Islamic universities have role in fighting extremism

In January Uzbekistan unveiled a new university, Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, devoted to Islamic studies which, according to the Uzbek government’s religious affairs committee, will focus on scholarly knowledge about Islam and supporting an atmosphere of religious tolerance in Uzbek society and beyond in Central Asia.

It will also provide the highest and secondary special religious education institutions of the country with highly qualified scientific and pedagogical staff.

The new academy offers two-year undergraduate degrees and three-year doctoral courses for Uzbek citizens in different disciplines, including Koranic studies, Islamic law, study of the hadiths – the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad – and the interpretation of Islamic texts, and has so far enrolled 16 undergraduates for its 2018-19 academic year.

The development is seen as an important step in combating the rise of extremism and the influence of radical militants.

Various Islamic universities have been established in Central Asian countries, with new institutions opening sporadically over the past five decades in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

In recent years most of the countries in the region have seen an increase in the numbers of their citizens becoming foreign fighters for Islamic State, or Daesh as it is known in Arabic, and experts agree that Islamic universities could have an important role to play in combating the spread of extremist ideology.

The five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – provide the largest proportion of foreign fighter recruits (8,717) for Islamic State (or ISIS), followed by the Middle East (7,054) and Western Europe (5,718), according to an October 2017 report entitled Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign fighters and the threat of returnees, published by the Soufan Center, which provides global security insights.

Sufian Zhemukhov, a senior research associate at the George Washington University in the United States, told University World News: "It is mainly the poor knowledge of Islam in Central Asia and other parts of post-Soviet Eurasia that makes young people look for alternative learning sources and fall into the trap of Jihadist propaganda."

Islamic universities have been opened sporadically over the past five decades in some Central Asian countries along with several departments of theology in secular universities to impose the state-developed version of Islam and Islamic education.

In Uzbekistan they include the Tashkent Islamic Institute of Imam Al-Bukhari (1971), and Tashkent Islamic University, founded in 1999 as the first specifically Islamic university in Central Asia that focuses on religious studies as well as secular subjects, including natural sciences and economics.

National level training centres for theological education in other Central Asian states include Kyrgyzstan Islamic University in Bishkek (1971), Kazakh-Egyptian Islamic University Nur in Almaty, Kazakhstan (2003), and Tajik Islamic University in Tajikistan (2015).

A step in the right direction

"Investing in formal Islamic educational institutions is a step in the right direction,” says Dilshod Achilov, assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, US.

“The lack of Islamic educational institutions through which citizens pursue learning as well as seeking formal [advanced] degrees has been one of the factors that have contributed to the increase of underground, and often radical, groups preaching Islam. In other words, the void has often been filled by various unverifiable actors – groups or networks – attempting to teach Islam to those who are genuinely seeking Islamic knowledge," according to Achilov, who is the lead author of a report entitled Islamic Revival, Education and Radicalism in Central Asia.

Achilov sees contextualised Islamic education as an ‘antidote’ to Islamic extremism. "The universities should provide a learning environment in which students openly debate and engage issues from critical perspectives, regardless of how harsh or controversial the topics are," Achilov emphasised.

A broader academic perspective of Islam “may help deter the vulnerable youth from out-of-context framed radical-extremist narratives propagated by various radical groups operating inside and outside Central Asia”, he added.

"Religious education at local universities is important for resisting Islamic radicalisation," said Zhemukhov, co-author in 2017 of the book Mass Religious Ritual and Intergroup Tolerance: The Muslim pilgrims' paradox.

"Universities in Central Asia should become intellectual centres that provide learning opportunities for ambitious young Muslims who otherwise are left with the only option of studying abroad, in the Middle East, and, upon return back home, often tend to clash with the older Muslim leaders because of the different understanding of Islam," Zhemukhov added.

Guli Yuldasheva, a former professor of politics and international relations who is a member of the Expert Council of the Central Eurasia Analytical Project, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, told University World News: "Establishing Islamic universities in Central Asia is important, as they should prepare well-trained theologians and provide knowledge of true Islamic beliefs and values to oppose the influence of various radical distortions of Islam."

"The network of Islamic institutions, including universities, academies with postgraduate courses, specialised high schools and research centres of Islamic studies, could be quite helpful to prepare local clerics and fight against the radical propaganda," Yuldasheva said.

Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asian Studies Center at KIMEP University, Kazakhstan, told University World News: "It seems radicalisation of Central Asians happens often when they go outside the region; however, that means that the values of tolerance and respect for human life had not been well inbred in them while they were home, which is not surprising given the nature of the political systems in the region.”