A Critical Engagement with a Radicalized Muslim University Student’s Proposal

Earlier this semester, I was asked to read through a proposal penned by a Muslim student attending a respected university in the United States. It became obvious she, a student of some repute at her institution, had been radicalized to the point of praising (and arguably promoting) terrorism.

In this critical engagement with the student’s proposal, I show that her essay is counterproductive for its end goal, that rather than perpetuating decolonization she wishes to establish Islamic supremacy and turn the university into a madrassa, and, importantly, bring to the fore her radicalization. The student and her university are kept anonymous. 

The proposal, which reads more akin to a word salad than a carefully crafted and well-argued paper, has the respectable goal of transforming America’s educational spaces, especially at the institution this student attends, to be more inclusive of once suppressed views. The student states, “This [proposal’s] argument [is] for [a] Critical Muslim Studies discipline within Western academia, specifically, in the pre-existing field of American Studies” (p. 40). It is “part of my broader vision for Critical University Studies–to posit, within Western academia, decolonial disciplines that unsettle white, liberal, secularism as normative” (p. 40).

The student wants transformation. The open-minded scholar should have no issue with discussing and debating transformational proposals. These proposals should, however, be reasonable, articulative, and well-argued, and the proposal in question is anything but. The proposal fast becomes a hit piece desiring to wage war on the West than transform its educational spaces.

As a strong advocate for secular education, especially in the Study of Religion, I objected to this proposal on many grounds as did the professors to whom she presented it.

Evidently, the student alleges that she was mistreated and ridiculed by these professors, which, in this context, I find suspicious and unlikely, and more likely this student’s attempt to play the victim Muslim mistreatment card and therefore garner currency and sympathy for her views. What is more likely is that the professors noted the folly of this radicalized student’s proposal. 

In the student’s crosshairs is secular education,

“I have found that secularism is not deconstructed as the primary modality through which Islam and Muslims are understood. As a result, this plays into Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes about Muslims, and leaves Muslim students feeling undermined and discriminated against in the classroom setting” (p. 40-41).

Of course, this is a ridiculous statement referring to contemporary secular education, especially at reputable universities. One suspects that the student had one of her cherished religious views challenged in a class setting and did not like it.

To put the record straight, secular education does not intend to “prove” or “falsify” religious, political, social, or cultural views. Secular education should one wish to pursue it will, certainly, confront the views of students simply because the curriculum incorporates a diversity of disagreeable theories and perspectives on the subject matter, many of which will be learned by students for the first time. 

One might be devoutly religious or spiritual but yet be required to learn about Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic views of religion being the product of mental disorders. Religion is a “universal neurosis”, Freud claimed. In the Philosophy of Religion class, an ardent atheist will have to grapple with Thomas Aquinas’ thoughtful arguments for the existence of God which will prove a challenge to this atheist’s own materialistic beliefs. 

One cannot pursue any education worth its salt and not be challenged and offended at some point. Essentially, as the saying goes, one does not have the right not to be offended and the curriculum, which aims for neutrality, should not be revised to make offense or offending anyone illegal or against university protocol. Importantly, neutrality does not mean uncritical.

What the student wishes is to render tertiary secular education supportive and affirming of religious views which, of course, are her ones. As such, the secular department is transformed into a religious school, a madrassa, with a very narrow, reductionist “academic” (a term I use in a loose sense here) scope. Any other disagreeable views this student dislikes will be omitted and disparaged as “Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes”. 

Any doubt that this student intends to establish a madrassa and a theological school is put to rest given her reverential frequent citing of the Qur’an and the mentioning of a capitalized “True Islam”. She writes,

“I hope that all possible contentions, debates, and intellectual endeavors within this field are premised by our collective intentionality in striving [for] Allah. I hope that, in our pursuit of knowledge and truth, we supplicate to our Lord to increase us in knowledge” (p. 49).

Her efforts are to be in service of her “beloved Messenger, Prophet Muhammad” (p. 49). Clearly, the student’s project is entirely a religious exercise and not an academic one.

The proposal’s apparent irony is that it repeatedly refers to the discipline the student wishes to found as “Critical Muslim Studies”. The student allegedly “designed and taught a [university name]-accredited course on the life of Prophet Muhammad” (p. 41) and one can only imagine how uncritical, anachronistic, and religiously motivated this “course” would have been. 

