Islam, politics and academia

Sitting on a curb outside the college where she was recently expelled, Eman is defiant.

"I did it for the sake of God," the 21-year-old Tunisian history student—who asked to be identified only by her first name—said of her insistence on wearing the niqab, the full-face veil. Such a display of piety is banned in the classrooms of the University of Manouba's Faculty of Arts and Letters, and she has been forced to leave. "He will reward me in other ways."

Eman is covered head to toe in flowing brown-and-beige polyester. She wears gloves and shields her light-brown eyes from view with a second, transparent veil. Depending on whom you talk to in Tunisia, her attire, and the militant strain of Islamism it is associated with, represents either the future of the Arab Spring—or the greatest threat to it.

To her supporters, Eman is staking a righteous claim for a greater role for religion on campus. To her opponents, she embodies a threat to the university's liberal values and to academic freedom itself.

Fundamentalists like Eman, says Habib Kaz­daghli, a dean at the university, believe that the primary purpose of the university is "not to deliver knowledge but to serve as a place for spreading religion."

This is from a piece I wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education (it is behind a pay wall but this link gives temporary access) looking at the fights that have erupted, after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, over the role of religionon campus. I visited Manouba University in Tunisia, where Dean Habib Kazdaghli has taken a hard line against allowing women in niqab to attend class (and is now facing what he says are trumped up charges of slapping a munaqaba student). I also visited the ancient Islamic university of Al Azhar here in Cairo, to look at how a historical model of Muslim learning has evolved into the 21st century.