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An Islamic University in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi From my experience, many young Muslims across the world have an ambivalent relationship with America. They love the pro...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

From my experience, many young Muslims across the world have an ambivalent relationship with America. They love the progress America represents but resent what they regard as its anything-goes moral climate. They are awed by the creativity and vitality of its people but are outraged by the politics of its government. They are simultaneously seduced and repulsed by its raunchy popular culture. They admire the enviable quality of its education but are suspicious of the moral content of this education.

To be sure, this ambivalence toward America in the Muslim world is not limited to young people. I know of many Nigerian Muslim parents who desire to send their children to the United States to drink from the fountain of its superior educational system but are concerned that the moral convictions they studiously cultivated in their children would be diluted, perhaps extirpated even, by the permissiveness of American campuses.

That is why Malaysia has lately become a huge magnet for students from northern Nigeria seeking education outside the shores of their homeland.

Well, this may all change. Inside Higher Ed, one of America’s top online news sources for post-secondary education, reported on May 20, 2009, that an American Muslim group has concluded plans to establish an Islamic university in America by 2010 at the earliest or by 2011 at the latest.

Interestingly, the university, which will be named Zaytuna College, will be located in the city of Berkeley in the state of California, the same state that is host to Hollywood, the glitzy, licentious headquarters of the American film industry. Indicatively, its motto is: “Where Islam Meets America."

“The proposed Zaytuna College would be a first: a four-year, accredited, Islamic college in the United States,” Inside Higher Ed reported. The planned Islamic university is actually an outgrowth from an existing educational institute called the Zaytuna Institute and Academy, which was founded in 1996. The institute currently offers sub-degree courses in Arabic and Islamic studies.

People behind the Islamic university said it would take off with only two majors (Arabic language and Islamic law and theology) and gradually expand to secular disciplines in the sciences and humanities. Fluency in Arabic is a prerequisite for admission to the university. However, intensive language course would be organized for people who have no knowledge of Arabic but desire to study in the university.

And, although it is an Islamic university (but not a seminary), it will be open to people from all religious persuasions in the tradition of faith-based universities in America such as the Catholic University of America, Georgetown University and the various Jesuit universities in the country.

While the school will be co-educational, Hatem Bazian, chair of the management board for Zaytuna College and senior lecturer of Near Eastern studies at the University of California at Berkeley, told Inside Higher Ed that men and women would sit on opposite sides of a classroom.

But the university has to scale through many hurdles before it can see the light of day. First, it has to generate between $15 and $25 million as take-off grant and to start an endowment. The brains behind the university said that wouldn’t be a problem.

The second obstacle is that the university must be accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of six regional associations that accredit public and private schools, colleges, and universities in the United States. (The Western region covers institutions in the states of California and Hawaii, and the territories of Guam, American Samoa, etc).

Bazian told Inside Higher Ed that he doesn't expect that the Islamic character of the university would pose any complication in the accreditation process, pointing out that Zaytuna would follow in a long tradition of America’s faith-based universities.

"I'm confident that Zaytuna will be welcomed not only by WASC but also by other institutions that see the value of developing an American Muslim institution that is intended to develop a unique program to fit the needs of a growing Muslim population -- in conversation with other academic institutions both in California and around the country," Banzian said.

"This is not to say that people of ill will, outside or in the general arena, will not take issue with this. I think this is part of the period that we are in, that Islam is under the microscope... and some individuals of ill will find the opportunity to express their ill will, but we will not be distracted by some who desire to make a career out of criticism. We'd rather build."

Well, he is right. Already, many groups are mobilizing against the university even before it has had a chance to go through the accreditation process. In a report on its site, the Christian Science Network, for instance, alleges that the scholars behind the Islamic University have connections with or sympathies for terrorism and anti-Americanism.

If Zaytuna is able to convince the authorities and ordinary Americans that it will not be a breeding ground for terrorism and anti-Americanism, it will break ground as one of only a few Islamic universities in the West.

Most importantly, its establishment will be a significant symbolic balm to the strained relationship between America and the Muslim world and an added fillip to President Obama’s efforts to court the trust and friendship of Muslims.

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