If not for IIUM, I could either be a takfirist or a radical liberalist

Political Islam has long been accepted as the source of insecurity and instability in the establishment of state and democracy. It is the most significant discourse that has deeply penetrated Asian social scientists.

Built from the studies post-1979 Iran, the 9/11 attack in America, the Arab Spring, and ISIS, the narratives of Political Islam in Asia are sustained and accommodated through numerous preventive supports in academic institutions, political activism, think tanks, and international civil institutions. As a result, it has exercised significant influence that helps policymakers and the international system in dealing with the Islamism movement in Asian state affairs. It is clearly not a surprise to find that until recent times, the label terrorism has been exclusively owned just for Muslims. In fact, increasing narratives have now tried to link the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand, the Middle East, India, and Myanmar as triggered by not only the biased media projection towards Muslims but also the prolonged hegemonic bias narrative of political Islam taught in universities. Despite all the deaths, it would not seem able to change the way the rational environment works in analyzing Islamism in the world.

In the latest 8-page report published by ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute titled “Islamization in Malaysia Beyond UMNO and PAS,” Norshahril Saat and Afra Alatas highlight the increasing visibility of political Islam in Malaysia. Not only is it centered on PAS and UMNO, but the authors also draw attention to political Islam’s connection to revivalism in bureaucracy and higher educational institutions that require more serious scrutiny. The accusation that the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), with its distinction of Islamization and integration of knowledge as the way to “shun or question western perspectives” and “segregated Islam from the rest,” has done little justice to the hundreds of thousands of students and alumni of IIUM who are the prime victims of the accusation. The authors further point out that University Sains Islam of Malaysia (USIM), University Teknologi Mara (UiTM), and Islam-based colleges such as Kolej Universiti Islam Antarbangsa Selangor (KUIS) have similar inclinations.

Perhaps in response to the remarks above, one would instantly ask, is it wrong to question western perspectives? Why is it that when one criticizes western views, they are immediately thrown into the box of conservatives or an anti-west group? Why does freedom of speech and critical thinking related to western products put insecurity in the state and related structures? These are the most common questions repeatedly asked by multiple generations of nation-state societies in the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly in Asia and Africa. Despite extensively provided answers and critics in numerous scholarly literature, suppression has continued, although significantly subtle.

IIUM is a 40-year-old university, and it has more than 15,000 productive alumni, with 20% being globally acclaimed in their expertise. None of the alumni have been recorded to have turned to the marvel of terrorism or to have massacred non-Muslims and vandalized non-Islamic establishments as suspected by existing narratives-Middle East-based fear- in political Islam. In contrast, the university’s slogan “the garden of knowledge and virtue” is rightly tuned as the students and graduates are prepared systematically and professionally to be able to integrate, be compatible, and be positively contributive to the existing racial and religious differences of the world.

In my 7 years of recollection as a student, IIUM did not teach how to hate the west. What was there is centrality discourse on how to build critical thinking in perceiving what academia around the globe has been offering, including the way to see critically on Islam and Muslim societies in numerous kinds of respects. The core syllabus aims at understanding how all civilizations are in humanity loan with one another that simultaneously obliges the students’ pay-back contributions, including Muslim civilization. One of the goals of this approach is to be able to act and think in a ‘the middle’ diplomatic role, not in the supreme or inferior acts of leading academia.

The baggage behind this approach is not due to IIUM being anti-west or wanting to claim superiority over others, but purely in line with numerous community-looking Islamic principles including the one where Islam forbids taqlid which defines objection to blind submission to knowledge and power. This is the essence we can find similar in the foundational basis of freedom of thought in 19th-century enlightenment Europe. We were taught how to avoid being duckling believers and scholars or being among the intellectuals’ sheep herding, to borrow Chomsky’s words. Instead, we are urged to stand on our own research-based truth through established and extensive western scientific methodological investigations. Isn’t this approach familiar to liberal individualism? Doesn’t IIUM then fit into the core integrational element of democratic higher educational institutions?

But narratives of political Islam in Asia have been built deeply on fear, assumptions called theory, and a higher level of prejudices called a hypothesis, based on the narratives sewn from more than the last 70 years of Middle Eastern Muslim political development. The insecurities in academia are so deep that the name ‘Islam’ and the Middle East network in Asia’, sometimes could haunt sane educated men. Just reading particular views from political Islam books, for instance, could give crucial impacts such as a blind conviction that Islam, if attached to ‘anything’ in the state structures and institutions would definitely pose a potential danger to its people. The absence of the courage to meet and understand Muslims and be entangled with any Muslim countries and societies to verify those perspectives is further a troubling issue.

The stigma that has been built about IIUM now comes to light, especially in understanding why the syllabus of Islamization of knowledge was scrapped in 2017, or why IIUM has particularly complex cases of immigration. The pandemic, the economic crisis, and the political development of the state are the additional subjects that affect the performance of general higher education. Not to mention the problem of optimization of expertise and the insignificant number of international professors has reduced the dynamics of intellectual discourse which is brutal to the bridge of moderation.

IIUM has been the key base in sustaining moderate Islamic higher education. The comparison between peace and conflict displayed by thousands of alumni in the last 40 years of their lives and careers has proven Islamic universities such as IIUM to be the vital organ that is able to keep radicalism and fanaticism at bay.

If not for IIUM, I could either be a takfirist Muslim or a radical liberalist by now.


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