For most Indonesians, education in the Middle East, especially higher education, is associated with “Islamic education”. What is meant by “Islamic education” here is education to study Islamic sciences, such as fiqh (Islamic law), ushuluddin (philosophy), tafsir (interpretation) and hadith science. That assumption could be because they think that the Middle East is an “Islamic region”.

Another factor is the role, influence and dominance of Middle East alumni. For the past few decades, many Indonesian students have studied Islamic sciences at a number of universities in the Middle East, including their branch campuses in Indonesia, such as the Institute for Islamic and Arabic Language Sciences (LIPIA). This does not include those who study Islamic sciences in a number of noncollege Islamic educational institutions, particularly in Yemen and also Saudi Arabia.

After completing their studies, they then set up foundations, madrasas, Islamic boarding schools, Islamic centers or recitation groups and spread certain styles, teachings, insights, discourses, understandings or Islamic ideologies in Indonesia, either through online or offline methods.

In fact, the reality is that education in secular science subjects is actually more dominant in the Middle East. What is meant by secular science study here is non-Islamic sciences, such as “hard sciences” (physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, etc.), “soft” sciences (social sciences and humanities) and other fields of study (eg computer science, business, management, engineering science, medicine and nursing, geoscience, petroleum science, agricultural science, information systems and technology and so on).

Now, various well-known universities in Middle East are aggressively opening study programs in the field of smart technology to welcome the era of the fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0, the Digital Revolution), such as artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), robotics and blockchains. In order to welcome this era of the Digital Revolution, my campus has also opened more than 30 new study programs, in addition to dozens of research institutes and various courses related to smart technology.

Trends in secular sciences

The results of my research show that the trend of education in secular sciences is not only dominant in the Gulf Arab countries, which are regarded as wealthy regions, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, but also in other countries, such as Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and so on.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, only three universities were originally or historically designed specifically to study Islamic sciences, namely the Islamic University (Medina), Umm al-Qura University (Mecca) and Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University (Riyadh). The rest, the main focus of campuses in Saudi Arabia, are in the field of secular sciences. Indeed, these campuses offer Islamic studies, but they are very minor and complementary.

Since the 1970s or 1980s, Indonesian students have generally studied Islamic sciences at these three campuses, including LIPIA in Indonesia, which is the branch campus of the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University. Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University has done the same thing.

Interestingly, as time passes, the three universities have also opened faculties or study programs in the field of secular sciences. For example, the Islamic University of Medina has opened faculties of engineering, computers and science (such as the exact sciences). At Umm al-Qura University, more new faculties have been opened, such as the faculties of medicine, pharmacy, nursing, engineering, computer and information systems, applied sciences, business administration and social sciences. Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University has done the same thing.

The King Abdullah Scholarship Program, a government scholarship program for Saudi sons and daughters who wish to study at top campuses abroad (especially the United States, Canada, Australia, countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia, or China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore) also focuses on the study of secular sciences.

Why do universities (and the government) in Saudi Arabia (as well as other Middle Eastern Arab countries) focus on the study of secular sciences, with even three universities that were initially “designed” specifically for the study of Islamic sciences also changing and “reforming” themselves?

Market and job demand

One of the main factors is because of the needs of the times and the demands of the job market. Alumni of Islamic sciences education find it difficult to find jobs in accordance with their scientific disciplines due to limited market share and job vacancies. The professions usually filled by alumni of the Islamic sciences are takmir (mosque preachers), judges, sharia police or Islamic studies teachers at schools. Everything is limited. Schools also teach a lot of secular sciences. They also cannot arbitrarily create their own schools/madrasas or recitation institutions because the state’s pattern is “king-centric”, while the sharia police have been disbanded.

The jobs that are most abundant are in the industrial and other sectors that require expertise in non-Islamic sciences. Because of this factor, high school alumni in Saudi Arabia compete to enter public universities to study secular sciences. The favorite campuses that are sought after by students to study secular sciences are King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, King Abdulaziz University, King Saud University, and so on. This trend, once again, is not only happening in Saudi Arabia, but also in other countries in the Middle East.

