Monday, 22 December 2008

International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) Closed?

Islamicists and other academics involved in studying the Muslim world are dumbfounded by the decision of the Netherlands government to close down the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM). The institute was founded ten years ago as a joint initiative of the universities of Amsterdam, Leiden, Nijmegen and Utrecht, which all host specially endowed ISIM chairs. Over the years ISIM developed an international reputation as one of the world's leading research centres on the contemporary Muslim World.

ISIM was founded in 1998 by the universities of Leiden, Amsterdam (UvA), Utrecht, Nijmegen en het Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. It is objective was to do research into social, political, cultural and intellectual developments in contemporary Islamic communities and societies worldwide. During the first five years each of the participating universities contributed 220,000 Euro to the Budgert, which was doubled by the Ministry to almost 2 Million Euro. Between 2003 and 2007, the Ministry provided an annual subsidy of 900,000 Euro, on condition that by 2007 ISIM should operate independently with financial support from the four participating universities. In 2008 the minister allocated another half a million in financial support.

In the course of the past decade interest in Islam and the Muslim World has increased tremendously (although often for all the wrong reasons). It is therefore difficult to comprehend why the present Dutch government has failed to make the necessary funding available to sustain ISIM. At no other point in time has there been a more acute and greater need for understanding Islam as a religious tradition and civilization, as well as developing informed insights into the complex dynamics of societies throughout the Islamic World and expatriate Muslim communities.

The Dutch government's stupefying decision flies also in the face of a report commissioned by the Scientific Council for Government Policy only two years ago. The outcome, Reformation of Islamic Thought: A Critical Historical Analysis, was hailed as 'a well-informed reflection of Islamic tradition', and a significant contribution 'towards creating a safe, open and critical intellectual environment in which Muslims and non-Muslims alike will be confident enough to move away from paralysing stereotypes and paradigms'. The author of the report, Professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (see the post of 11 September 2008), is himself an exponent of the critical Muslim intellectualism which the government's think tank says to support and which ISIM is tasked to research.

The closing down of ISIM appears to be symptomatic of a government lacking in vision and prone to ad hoc policies on an issue that is of critical importance to the country itself. Over the past few years The Netherlands has had to come to terms with serious shortcomings in integrating the resident Muslim communities into Dutch society at large. It has led to tragical incidents such as the assassination* of the columnist and TV-programme maker Theo van Gogh, the hype around self-promoting quasi-activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the rise of unsavoury populist politicians like Geert Wilders, whose PVV (Party for Freedom) drives a one-issue (anti-immigration)agenda.

As one fellow-Islamicist familiar with the machinations in Dutch higher education observed:

'The country is micro-managed by bureaucrats who have no idea about the fields they decide about and make outright baffling moves to cut costs aimed at transforming the Netherlands into a cold, wet paradise on earth. One example none of us can comprehend is the firing of Jan-Just Witkamp; the polyglot who used to be in charge of the Middle Eastern collection of the library in Leiden. He was replaced by consultants and the fact that these "consultants" cost the state more than a well-trained expert in the field, does not seem to matter. And by the way, they also operate on the idea that moving to a "US model" will be more efficient and beneficial. As far as I can see, they have no idea what this "model" is and mostly apply it when it comes to closing programs and cutting costs.
The Dutch government does not think in terms of long-term policies for the field of Islamic Studies but is narrowly focused on training Dutch-minded imams and pastoral workers. Thus it has launched programs in Amsterdam and Leiden that without a doubt have used up ISIM money'.

In the meantime, the issue has come to the attention of the Islam section of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). In response to the dismay with which the news of the imminent disappearance of ISIM was received, a signature campaign is now underway, in a last-ditch attempt to save ISIM by trying to make Education Minister Ronald Plasterk change his mind.

If you want to support this initiative, send an e-mail to: (stating in the body of the message "I endorse the petition to the Dutch Minister of Education to save ISIM", including your name, position and institution, affiliation with ISIM, and a few lines of comment).

* For a detailed description read Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance