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A Wizard of Islam

Islam in Europe needs moral and religious guides, says the rector of the Islamic University of Rotterdam.


Knowledge and education. There are not a few times the two terms come up in conversation with Ahmet Akgunduz and Ertugrul Gokcekuyu. The two are the rector and secretary general of the Islamic University of Rotterdam respectively. They have a job to do in the Netherlands, they admit.

It's about second and third generation immigrants. About giving them what the mosques can't really, a total and thorough introduction to Islam. It has been in short supply so far, in this country with its nearly one million Muslims. After the establishment of Islamic University Rotterdam both Muslims and non-Muslims, perhaps most recently, have discovered that they are finally bridging each other.

Where some initially feared the unknown and a little daunting by having a higher education only for Muslims, the fascination now is that the university plays a crucial role in shaping young, religious Muslims. In essence, the university's job is to give these young people a way back to an Islam that is about anything but holy war and terror in God's name.

- Many Muslims came to the Netherlands as guest workers in the 60s. They came as unskilled labor, were almost illiterate and could not speak a word of Dutch. They had a clear and traditional relationship with their religion. Second and third generation Muslims are in a completely different situation. They speak the language perfectly, are in many ways well integrated, but know nothing about their religion. It is from this group that we recruit our students, says Akgunduz.

Another group that the university would like to have better contact with are the many Muslims who were somehow peeled away from the whole integration process. A picture of this group is the twenty-year-old Moroccan Muslim who dropped out of school, can't find a job and doesn't have a fat bank account to live off.

- Lack of knowledge about Islam combined with a position at the very bottom of the social ladder becomes a kind of distorted legitimation of murder and terror. And this legitimation takes place within a religious framework. But it is completely wrong to believe that Islam allows for this type of violent protest. It is the vision of this university to give these Muslims basic knowledge about religion, and to send a message that no one has the right to take the law into their own hands.

Where young, disenfranchised Muslims used to run into trouble with the police, they now have two choices: crime or religious radicalization. The latter sends some of them into the arms of al Qaeda, the Salafists or other jihad groups. In the Netherlands, one terror cell after another has been uncovered by the police. Mohammed Bouyeri, convicted of Theo Van Gogh's murder, belonged to the so-called Hofstad group. Youth down to the age of 17 are now in the spotlight.

- With so much focus on Islam, it is absolutely crucial that we convey the right knowledge. We must never allow jihadists and others who want to destroy Western societies to have the right to interpret Islam. That said, we must also understand that young Muslims who hang on to radical ideas are often just looking for a place in society. They should not be isolated, but educated in religion and civil duties and rights.

Some of the students who come to the University of Rotterdam express their views that cannot be tolerated, Akgunduz emphasizes. It is about claims that the Netherlands is a war territory and that it is therefore legitimate to fight the state by any means. There are a kind of views and opinions the university does not accept. But it is rarely necessary to expel radical students. Again, knowledge is the means to reach them.

- The problem with these young people is that they have hardly met Islamic authoritative voices before coming here. They have imams in the local mosques, but they often speak only Arabic or Turkish. The young people simply cannot communicate with the religious leaders. And in the absence of moral and religious guides, they are driven into patterns of behavior, and into actions, which Islam does not accept.

- The worrying thing about this development is that many of these never encounter knowledge of Islam at all. They disappear from the mosques, and they do not come here. The students who go to this university are without exception moderate, most because they have received that type of upbringing at home, and some because we have led them in the right direction, says Akgunduz.

- Many may think that a separate Islamic school system at all levels will make the barriers between religious groups higher…

- It was an argument we often heard before and after the start-up eight years ago. But we kept arguing that this would actually break down barriers. And we were right. We have a wide range of external contacts: with the national government as well as with local authorities, ministries, organizations, the police and parliament. Politicians from all over Europe call us if they have questions related to Islam or integration. Ordinary people make contact after such incidents as the murder of Theo Van Gogh.

- We are simply trying to be the moderate and moderating voice abroad that makes non-Muslims recognize that the Netherlands, or Europe for that matter, has no problem with Islam, but only with people who have lost their footing and who neither belong to the old or the new world.