Certainly, most scholars and professors behind a course’s curriculum view this as objectionable because they value secular education’s principles of learning, debating, discussing, and critiquing diverse perspectives in as neutral a way as possible. What value is education if there is only one topic that is selected to dominate all others?

Of course, secular education is anything but Islamophobic. Apparent instead is that the student’s agenda is to render any critique and critical discussion of her religion and cherished sacred figure, Muhammad, impermissible. Muhammad and Islam will therefore be treated as privileged among and put on a pedestal above the various other religious figures and religions taught in modules whose content students will learn.

The author’s hatred for the West seeps from the pages of her essay. It is sprinkled with unusual portmanteaus like “Westoxified” and “Westoxification” but most concerning is that at one point she appears to praise terrorism identifying it with pinnacle values of Western freedom and liberty (this is an obvious inconsistency on her part as she praises these Western values while earlier castigating the West as a toxic chimera). The relevant quote in full,

“Works of a multitude of decolonial scholars will be central to this endeavor, perhaps most pertinently Faisal Devji’s Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics. This is a prime text in engaging with this methodology that I am describing… Devji examines the terrorist not as a malevolent force seeking to violate so-called Western values of freedom and liberation, but as precisely the paragon of these Western values” (p.45, emphasis added).

Reading between the lines, the student views herself as a victim of her circumstances and no doubt thinks her existence in the United States is one of severe oppression and hatred toward her faith, despite the country being the freest on the planet and affording freedom of religion for all.

Because of the student’s poor lack of clarity about an isolated quote and term “terrorist” in Devji’s book, the student’s paragraph reads easily as praising terrorism itself. The kind of terrorism that involves (semi-) automatic weapons, rubble, limbs, and bombs. It is also not clear if Devji is being interpreted faithfully by this student. She offers no explanation or engagement with him which possibly suggests the student has not read Devji or, if she had, it does not reflect in the proposal.

The student’s appeal to terrorism is evidence of radicalization and she somehow sees herself as a “terrorist” of sorts striving for a rightful cause in her manufactured reality. However, it is not clear where the student has been and continues to be radicalized. Is it in the mosque under the suggestions of an imam? The university library? Through a group of friends or a society? My suggestion would be for the authorities to identify the source of this radicalization and monitor the student for additional signs of this with the possible end of violence.

The student believes she is a maverick of sorts who will establish a self-forged university department (read: madrassa) at a reputable institution. She will guide Western secular academia into and across uncharted waters toward “True Islam”. 

To burst her bubble, she is no maverick. Decolonial scholars have been charting these waters already and for many years. Syllabi have transformed significantly because of these efforts. Perhaps the student’s only innovation is her praising terrorism with vitriol under the guise of decolonialism.

What stood out is the student’s supremacist attitude evident in her “implicit goal of centering Muslim scholarship” (p. 49). “Centering” one’s preferred religious ideology through “Muslim scholarship” (almost certainly the work of devout Muslims who agree with her) betrays her lack of understanding of decolonial aims and/or her supremacism. The very point of decolonial scholarship is to understand and decenter dominant narratives in the hope to include former repressed ones alongside those narratives. It is not about “centering” ideologies. The student intends her version of Islam to be the center and trash the rest, which is a supremacist ideology at its core.

On a final note, this student’s rhetoric will engender further Islamophobia in the United States. There is no shortage of Americans wanting to discover any evidence of Islam and Muslims, local and/or foreign, posing a threat to the nation’s safety and well-being. This student’s proposal does exactly that: it is a threat rather than a well-reasoned proposal advocating transformation. The former is what Islamophobes and supremacists wish to find and, should select quotations from the proposal be aired on a radio and/or television channels reaching millions, the fire is fueled only more and the student’s fellow Muslims will pay the price. 

In line of what I stated here, this is the feedback I received from an individual who learned of this proposal,

“This kind of thing is why, as tolerant, accepting and interested as I am of most other religions, I cannot accept Islam. I have seen a video clip of about a dozen bound, kneeling Christian converts being summarily executed by the newly triumphant Taliban. This is NOT the product of just one sect or radical group. This is a basic tenet of Islam: death for all “infidels” and “apostates”. I know of no other religion that commands death for everyone else. I have no tolerance for those without tolerance themselves. To me, Islam IS terrorism.”

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