The first sign that this is a different place from the Western universities it resembles comes when a bell rings in the library. Quickly the students on odd-numbered floors – all men – gather their books and file into the stairwells. Women file in to take their turn. In keeping with a puritanical interpretation of Islamic law, men and women aren’t allowed to study together, so they switch floors every two hours. They lounge in separate student unions and eat in separate cafeterias. At intervals during the day, the call to prayer sounds from the minarets of the campus mosque, and classes come to a halt.
Their strict observance might sound extreme, but the Islamic University is no fringe institution: It’s the top university in Gaza. The majority of students here study secular topics; not all of them are even religious. If you want to get a degree in Gaza, a territory that is home to more than a million people, it’s simply the best place to go.
At the same time, the university is something else again: the brain trust and engine room of Hamas, the Islamist movement that governs Gaza and has been a standard-bearer in the renaissance of radical Islamist militant politics across the Middle East. Thinkers here generate the big ideas that have driven Hamas to power; they have written treatises on Islamic governance, warfare, and justice that serve as the blueprints for the movement’s political and militant platforms. And the university’s goal is even more radical and ambitious than that of Hamas itself, an organization devoted primarily to war against Israel and the pursuit of political power. Its mission is to Islamicize society at every level, with a focus on Gaza but aspirations to influence the entire Islamic world.
The language is…odd. It’s odd to talk of a “renaissance of radical Islamist militant politics.” Do newspapers talk about a “renaissance of fascist militant politics”? I don’t think they do, I think they use words like return or resurgence or rise instead of renaissance.
In recent decades, as Islamism has grown from a set of isolated radical movements to a fully realized political philosophy, its powerful fusion of intellect, pragmatism, and fundamentalist faith has refashioned societies from the Gulf to Turkey, Egypt to Pakistan. For outsiders who want to understand its power and appeal, the Islamic University of Gaza is probably the best place to begin.
There again. The wording veils the sinister quality of the “ fully realized political philosophy” that’s at stake here.
When the Islamic University was founded in 1978, there wasn’t a single institution of higher education in the Gaza Strip. Its founders were members of the militant Muslim Brotherhood, believers that society should be organized according to Koranic principles, and they conceived the university as a sort of greenhouse for their brand of pure, uncompromising Islamism.
There again. Evasive. Silent about what kind of “pure, uncompromising” we’re talking about.
The male students wear the uniform of contemporary Islamism: pressed dress shirts, modest polyester jackets, baggy trousers, clean-shaven faces or short, trimmed beards. The women all wear head scarves. Their dress and professional demeanor are meant to connote not only modesty and seriousness of purpose, but also engagement with the modern world. Like Hamas, the university embodies a brand of Islamism advanced through earnest, utilitarian labor, not by a radical rejection of modernity. The prayer beads and austere white robes of the otherworldly Salafist movement are as unusual here as they would be on a totally secular campus.
That’s “engagement with the modern world”? Gender segregation, all women in hijab? That’s not the modern world that I know of.
To the extent that students rebel here, it’s against what they view as the secular excesses of the outside world. These university students support arranged marriage, Saudi-style morality police, and a hard-line theology that sees even their own religious parents as insufficiently pious. This campus culture might surprise an American or European public steeped in a history of libertine student activism, but in the Arab world for half a century, the idea of rebellion against authority has been closely associated with Islamists, the only constituency prepared to confront the region’s ossified authoritarian dictators.
This kind of activism meshes perfectly with the university’s most ambitious goals. “Our role as a university is to empower people, by teaching them to reform their lives in line with the revolutionary side of religion,” explains the associate dean, a British-educated political scientist named Waleed Al Modallal.
This marks a change for Palestinian society, which traditionally has bred political militancy but not religious fanaticism. Today new generations of Palestinian leaders are steeped not only in the struggle against Israel, but in a current of Islamist thought. The young learn the benefits of prayer, a lifestyle free of alcohol and fornication, and ultimately, Modallal says, will embrace Islamism in all aspects of life, from armed resistance against Israel to quotidian matters like marriage and banking.
In any field – including math, engineering, and medicine – scholars are expected to consult the Koran, or Islamic jurists, as well as academic texts. In the natural sciences, the results don’t look all that different from scholarship in the West, such as a recent research study that assessed the value of a particular protein for diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis. But in the social sciences, the imperative of hard-line Sunni Islam has yielded a body of work with a nearly Soviet ideological rigidity and predictability. One paper in the Series of Islamic Studies “proves” that a country’s social development increases in proportion to the number of people who memorize the Koran. Another considers and dismisses Shia Muslim conceptions of the attributes of God for “contradicting the Koran” and other canonical Islamic texts.
Many students at the Islamic University see themselves as a privileged elite with an obligation to help the transnational “ummah,” or global Islamic community. Almost every student I met – I was only allowed to speak to men – expressed a desire to continue his studies abroad.
Dude! You were only “allowed” to speak to men! That is not “engagement with the modern world.”