Islamism has won hearts and minds across the Middle East. It also offers a BA
GAZA - Behind the arabesque arches of the five-story university library here, students occupy every available seat, cramming for finals in their humanities classes. Outside, a lucky few nap beneath palm and ficus trees on the cramped urban campus. At lunch, engineering students balance their books upright in the cafeteria and absent-mindedly munch subsidized falafel. This is exam period at the Islamic University of Gaza, charged with the bustle and anxiety of college life.
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.
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.
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. At the time, Gaza was a freewheeling resort city, its seaside restaurants full of visiting Israelis and Egyptians attracted by Gaza’s famous grilled fish. Secular Palestinians dominated society and the power structure in the 1970s, and scoffed at the prospect of Islamists making inroads.
With no local competition, the Islamic University had the market on higher education all to itself, a monopoly that took on greater importance as Israel made it harder and harder for Gazans to leave their territory to study in the West Bank. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brothers running the university turned their efforts to community and political organizing, leading within a decade to the establishment of Hamas, whose name in Arabic is an acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement.” By the dawn of the new millennium, the Oslo Accords were collapsing, the secular Palestinian Authority was proving an ineffectual government, and Israelis were souring on the peace process. Gaza’s culture transformed in a historical blink: Hamas had risen in a couple of decades from an underground network of imams, teachers, and militants to a juggernaut that dominated Gaza’s increasingly pious and conservative population.
Today Hamas doesn’t run the Islamic University, but the overlap of the party and the school is nearly seamless. Scientists and academics at the university double as Hamas technocrats: doctors, engineers, economists, teachers, and media specialists. The Islamic University serves as an employment program and intellectual retreat for Hamas leaders, giving a perch to the prime minister, the foreign minister, and bureaucrats in charge of ministries.
In neighboring Israel, the Islamic University has become a symbol of recalcitrant Palestinian hatred. Many faculty members share Hamas’s most hard-line beliefs, which include denying Israel’s right to exist. Israelis often talk about the university as if it were a key source of Hamas suicide bombers and missile manufacturers, a kind of clubhouse and recruiting ground. But to blame the university is to ignore the fact that much of Gaza is full of underground weapons labs and volunteers for martyrdom. In this, the university reflects the culture around it as much as it shapes it.
Today, a visit to the university’s claustrophobic quarters testifies both to Gazans’ piety and their thirst for academic advancement. Twenty thousand students take classes in a 20-acre grid that could fit snugly into Harvard Yard. The mosque holds pride of place at the center of campus. Not far away, a yawning crater cuts through the campus, where the engineering and chemistry labs once stood. Israel bombed them on December 28, 2008, the second day of the most recent Gaza War, believing that Hamas was using the academic laboratories to build rockets and explosives, a charge Islamic University officials have denied. In keeping with university rules, men congregate on one side of the bomb crater and women on the other.
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.
Students tend to gravitate toward disciplines likely to lead to stable careers: engineering, medicine, nursing, business, journalism, education, English. The faculties of religion and Islamic law are also big draws, since they, too, lead to secure careers as clerics or employees of the “waqf,” or Islamic trust, a quasi-governmental body that regulates religious affairs in most Islamic countries.
The Islamic University of Gaza is considered second among Palestinian institutions only to the secular Birzeit University in the West Bank. (The Fatah movement - Hamas’s political rival - built a more liberal university of its own, Al Azhar, right next door to the Islamic University in the 1990s, but the instruction there is considered second rate.) It maintains its high standards by making sure to teach vital secular material alongside the Islamist counterpoint, and is confident enough to admit even outspoken detractors of Hamas. One secular Palestinian I know, a man who has clashed with Hamas officials over their efforts to restrict speech and require head scarves in government schools, is enrolled and finishing a degree part time. “It’s the best education, by far,” he tells me with a shrug.
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.
The scholarship and instruction at the Islamic University offer a map of the world Hamas’s leaders would build if they had no political constraints. More than any single idea, the Islamic University promotes a view of a society inescapably suffused with religious doctrine. The questions at the start of any inquiry - how does this work, and how to do it best - must be joined immediately with another: What does God permit on this matter?
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.
In secular societies like the United States, similarly strict religious universities exist on the margins, attracting a devout subculture seeking a counterweight to mainstream values. In contrast, the Islamic University of Gaza - like a growing number of religious institutions across the Islamic world - has simply become the mainstream.
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.
Saher Al Haj was a case in point. A 29-year-old father of two and part-time cleric, Haj returned to university to study media because he believes his Islamist activism can have a greater effect if he is a journalist. According to his professor Husam Ayesh (also the university’s spokesman), the young cleric has scored higher marks than any student in the department’s history. He wants to move to England to study for a master’s degree at City University London, and use his religious training, fluent English, and charisma to explain the religious transformation that has shaken the Arab world.
Unlike most of his classmates, Haj dresses like a mad prophet, with a tufted beard, a white cloth cap, and flowing white “thobe” that billowed over his sandals. The effect is intentional. Haj believes that the West has focused so much on the rise of extremist nihilists like Al Qaeda that it has failed to come to terms with people like him - the much more widespread Islamist activists who have come to dominate places like Gaza and the opposition political movements throughout the Arab world. He decries Al Qaeda’s terrorist violence as immoral, distinguishing it from Hamas’s Koran-sanctified Islamic resistance. “People in the West would see me dressed in these clothes and they would think I am a terrorist,” Haj said to me in near-perfect English. “I want to talk to them and show them that their image of Islam is distorted, that we are reasonable people.”
In the West, the idea of an Islamic state sounds radical. Inside the university’s freshly whitewashed walls and among its growing alumni network, however, an Islamic society already thrives, and has become a leading model for how Arab societies should be shaped. In much of the Islamic world, radical Islamists are running their society’s institutions, not bombing them, and changing their societies in ways that the West is only now beginning to grapple with. Haj’s call for an assertive Islamic society is no longer a lone militant voice, shouting at the Arab ruling class from beyond the barricades. In Gaza, at least, it has become the voice of the establishment.
Thanassis Cambanis’s book, ”A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War With Israel,” will be published by Free Press in September. He is a New Ideas Fund fellow, teaches at Columbia University, and has written about the Middle East since 2003.