On the publication of the DfES’s report last week, “Islam at Universities: meeting the needs and investing in the future” I became the ‘official’ voice of dissent for the BBC. Disagreeing with the Government and a report that came from a ‘mainstream Muslim’ source, I wondered whether doing interviews for the Asian Network, Radio 5 and Radio WM made me a ‘radical’ for the day?
Maybe I was or maybe they were just desperate for voices on the day – I don’t know – maybe it was just that so many ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’ are now being put forward by Goverment and Muslims alike that people just don’t care anymore and can’t be bothered to speak out. Or, being the cynic that I am, could it have been that as the Governemnt had some funding available, so the clamour to get a piece of it insisted that all those wanting a cut necessarily kept their critical eye firmly closed?
The findings of the report were in my opinion shocking, seemingly missing many points completely but at the same time having the mark of a ‘rubber stamp’ all over it.
The main gist of the report was that the teaching of Islamic Studies courses across Britain’s universities was poor and based on out-of-date and irrelevant issues. It’s author, Dr Ataullah Siddiqui (someone I know well and have respect for I hasten to add) is based at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education (MIHE) which is the educational arm of the Islamic Foundation. His research painted a somewhat damning indictment of Islamic Studies departments being places far too concerned with the Middle East and Islam’s past rather than the Islam and Muslims today and the contemporary issues that are abound. Ataullah also suggested that events such as 9/11 and 7 July had passed these departments by. Because of this, the Government had decided to make Islamic Studies a “strategic subject” because of its role in “preventing extremism”.
The question for me then was simply why, because from where I was standing far too many key issues seemed to have been overlooked or just plainly ignored.
Having been through a PhD course in Islamic Studies at a British university and having taught modules on Islamic Studies courses – again in Britain – there seemed to be some confusion in the report. Somewhat against what the report was suggesting, for my PhD I focused quite heavily on the aftermath of 9/11 and in my teaching, I taught modules on ‘Muslims in Britain” and “Islam in Europe”. In neither capacity did I learn or teach anything about the MIddle East or Islam’s history. And let’s not forget, if you do want to study these issues and your local, friendly university fails to offer a course on Islamic Studies (a lot of them don’t) then you could always try the Sociology departments, the Politics departments, the Anthropology departments and so on as in these disciplines, a plethora of contemporary Muslim studies have recently been unfolding. And it’s not just these departments, the list goes on and on.
As for too great a focus on the Middle East, for a religion that was revealed to a Prophet who lived in the Arab peninsula, it seems a bit difficult for anyone learning about Islam – as a religion, its genesis, development, expansion and history – to not focus on that particular region.
And then of course, there’s the suggestion that Islamic Studies can aid the prevention of extremism. First off, this suggestion is almost farcical because for any extremist of any persuasion, the last thing they want is to be challenged, to be asked to think critically or to engage with ideas and ideologies that may well go against their own. Of course, this sort of process is what any good British university course should do, including Islamic Studies.
And from my experience, this is exactly what such courses do. No British university espouses ANY message or ideology in its lectures or teaching that in any way ferments extremism. That is of course unless you’re referring to ‘secularism’ because let’s not forget, all Britain’s universities are secular institutions. To suggest otherwise is a gross misrepresentation of our higher education institutions.
And let’s not forget to ask the blatantly obvious…is there even any evidence to suggest that extremists (whoever these are) even go through the higher education system? I’m not sure there is as none is provided by the report to suggest otherwise. From experience and various other snippets from other sources, it is not even clear that large numbers of Muslim students even enrol on Islamic Studies courses. Instead it is those interested in the subject: Muslim and non. And even if you were an etremist, don’t you think it would appear as though you were trying a little too hard by enrolling on such a course? I think so.
As Faisal Hanjra, a spokesperson for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies said: “The vast majority of Muslims don’t learn their Islam from universities, they learn it from the imams in their local communities…There’s no evidence at all to suggest that students are being radicalised or anything of that nature”. So what and where is the ‘problem’?
One final issue however highlights just how misguided and nonsensical the rport is. Following its publication, the Government announced that an extra £1 million would be invested in Islamic Studies courses to teach imams.
Ok, let me explain…when we are speaking about ‘Islamic Studies’ there is a significant difference between what is taught in British universities and what the report highlights in the same section, madrasas and dar al-‘ulum. Dar al-‘ulum are typically Islamically run institutions that offer traditional courses on Qur’anic interpretation, hadith, fiqh (jurisprudence) and kalam (theology) and have NO link whatsoever with universities. They are not even a part of the higher education system in this country. To make the link between these and universities – however tenuously – is therefore completely irresponsible and wholly inappropriate both for the dar al-‘ulum as much as the universities. Both function completely independently of each other and the motivations for students attending both would be as equally independent. Even the report states how “the universities
have paid little attention to the need that these institutions are catering for”. That is because they both fulfill totally different functions: end of story.
As an extension of this, NO imams are trained to become imams through the British higher education system. Whilst they may undertake courses in Islamic Studies – at either undergraduate or postgraduate levels – these are not to allow them to become imams but to enhance their academic or intellectual knowledge and understanding, rather like any other student in the university system. All this is without even beginning to ask for the evidence that imams are the catalysts for extremism anyway.
So what then will the extra £1 million achieve especially when you realise that such a sum will probably fund about 12 lecturers for no longer than two academic years? If the problem is so great, why then not longer or are the Government suggesting that the ‘problem’ will be solved in that time? If that is the case, then the impact that more Islamic Studies will have will be so great that all students entering the higher education system will want to be on such courses. In reality though, I very much doubt it.
The report therefore goes beyond being farcical: beyond this because it merely reinforces the Government’s desperate search for a ‘solution’ to a ‘problem’ that in this respect at least, clearly does not exist. Yet by making such headlines, the Government and those supporting such views could be making things much worse. By offering an extra £1 million you can already hear the BNP telling disaffected voters in areas of high poverty about how the money for better housing and schools is being wasted on teacing Islamic Studies. You can feel the tensions bubbling under the surface between Sikh and Muslim communities – the former asserting that they are being overlooked by Government despite having never caused ‘problems’ (see Birmingham recently for evidence) – getting worse as they become increasingly disillusioned and angry. All this without the average Daily Express reader from middle England reading about it alongside the story about thr number of Polish people taking ‘our’ jobs. It could be that the Government’s ‘solutions’ are deepening the problems rather than improving them.
But more importantly, these ‘solutions’ are also coming out of Muslim organisations and communities. Because of this, their myopic ‘rubber stamping’ of everything has got to stop now. A critical eye has to be retained no matter how much funding is being dangled as a carrot in front of them. In fact it is more vital now than possibly any time previously. Without this, Muslims and non-Muslims are being done a disservice and there will be no winners. That is, except for the ‘winners’ who end up with the large pots of money earmarked for ‘projects’ that will help combat extremism – which seems to bring us back to where we started.
So here’s a suggestion for the Government and some Muslim organisations alike: let’s be more radical by being more be critical !!!