A Sanctuary Attacked, and With it, Pakistan's Future Further Imperiled

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Of all the violence that has plagued Pakistan in the last few years perhaps none is more symptomatic of the larger war over the country's future than the double suicide bombing that occurred in the International Islamic University in Islamabad last week.

The Taliban confirmed it was behind the attacks. One of the movement's main trainers of suicide bombers explained that with the army's invasion of South Waziristan the Taliban "now considered all of Pakistan to now be a war zone." Even, it's now clear, a women's cafeteria and the country's leading religious university and the office of the Department of Sharia, or Islamic law.

As I watched video of the scene of the attacks my mind was flooded with memories of when I had lectured in the very building where the second bombing took place, and of how the many encounters I had there utterly changed my understanding not merely of Pakistan, but of the future of Islam as well.

I had only just landed in Islamabad a few hours before I was scheduled to give my first talk at the university, and whether it was the 13-hour time difference with Los Angeles, two nights flying in coach, or walking through an arrivals lounge that had recently been attacked by terrorists, I was more uneasy being in Pakistan than being in Baghdad or Gaza during their own periods of intense violence.

Matters weren't helped when I was introduced to a group of male religious studies students by my host as someone who'd lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew -- in fact, my stomach sank a bit -- especially as their long beards and traditional dress reminded me a lot more of the Taliban than the graduate students I normally spend time with. But as with most things in Pakistan, appearances were deceiving, and the situation was far more complex, in fact inspiring, than I'd imagined.

It turned out that the students with whom I was meeting weren't merely studying Islam, they were PhD students in comparative religion. That is, they were situating Islam, its history and religious dynamics, within the broader study of religious experience world-wide. Moreover, the recently established program in which they were studying was a model for the International Islamic University's drive to develop a new curriculum, one that would combine 1,000 years of Islamic learning with the latest developments in American and European humanities and social studies scholarship.

What's more, the students explained, they were all learning Hebrew, as well as biblical criticism and contemporary approaches to religious studies as part of their course work. As we began to talk it immediately became clear that neither students nor faculty had much time or desire to engage in spirited critiques of the United States or the West (the more secular intellectuals and activists with whom I met had covered that angle well enough).

They were much more interested in discussing how to better integrate "Western" and Islamic methodologies for studying history and religion, and more troubling, trying to figure out how to criticize the government "without disappearing" into the dark hole of the Pakistani prison system for five or ten years, or worse.

Colleagues in the history and political science departments were just as eager to develop the most up-to-date curricula possible, and in so doing lay a benchmark for the development of their fields, not just in Pakistan, but globally.

This is not to say that the members of the University community supported US policies in the Muslim world. Far from it. But as good social scientists (or social scientists in training), they understood the the importance of the interplay of local and global dynamics, and of the problems in their own societies that contributed to the violent relationship between the the US and many Muslims around the world.

Indeed, when I delivered my second lecture, on globalization early on a Saturday morning, the room was filled with students, more women than men (at least half the student body at the University are women), who grilled me about the assumptions underlying my research and methodologies. Would that most of my students back home were as interested in what I was teaching as were they.

As I walked around the campus, and met faculty and students who'd come from all over the Muslim world to study there, the role of the IIU in the larger context Islam globally became evident. The University was carving out a much-needed space in Muslim intellectual, and through it political, life through its bringing Muslim and Western traditions into dialog. Yet it was receiving and continues to receive far less attention from scholars, commentators or policy-makers than the fully American-style universities being opened across the Persian Gulf, as most recently evidenced by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, just established with great fanfare, and a $10 billion endowment, in Jeddah.

Such a venture is surely important, not just for having one of the world's fastest super computers or giving every newly hired professor $400,000 in research money -- I got $3,000 when I was hired at UC Irvine, and that was when the University of California was flush with cash. Most of the faculty I met at the IIU were using decade old computers with one dial-up modem available per office -- but for being a coed institution and barring the Saudi religious police from operating on campus.

Yet the singular focus of KAUST on hard sciences is ultimately myopic and will likely produce little in the way of larger societal change in Saudi Arabia predicted by the new university's boosters. Such changes come only with a robust public sphere where citizens who are educated broadly and humanistically are equipped with the social knowledge and skills to challenge the dominant political and social-religious discourses.

Building such an active Pakistani citizenry was, and I imagine despite the bombing remains, a major goal of the IIU. Sadly, it's just such a goal that made it a "legitimate" target for the Taliban, for whom a healthy public sphere populated by educated citizens willing and able to challenge, and potentially democratize and clean up their government, would pose at least as big threat to its position in the country as the army they are now fighting in the country's Northwest.

Not surprisingly, the core mission of the IIU would also not win it many friends among the country's corrupt economic and political elite, who, many of the senior education and religious officials I met confided to me, share the Taliban's desire to silence any kind of critical scholarship or societal debate more broadly.

With this attack, the Taliban have struck what what until now was a sanctuary, however fragile and inchoate, where the emerging generation of Pakistanis and Muslims more broadly could determine on their own terms how best to bring together their own and other cultures and traditions to grapple with the profound challenges faced by their societies. I suppose it was inevitable, but I hope it doesn't weaken the spirit and resolve of the thousands of students who've come to the IIU from across the Muslim world to help build a better future. They are not just the future of Pakistan, or of Islam; they are are future as well.