GLOBAL: Islam and higher education

The literature on Islam is dominated by political factors in various parts of the world. But higher education, which prepares future leaders following the religious and cultural values of a nation, is embedded in the social, economic and political contexts of that nation. Fatma Nevra Seggie and Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela have edited a book Islam and Higher Education in Transitional Societie that aims to fill this critical gap.

The book explains how Islam in higher education is constructed and understood in social and cultural contexts, and examines the role of Islam in higher education systems in different countries to give a better grasp of how a nation's next generation is shaped.

"Understanding how Islam reflects itself in the curriculum, campus life and administration in changing societies may offer insights into higher education systems in the non-Western world," Seggie told University World News.

This is important "because during organisational change in such countries, help and advice is usually requested from developed countries such as the United States," said Seggie. "A better grasp of a higher education system may help the Western world offer better consultancy opportunities where efforts are more productive and results more fruitful," she said.

Seggie added that the role of Islam in higher education in changing societies is important because it is only through an understanding of their educational conditions that universities can implement effective policies and practices and create campus environments that are conducive to their students, faculty, administrators and employers.

"Effective policies can only be attained when there is a clear understanding of how cultural, social and religious values are embedded in university lives," Seggie emphasised.

"The book's chapters explore and illuminate the intersection of Islam and higher education in changing societies. The question that emerges is, what kind of role does Islam play in the context of higher education in transitional societies?" she said.

"To answer that, the book presents scholarly work from research conducted in geographical regions that are generally under-researched - for example Iran, Turkey and Pakistan - and where the place of Islam is not well explored in an educational context."

The chapter on academic freedom in Pakistani higher education focuses on the influence of conservative religious forces and its implications for faculty. These forces, which exploit Islam to pursue their own political agenda, prevent academics from expressing views that conflict with the essence of Islam, it says.

Academic freedom is at best tenuous, with faculty self-censoring because of the fear of conservative retaliation. Knowledge based on religious texts overrules all other forms of knowledge, without investigation.

Under such conditions lecturers do not instruct but indoctrinate when teaching certain propositions as dogmatically true.

The chapter examines several contemporary examples where lecturers tried to exercise academic freedom and presented students with a balanced view. As a result they faced severe retaliation from students, colleagues, university administrators and 'conservative forces' of society.

The Iranian chapter analyses the situation there from a comparative and historical perspective. It pays particular attention to the important role of the Islamic government and Islam in the organisation and governance of higher education.

It examines the definition of academic freedom in Iran, and compares it with that in the United States. It cites contemporary 'violations' of academic freedom in Iran, comparing them with examples in the post-9/11 United States (See: IRAN: Purge of independent-minded professors.

The chapter on Turkey examines the impact of Turkish secularism in the 1980s on the undergraduate curriculum by comparing the focus and content of textbooks used for a core course before and after the 1980 military coup.

It finds that following the coup the course became longer and compulsory for all undergraduates. Its objectives and content changed, especially regarding the treatment of Turkish secularism, to which it became more critical, and Islam.

"Because higher education is embedded in the cultural, social, economic and political contexts of particular countries, it is important to examine the role of Islam in higher education systems in different countries such as South Africa and the United Kingdom," said Seggie.

In South Africa the government sees higher education as a key to consolidating democracy because potentially it both performs a redistributive social function and plays an economic role in training future professionals.

The transformation of South Africa's universities is seen in the diversification of its student and staff populations. But the transition from exclusion of minority populations and cultures to their inclusion on university campuses has not been easy for those concerned.

Muslim academics are a minority in the universities, where the hegemony of Christian national education could still exclude them as fully fledged workers.

The chapter on Muslim women and their higher education experiences in the UK argues that, contrary to stereotypes of overbearing Muslim families restricting the educational development of daughters, parental support, particularly from fathers, was a key motivating factor in women's accounts of their educational success.

While Muslim women reported positive academic, social and personal experiences at university, there were some 'racialised' aspects such as the banning of face veils on certain university campuses and heightened tensions around Muslim 'extremism'. These issues became more significant after the London bombings in July 2005.

But far from encouraging Muslim women to turn away from their religious and cultural identities, the research found their experiences of higher education helped them rationalise and re-evaluate these aspects of their identities.

The chapter also highlights how their accounts of university experience challenge stereotypes that misrepresent educated Muslim women as 'religious and cultural rebels'. It thus dispels the 'modern' and 'traditional' labels often used to polarise the lives of Muslim women.