Abdulrahman Bindamnan, a Ph.D. student and scholar fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change at the University of Minnesota, spoke to a March 24th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch, about the importance of freedom of expression within education. The following is a summary of Bindamnan's comments:
Bindamnan's education in his native Yemen consisted of "rote learning." Critical thinking was not encouraged when memorizing the Qur'an in his imam father's mosque, or when attending school in Yemen, where social sciences are taught almost as "propaganda for the state." Bindamnan excelled in his studies, but it was only after he pursued higher education in the U.S. on a study-abroad scholarship that he "understood the content and the substance of my learning in Yemen."
Internecine rivalries in Yemen between different Islamic sects heavily influence its education systems. "Anybody who get[s] in power want[s] to force their ideology [on] everybody else." The conservative Salafi sect and the Sufis propagate their respective teachings in their own mosques "without using the state." But the Houthis, and groups influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, incorporate their Islamist "propaganda" in centralized curricula, using government to impose their ideology on the population.
Landing in the U.S. with a limited command of English, Bindamnan felt part of what he terms the "zero generation" of college students who had to "start from zero here" and learn a "different way of thinking." In learning to think and read "critically," and exposed to "progressive Islam," he embraced reform and now writes about the importance of "the primacy of reason over the primacy of revelation" in Islamic education.
The "longstanding" debate in Islam between the two is a "delicate" one. Bindamnan finds that those who prioritize revelation "are using reason to refute reason."
Science is about innovation, but Islamic tradition is about preserving interpretations by scholars from the past. Because scientific principles are "based on doubt," these traditionalists argue this contradicts Islamic principles. "Science is all about innovation, but the Islamic tradition is actually, as has been understood, about preservation, and this is what most of the Muslim scholars in Yemen say. To be a good thinker within the Islamic tradition is to preserve what scholars of the past had said and not to come up with something new."
In higher education, many times other religions sidestep the topic in scientific discussions. "I am an advocate for just leaving religion outside of the scientific discussions; or, at least, give both a hearing and let the students make up their own minds," Bindamnan said. "To prevent certain theories from the discussion seems to me just deprives students from knowledge that has been produced which they could greatly benefit from." In contrast, many Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islamists in the West ascribe to a theory of "Islamization of knowledge" by teaching secular subjects "through an Islamic lens."
As a reformist, Bindamnan hearkens back to the Islamic scholars of the past who were "great scientists," such as Averroes ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Khaldun, all of whom saw Islam and science as "two separate things." Using Islam to "filter" science defeats the entire purpose of scientific inquiry.
Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-born German political scientist and professor of international relations specializing in Islamic studies, warns that the Islamist approach is "a contradiction in terms." Tibi points out that Islamism, a movement started in Egypt in reaction to issues with modernity, is a relatively "recent phenomenon." Bindamnan notes that Tibi, in his book, Islam's Predicament with Modernity, calls to reform the religion instead of Islamizing knowledge.
A few months ago, an academic at Hamline University was fired for showing artwork of Islam's prophet Muhammad in her class. A campaign run by Islamist-linked campus students culminated in her dismissal. Bindamnan, who describes himself as an "international Muslim," was already familiar with the possibility of "overreaction" among sections of American Islam and how they engage with religion, some of it gleaned during his stint as president of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Miami while earning his B.A. there.
For these Muslim students convinced to protest, it is a "matter of identity," not religion. Ironically, professors at other U.S. universities have shown the same image, but because they were Muslim themselves, there has been negligible "backlash." The Muhammad image would also be unlikely to provoke a response "if the professor was Muslim or non-white and doesn't share other identities."
Too much of American Muslim identity today, Bindamnan argued, is concerned with emotional responses towards how non-Muslims deal with Islam.
In today's hostile campus climate, Islamists have "capitalized" on the prevalence of identity politics to advance their agenda. The idea that Islam, or any other religion, is immune from criticism suppresses dialogue. Bindamnan described what he sees as a "ludicrous outcome of the identity politics because they created an atmosphere where you cannot talk critically about religion, especially about Islam, that somehow Islam is immune from criticism, and it's not. We need to criticize it, and whether it's by Muslim or non-Muslim, it's fine. I mean, it's another subject like any other subject that we need to encourage dialogue rather than suppress it."
The current atmosphere presents challenges for reformists seeking to advance reform within Islam. Tibi has described the actions by those opposed to critiques of Islam to marginalize reformers as the "labeling game": a ploy to silence and suppress freedom of expression through accusations of "Islamophobia," rather than engaging in substantive debate.
Bindamnan noted the influence on his intellectual development of two mentors: George Gopen, a professor emeritus at Duke University, was instrumental in Bindamnan's mastery of the English language. Walt McClure, another mentor and the chairman of the Center for Policy Design, has encouraged Bindamnan's ideas about advancing reformist ideas for Islam in countries that are "already advancing," such as Morocco or Tunisia.
Reasoning that receptivity to progressive Islam may take hold in a more organic way in those countries, rather than somewhere such as Yemen, is just one approach Bindamnan hopes will extend reforms beyond the West. When asked whether he is optimistic that reformist voices will "push back against the stranglehold over education," Bindamnan maintains an outlook of "conditional hope."
He concluded that "the West is a good place to spur reform because, in Muslim countries, you cannot talk, you cannot write. They will just suppress you, so I think the West is a good environment for reform, but, as I mentioned, there is this critical atmosphere that does not encourage reformists to advance their ideas. They always get pushed back, and pushback in the form of suppressing them and what Tibi called the labeling game. You submit a critical critique of Islam, and then the response will be, 'this is Islamophobic.' That's the labeling game instead of engaging with the substance."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.