It is a fact, Akgunduz points out, that Islam has taken root in Europe. One can of course not admit this, but it would be counterproductive. Far better is to establish structures and institutions that will give the Muslims of Europe guidance and knowledge about Islam. Here, national governments have neglected, he believes.

- The biggest problem between Muslims and non-Muslims is not about sexuality, but about mutual tolerance. We must build bridges between cultures as per. today communicates extremely poorly. The way to do that is to increase knowledge about Islam in Western societies. There is a lot of research work left here, both inside and outside the Muslim communities.

It was in many ways the murder of Van Gogh that made Akgunduz understand that the university had a third role to play in addition to education and research.

- In the weeks after the murder, we received a number of phone calls from people who saw us as a portal to a major problem. We became a knowledge base that could convey the correct teachings of Islam; including the explicit prohibition against killing others and killing oneself. That information played an important role in the debate afterwards. In many ways, this tragic murder was also a breakthrough for our university, says Akgunduz.

He believes that in many ways history is being written in Rotterdam and the Netherlands these days. It is all about the fact that the group identity of the Muslims is about to be replaced by an individual identity. The Muslims are integrated in a way that makes some secular and Western-oriented, while others retreat to religion. In this span are those who do not know where to go.

- Mohammed Bouyeri was just such a person; extremely intelligent, but at the same time lacking knowledge. Without the ability to understand and read the writings of Islam in Arabic, but dependent on Dutch translations from English. Mentally unstable and confused. There are several of them out there, and they create a social problem. We want to help solve such problems, but it has not been done in a few years.

- 80.000 Muslims live in Rotterdam, and almost one million in the whole country. But you only have a few hundred students…

- We are simply not able to accept more students right now. We are experiencing increasing interest in this university, but do not have room for more in this building. We are still a young institution, and have not put in place schemes that make our students, for example, entitled to scholarships from the state. But we are also expanding, including a branch in Belgium.

Akgunduz says the university is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims, but that 90 percent of the students are religious. They represent nine nationalities and different directions within both Shia and Sunni Islam. An interesting feature for Akgunduz is that more and more ethnic Dutch, not least women, are converting to Islam. Moreover, Muslim women are far more liberated than men, and also in the majority at this university, he says.

- The biggest misconception associated with Islam is that we do not respect women's rights. But Islam has always had the greatest respect for women. The fact that Muslims commit violence against women and oppress them has as little to do with Islam as Western societies' violence against women has to do with Christianity. And who exactly is calling Hitler a Christian terrorist?

It is a big problem that people in the west know so little about Islam, Akgunduz believes. Sometimes it has an almost ridiculous effect, such as when non-Muslim guest lecturers do not know how to greet – and are enormously relieved when they discover that they can actually shake hands.

But there is also a problem that Muslims know so little about Christianity, he says. And that is why Christian historians and scholars are affiliated with the university on a regular basis. The same goes for Jewish lecturers. After all, we believe in the same god, Akgunduz states.

- This university is in many ways the only institution in Europe where the secular west and other religions can meet the Muslim academy. We do not operate in society as religious leaders, but as academics and researchers. In that function, it is our duty not to lock ourselves in behind closed doors, but to help eradicate mutual misconceptions that tear up the social fabric, says Akgunduz.

- One of the things you do here is to train local imams. Is it an order from the state?

- As a private university, we are required to follow the law on higher education. This means that the state can enter with certain requirements related to teaching. The Imam training is the result of both a desire from the state, and our own need to counter a development in which radical Imams gain too much influence.

Akgunduz uses a picture of European Islam as an empty glass. This empty glass must be filled with clean, clear water. It means education and knowledge for Muslims. Western governments, for their part, must become better at cooperating with moderate Islam. All efforts will be in vain if one does not reach out to the Muslim community, or if the state responds with a lack of respect for Islam. It is a two-way system that must work at both ends, Akgunduz believes.

- The Netherlands is the only country in the western world that allows higher education within religious groups. It is in fact enshrined in the Constitution. The fact that Muslims now also have a university only puts us in line with the Protestants and Catholics. If there is anything Islam needs in Europe, it is moral and religious guides, says Akgunduz.

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