Sunday, 1 February 2009

Another Chance for ISIM?

The decision of the Netherlands' Ministry of Education to close down the world-renowned Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM)has resulted in hundreds of petitioners writing to Education Minister Ronald Plasterk to reconsider his decision (see also the post of 22 December 2008).

In its most recent issue, a Dutch-language magazine on the Middle East, North Africa and Islam, Zemzem, reports that options are under consideration to continue ISIM's activities in one form or another. The article provides also interesting background information on the decision-making process leading to the institute's closure.

Annelies Moors, incumbent of the ISIM Chair at the University of Amsterdam, published an edgy 'letter to the editor' in the reputable Dutch Newspaper NRC-Handelsblad, in which she expressed her irritation over the attitude of the Rector of Leiden University (one of the ISIM partners), who appeared to treat the whole issue as a political game. She was also very critical of the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Leiden University, who had been charged with developing a salvage plan for ISIM. Instead of presenting the minister with a financially viable plan to continue ISIM as semi-autonomous entity, he approached the ministry with an alternative Centre for Islamic Studies at Leiden University, staffed by university faculty working on 'things Islamic'. There would be no place for academic staff of the other ISIM universities - thereby effectively scrapping two-third of all ISIM-led research. In spite of Leiden's lobbying, the plan was not accepted.

Leiden Rector Van der Heijden, who is also chairman of the ISIM board, claims that his university has bent over backwards to salvage ISIM after it was abandonned by the other participating universities.

According to former deputy minister and current president of the University of Utrecht, Yvonne Van Rooij, the decision to stop funding for ISIM was taken about one and half year ago, when it became apparent that ISIM was financially no longer viable. But Professor Moors has a different reading: 'ISIM has no priority for the ministry or presidents of the universities involved. Because of its outstanding reputation, all parties assumed that others would come up with the financial means required to keep the institute alive'.

In November, Niek Biegman*, a former diplomat serving as a member of the ISIM advisory board, lashed out in the annual lecture on occasion of the institute's tenth anniversary, stating that 'If The Netherlands 'Inc' pulls the plug now, then this strikes me as unreasonable, absurd and outrageous'. Confronted with a statement from Leiden university that there were insufficient financial means to sustain ISIM, Biegman concluded that it was Leiden who pulled the plug, and that any alternative worthy of the name ISIM should not be reduced to an entity within Leiden University.

Martin van Bruinessen, ISIM professor in Utrecht, has his own analysis. According to his interpretation the first troubles started two years ago when his colleague in Nijmegen, Abdulkader Tayob, accepted a position in his native South Africa. For Nijmegen this seemed the right moment to leave ISIM by not appointing a successor. Moreover, 'ISIM was an initiative of the predecessors of the current presidents of the boards at the participating universities. Just like politicians, these university administrators are concerned with profiling themselves by introducing their own plans. Sustaining the initiatives of their predecessors is much less of a priority'.

According to Van Bruinessen the current heads of the universities attach only secondary importance to ISIM's international reputation, 'none of them has shown any interest in the social significance of ISIM's research, or the international appreciation for the institute's activities'. They have failed to see that ISIM is a nexus in the worldwide networks of researchers and has contributed significantly to setting new international research agendas for Islamic Studies as a field of scholarly inquiry.

Allegedly the ISIM partners were also critical of the fact that ISIM academics were not very visible in the media. Van Bruinessen: 'apparently they would like to see me every week in a talkshow' -- that seems to impress university presidents more than scholarly publications. He also adds that ISIM has contributed a great deal to bringing contemporary Islam and Muslim intellectuals to the attention of the public. ISIM was instrumental in introducing Tariq Ramadan, Olivier Roy and Abdolkarim Soroush to wider audiences. The institute also facilitated courses for special focus groups, and was frequently consulted by other ministeries and civil society organisations.

Because ISIM headquarters were located in Leiden, the institute always had a 'Leiden image', which may also have been a reason for the other universities to stop funding. 'They rather spend the money in-house', says van Bruinessen. Biegman too notes that Nijmegen, Utrecht and Amsterdam felt a bit 'invisible' within ISIM. Unfortunately this now means the end of ten years of very high standard research. In its latest international assessment ISIM received an 'A+'.

According to Van der Heijden the Education Ministry is now willing to make funding available for a national research school or some sort of research cooperation in the field of Islamic Studies. Apart from the 'ISIM universities, also the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and the Free University in Amsterdam have expressed an interest. The ball is now in the corner of Utrecht's Yvonne Van Rooij, who confirms she is currently investigating the possibilities of a 'interuniversitary research school'. Van Bruinessen, however, is sceptical: 'ISIM had an integrated research programme and a physical location where researchers could meet and interact'. He thinks the plan is just an attempt to resuscitate an earlier failed initiative for an in-house research school at Leiden University.

Advisor Niek Biegman has suggested contacting Louk de la Rive Box, rector of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in the Hague, which is since January part of Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam. In De la Rive Box's view ISIM's disappearance would be a ‘bloody shame’ and he confirmes that he is happy to assist in exploring alternatives.'ISIM has an excellent reputation abroad and too little has been done to save the institute. But the blame cannot be solely put with Leiden; the other universities are responsible as well and the minister should have acted much earlier'.

Annelies Moors has her own ideas: ‘ISIM could become part of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences [KNAW], which fits also with the recommendations of the assessment commission'. She finds it mind-boggling that the minister first asks for an assessment, which rendered a positive outcome, and then claims there is insufficient money for a restart.

To be continued?

* Biegman,a former ambassador to Egypt and Permanent Representative with United Nations, has produced some interesting (photo) books on Sufism and other aspects of the Muslim world, among others Living Sufis and Oil Wrestlers

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