Leiden Islam Academy: sharing knowledge and making contact
The aim of Leiden Islam Academy is to share the broad knowledge of Islam existing in Leiden University with various parties within society, and to bring people together. After three years of preparation, the launch meeting will take place on 7 December.
Leiden Islam Academy (LIA) has emerged from the Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society (LUCIS), an interdisciplinary platform of scholars working in the area of Islamic studies. The Centre facilitates collaboration between experts in Islam from a range of disciplines, including lawyers with extensive knowledge of Sharia, and social scientists. Together they cover a very broad spectrum. Prof. Maurits Berger is a board member of LUCIS and the Director of LIA.
Leiden Islam Academy (LIA) has given concrete shape to one of the main objectives of LUCIS: valorisation. In this context, LIA draws on the wealth of expertise in the area of Islam available in several disciplines at Leiden University. ‘We offer a tailor-made service,’ says Berger. ‘And we also aim to bring different parties into contact with one another.’
Why a Leiden Islam Academy?
‘The starting point was valorisation. As academics in the humanities, how can our knowledge be used to benefit society? The answer: by sharing our knowledge with groups in society that come into contact with Islam in any way. This isn’t something you can achieve overnight. It takes a lot of time and energy to convince these parties, including the Muslim ones, that you actually have something valuable to offer them. We wanted to make sure that the partnerships were well established before going public; not saying what we were planning to do, but being able to say what we’re doing right now. It’s taken us three years to reach this stage.’
Which parties are we talking about?
‘There’s quite a variety. A history teachers’ association, the police, an umbrella organisation of mosques, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Social Affairs, an organisation of primary and secondary schools in Schilderswijk in The Hague, a Muslim student association…’
What do you offer them?
‘Whatever they need in terms of knowledge; our service is always tailor-made. We basically offer education. For instance, we gave three modules about Islam in Europe with a Muslim student association in Rotterdam. For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we’ve set up a 4-year course on Islam, with the intention that it will continue to run after that time. In the past we’ve provided education for diplomats who were going to be posted abroad, but it was always on an ad hoc basis, even though diplomats are rotated and new ones also regularly join. Another example is a series of modules for a Turkish Muslim organisation. At first they were quite reluctant: they didn’t want us to tell them about Islam as a religion. But they said they didn’t know anything about the context of this religion, such as political Islam, ethics, philosophy and the situation in the Middle East. And also the Dutch context: what does freedom mean in the West, and why are you allowed to insult people? We’re also going to discuss this Dutch context in a module for imams in Rotterdam. Our added value for Muslim groups is that we offer context, guidance that can really help them in practice. And we want different parties to start talking to each other. For instance, the participants in a module that I gave included both an imam and a member of the Party for Freedom. It’s certainly possible.’
What do you gain from it?
‘Apart from a large network and achieving the aim of valorisation, we also try to gain academic knowledge from our work. In other words: a teaching input with a research output. I’ve seen with regret how teaching and research are being separated, although the University’s mission is actually to keep them united. The great thing about this tailor-made education for partners within society is that it can yield research. My modules on radicalisation and Islam in schools gave me enough material to write a paper. One of my colleagues asks the participants in her workshops to give examples that she uses in her research.’
Islam has become a ‘minefield’ in the West; how do you deal with this?
‘The debate on Islam has become tremendously polarised. And people can be very emotional about it. This is partly because of our debating culture: a proposer and an opposer are set against each other, and they immediately attack each other. It then becomes more about opinions than about facts. It’s bewildering for academics to experience how public debate proceeds when they dip a toe into the world outside the university. We jump into that world with both feet. Although I must add that it’s on our own conditions. Our aim is to offer a safe environment where everyone can speak freely. We always start with a lecture or module that presents facts. The discussion follows after that. We take part in this discussion as academics with an open mind, without a pre-determined opinion. This creates a neutral atmosphere where everyone can give their view. By taking this approach, we’re trying to deradicalise the debate to some extent.’
Leiden Islam Academy also has the think tank ‘Islam in the Netherlands’…
‘Yes, this is a group of students that we discuss all kinds of societal problems with. The main aim is that they – not we – come up with ideas, and also implement them. For this, we’ve brought in people from outside, such as social entrepreneurs and filmmakers. The Muslim students tell us about the anger and fear that are felt by Muslims. How they experience life in the Netherlands today. For instance, they’ve said that Muslims feel there are double standards when it comes to freedom of speech: for them, the freedom to say what you want is more restricted. Many Muslims are also afraid that it’s all going to go wrong; ‘I’ll have to leave soon’, that feeling. But at the same time, there’s also tremendous enthusiasm to do something about it, to make an important contribution to the Netherlands.’
‘It’s all immensely informative for us.’