Islamic education and radicalism

The next factor that is no less important is that Islamic science studies, if they are mismanaged, have the potential to produce alumni who are conservative, militant, rigid, close-minded and even extreme radicals who are opposed to modernity, the changing of eras, technological progress and socio-cultural development. This can hinder the government’s efforts to realize Saudi Arabia as a developed, modern, inclusive, moderate and advanced technology-based country, as proclaimed in Saudi Vision 2030.

Saudi Arabia has proven and experienced this. The radical-conservative Islamic education model that was designed by the hardline Wahhabi faction and the Muslim Brotherhood militant group from Egypt and Syria who fled to (and were accommodated by) Saudi Arabia have given birth to a new variant of Islam. “Hybrid Islam” with militant-extreme characteristics, such as the Sahwa group, which is anti-modernity and culture.

Why study secular sciences?

As with the trends in Middle Eastern Arab society, Indonesian people, if they want to study at a Middle Eastern university, would find it better and more beneficial to study secular sciences, such as petroleum studies, economics and business, and social sciences. The Indonesian government scholarships managed by a number of ministries should also be directed to this field of non-Islamic studies. The teaching staff also come from various ethnic groups and countries, including Western countries, China and elsewhere.

There are several basic reasons. First, there are many quality, standardized and international-quality campuses in the Middle East that have a global reputation and are recognized by a number of world campus ranking institutions, such as Quacquarelli Symonds and Times Higher Education. Many of these campuses use English as a teaching-learning instrument (or a mixture of English and Arabic). The teaching staff also come from various ethnic groups and countries, including Western countries, China and elsewhere.

For example, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Saudi Arabia), the American University of Beirut (Lebanon), the American University in Cairo (Egypt), King Abdulaziz University (Saudi Arabia), Qatar University (Qatar), the University of Jordan (Jordan) and so on. My campus has also in recent years become the best university in the Middle East region, indeed its Petroleum Engineering study program is ranked seventh in the world.

In addition, quite a number of top Western campuses have established branch campuses in the Gulf countries. They can also be a study alternative, for example, New York University, Georgetown University, Texas A&M University, Northwestern University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Sorbonne University, HEC Paris, and many more.

The second reason is that the secular sciences study program is much more beneficial for the people, nation and state of Indonesia. The alumni are expected to be able to contribute to advancing the development of the economy, science, technology, culture and so on.

Third, Indonesia now has a surplus of higher education institutions, both public and private, which focus on Islamic studies. Basically, studying Islamic studies everywhere is the same because the basis is reading and studying texts. Even now, Islamic studies in Indonesian universities appear to be far more advanced than the Middle East because they use a variety of research and scientific approach models as well as varied reading references and across schools of thought.

Fourth, to reduce the production of “militant Islam” and the spread of religious radicalism that endangers the cultural, national and state structure of Indonesia.

I have noticed that many alumni of Islamic education in the Middle East are aggressively declaring the archipelago’s local traditions and culture to be heretical, introducing and imposing religious practices of the “Arabic Islamic model” that are not in accordance with the context, traditions and culture of Indonesian society (for example, forcing the wearing of the veil for schoolchildren). Or even inciting people to challenge the existence and authority of the government system and state foundations (such as the 1945 Constitution and the state ideology of Pancasila) which they regard as “un-Islamic”, “not syar’i” and “infidel products.”

Of course, not all Middle East Islamic education alumni do this. Also, it is not only the alumni of the Middle East Islamic education who do this. The point is that studying secular sciences at Middle Eastern universities will be much more beneficial for the benefit, progress and prosperity of the Indonesian nation and state in the future, as well as to avoid the possibility of a bigger negative impact on society. Therefore, the government and elements of society should consider this matter.

Note: this article was translated and published by Kompas

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Antropolog Budaya di King Fahd University, Direktur Nusantara Institute, Kontributor The Middle East Institute, Kolumnis Deutsche Welle, dan Senior Fellow di National University of Singapore.

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