostility that some governments in the Arab world harbor toward foreign involvement in domestic affairs, it is unclear how much of an affect US academics and universities will have in reshaping higher education in the Middle East. But, with high unemployment rates among students with college degrees, it is clear that something must change, and, according to Wheeler and Wilhelm’s article, it appears that some are attempting to make those changes in the classroom.

“Egyptian Scholar Takes a Painstaking Path Between Islam and Science"

Another article by Ursula Lindsey for the Chronicle of Higher Education focuses on Gamal Serour, a professor at al-Azhar University and founder of the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research, and his attempt to find a balance between religion and science. For Serour, this balance is an even greater challenge, because his focus is on family planning.

Ideas of contraception and population control are not only a taboo subject, but they are also largely frowned upon in the Islamic world. Serour claims that people used to say “the center which is implementing the policies of the West, the center which is working to limit the population growth of the Muslim world.” However, after spreading information and attempting to educate religious leaders at al-Azhar University, more people became receptive to the idea after understanding how family planning could solve certain issues and problems facing Egypt.

“Rather than viewing the religious framework at al-Azhar as a constraint, Dr. Serour argues that it has bolstered the effectiveness and reach of his work,” writes Lindsey. “The population-studies center is among the university's most active research institutes.”

And to the idea of Islamist fundamentalists threatening academic freedom through politics, Serour says the only way to change their views, is to educate them. 

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