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The Taliban in Our Universities
By Farish A Noor
While teaching at the University of Malaya not long ago, I experienced a number of episodes that made me wonder about the future of the Malay-Muslims in the country.

On one occasion, I found myself in one of the science faculties of the university. I was about to deliver a lecture on the subject of civilisational development and inter-civilisational dialogue to the students who were assembled there. Just as I was about to begin, a young Malay student came up to me and asked if the lecture could be delayed for a few minutes. When I asked him why he wanted the delay, he stated that he wanted to read out a doa (prayer) on behalf of the students who were present. Caught off guard, I turned to the other lecturer present, who told me that such things happen quite regularly and that most lecturers allow the students to have their way.

The student then proceeded to read the doa, but not without making a crucial qualifying remark first: 'This is just for the Muslims. The rest of you must not take part' he said. Thanks to a few ill-chosen (or perhaps deliberately-chosen) words, the student had effectively split apart the audience into two groups: the Muslims and the non-Muslims. When he finished reciting his prayers, the young demagogue passed the floor back to me. I was then expected to speak about inter-cultural dialogue and how communities should come together!

The fact that the pharisees have taken over the universities in the land is not a revelation to us. For decades now the universities in Malaysia have experienced the steady encroachment of religious activists and ideologues who have upped the stakes in the Islamisation contest and have radically altered the social and cultural terrain of university life. Many, if not all, the student unions in the universities have been taken over by the self-proclaimed 'defenders of the faith' who claim that they represent the best in Islam and that they are the models to be emulated. Islamists have set the standards for behaviour, dress, inter-communal relations and even the mode of education in many of the institutions of higher learning in the country. The exclusionary politics of cultural difference that they promote has also led to the further fragmentation of the student body along cultural-religious lines and a hardening of racial and religious boundaries between the different student communities on campus.

Those who question or challenge the credo of this new juvenile theocracy soon find themselves the target of their wrath. I experienced this myself, when in the course of my lectures I had the temerity to suggest that the Arab-Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun was in many ways a modern thinker who founded what we now call political sociology. Ibn Khaldun's worldview, I insisted, was a modern one as he placed human beings and rational human agency at the centre of the process of civilisational development. Khaldun had argued that in order to understand how cultures and societies develop, we need to understand the workings of human society and the role played by the most important agent of history itself: the human being.

For this scandalous assertion on my part, I was soon dubbed a 'secular' thinker who had studied too long in the West and who was a product of eurocentric education. The students who opposed my views claimed that as Ibn Khaldun was a Muslim, he could not possibly have held the view that man was the centre of the world. Surely it was God, they argued, that decided which civilisation should develop and which ones should perish. The development of nation-states and economies were all part of God's cosmic drama and should an economy collapse, then it must be the result of God's anger more than anything else they claimed. If that were the case, said I, then God certainly must be against the Muslims, for the civilisation of Islam seems to have declined somewhat over the past few centuries. Some of the more vocal members of the 'Taliban' in my class then issued their own equivalent of a fatwa, claiming that my lectures were unIslamic and that I was confusing the minds of innocent and hapless Muslims.

These episodes (and there are bound to be many others) illustrate the contradictions and paradoxes that exist in our educational system today. Despite the many attempts to weed out the more bigoted and extremist members of the student body- such as the introduction of minimum grade requirements for higher student union posts- the tendencies remain and are in fact growing ever stronger. What makes matters worse is the indifference, if not the connivance of those in power who are actually colluding with the extremists and are quite happy to witness the gradual colonisation of our universities by the home-grown Talibani of Malaysia.

The saddest thing of all is the fact that thanks to these self-appointed 'guardians of the faith' among the Malay-Muslim student body, it is the Malays as a whole who will be unduly affected. As the more dogmatic religious leaders and spokesmen among them come to the fore to dictate what is right and what is wrong, what can be taught and what should not, the entire educational process itself will be held hostage by a vocal minority who remain trapped within their own exclusivist religio-cultural discourse.

The net result in the long-run is not difficult to imagine. As Malay-Muslim students reject the sciences and arts taught to them on the grounds that it does not fit with the narrow and monochromatic worldview taught to them by the party-political Mullahs outside, a whole generation of young Malay-Muslims will not be able to learn the tools of applied physical sciences, social sciences and humanities. If these young Islamist students insist that disciplines such as sociology, political theory, history, economics and the sciences are all fundamentally irreconcilable with Islam on the grounds that they are based on humanistic or materialistic premises, then what hope will there be for the future of the Malays who have to live in a global world that is torn apart by very real (and man-made) cleavages of power and interests? Can Muslims still cling on to clichés and myths of the past in the face of the painful realities of the present? And can those students who insist that the hand of God is everywhere try to explain for themselves the workings of the globalisation process which is inexorably marginalising the Muslim world further and further by the minute?

Dealing with these young fanatics in our universities is a task that needs to be taken seriously, but also with sensitivity and intelligence. It is clear by now that the measures that were introduced and used in the past have not really worked. Our universities today have become the breeding ground for a new generation of Islamist activists who will undoubtedly take up the Islamist cause if and when they are able to.

But putting aside the long-term political implications of these developments, we still need to address the difficulties that confront us in the short to medium term. As long as there is no attempt to address and correct some of the fundamental assumptions and beliefs that underlie the increasingly constricted worldview of the Muslim students in the country, the development of the Muslims themselves will be hindered. The net result will be an obvious discrepancy between the performance of Malay-Muslim students and their non-Muslim counterparts. Should this happen, it must be stated that the blame for the decline rests squarely on the shoulders of the former and not the latter.

For now, one is left only with a bleak picture of the present. It is disheartening to come across so many bright young minds that have been thoroughly taken over by the hyperbole and sophistry of religious pedagogues who have no solutions to offer except for empty slogans and longings for some 'golden age' of Islam in the past. We are reminded of the lament of Muhammad Iqbal, who wrote: 'One can only imagine the wretched state of a people who are told by their religion that the present state is fixed and unchangeable'.
Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He once taught at the University of Malaya and is presently working on the topic of Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. His current project is a book on the development of the Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS.
Article From Farish Noor - Malaysia's Taliban
Date: Fri, 07 Apr 2000 05:31:11 PDT