Islam, Yemen, and Studying Abroad
Today we explore one PhD student’s journey from Yemen to the USA. We dig into different traditions of Islam and education, and what it means to shift between extremes.
My guest is Abdulrahman Bindamnan, a Ph.D. student in Comparative and International Development Education at the University of Minnesota. He serves as a Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change and is a contributing writer for Psychology Today where he documents his journey living abroad in a regular column.
Citation: Bindamnan, Abdulrahman, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 316, podcast audio, April 10, 2023.https://freshedpodcast.com/bindamnan/
Will Brehm 1:15
Abdulrahman Bindamnan, welcome to FreshEd.
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 1:18
Will Brehm 1:19
So, last year, there was a lecturer of art history who was dismissed at the university called Hamline University in Minnesota, which is where you are -well, you’re not at that university but you’re in Minnesota. The teacher was dismissed for showing an image of the Prophet Mohammed. Can you tell us what happened in this incident?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 1:39
So, the teacher showed the piece of art to a number of students, and some of the students in the class complained to the administration because they were offended by the image. And the administration, after a while tried to investigate in the matter. After a couple of investigations, they dismissed the professor because they thought it was an act of Islamophobia, or disrespect for the religion of Islam. And then the case ironically, became very national. A lot of Muslim organizations, both in Minnesota and across the US started to write and held press conferences about the case. A professor from the University of Pennsylvania wrote an op-ed about it. He writes a lot of op-eds. And since he knew that I have an interest in Islam and religion, he sent me his op-ed. And I read about the case, and then I’ve seen the New York Times have written about it, Inside Higher Education. And the way they frame the conversation is that it’s an issue between academic freedom and religious rights. Should the teacher have the freedom to display this piece of art? Or should we respect the sensibility of the students where religion is concerned, and also, there’s people arguing in both sides, and I started reading on it. And then I wrote a piece about it on The Star Tribune arguing that we should value diversity of thought. And then as a result of that op-ed, actually a lot of professors wrote to me. And I learned that a lot of Muslim professors, for example, at the University of Minnesota, show the same image, the same art in their classes, while not being dismissed. So, there is an element of politics to it because the professor at Hamline is not Muslim and is a white professor. And there is a professor at Duke, he is originally from Iran, and they included him in the New York Times piece, he also showed the image to his students at Duke with no problem. So, there is the element of politics, which I tried to highlight in my op-ed, and in my other writing that the issue of academic freedom and Islam and religion rights, there is a political atmosphere that is often ignored in the discussion.
Will Brehm 3:56
In the case of Hamlin University, do you think the university overreacted?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 4:01
Yes, I think that the university is a place where ideas are discussed. The title of my op-ed was, and this is the editors that made that choice, but I think it was a good choice. They said, “I fled the US for education, not indoctrination”. And that to me summarized the whole mission of the op-ed. So, I came here to learn and to see different ideas. But when a professor is trying to show an image that was actually drawn by Muslims, it’s not you know from long time back, and they just dismissed the professor, to me, that’s an overreaction and it just silenced the discussion where we need to talk about these issues. And for me, as a Muslim, I think that Muslims need to discuss their issues rather than shying away from it, you know, and there’s a long conversation but Muslims right now, as a lot of scholars say, have a predicament with modernity, which is I believe to be true. How are they going to engage with modernity? And that’s an issue not just for Islam, all religions have to cope with this modernity thing. And one piece of it, you see it manifested in these small cases, you know? How are we going to relate to this modern project? Are we going to be for freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of belief? Or are we going to hold to our traditional understanding of scriptures? And that’s a theological debate. And I am part of the Muslim scholars who say, we need to go back to our tradition, because in the Islamic Golden Age, Muslim pioneered science and philosophy. I mean, they translated Greek to Arabic, and then Europe picked it up and translated it from Arabic to English. So, that is the tradition to which I refer to. They were very open to diversity of ideas. They were not afraid. But we have nowadays, there’s a fundamentalist approach in Islam, that they just silence ideas. And that’s what I’m against.
Will Brehm 4:59
How widespread would you say is that sort of fundamentalist approach compared to this liberal tradition that you’re pointing to?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 5:59
It’s very widespread, unfortunately. In the US, and in the Middle East. I thought that in the US when I came here, in 2016, that would be different, but it’s actually not. So, it’s very widespread. There’s a lot of factors for why that is, and that goes back to history and to the decline of the Islamic Golden Age. But the liberal tradition, according to Bassam Tibi and other historians in the Middle East, they said that the liberal Islam failed to gain traction because it wasn’t introduced into the schools. There was a fight back in the day between the liberal or what some people call enlightenment, and between the fundamentalists. The fundamentalists introduced their ideas in the curriculum. And that’s true, because in most Muslim societies and countries when you study, that’s what they teach you. They don’t teach you the liberal part of Islam. They see it even as antithetical to the religion, you know? And for me, I had to find out about the liberal branch by my own. It’s not something that I learned about in school.
Will Brehm 7:09
Can you tell us a little bit about your schooling history? So, where did you go to school? What tradition of Islam did you learn? And then how did you end up finding that more liberal tradition, as you’re saying?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 7:21
So, I grew up in Yemen, in a very religious family, like most families in Yemen are. But my family, I would say, are above average in their religion because they were leaders. So, they were the leaders of the mosque in our village, and people would come up to them with questions. They basically served the modern role of psychologists, social scientists. So, I remember if there is a divorce in town, people would come to my father and say, we have an issue with the spouse, and he will interfere. And same thing with my mother. Because they were learned. So, they knew the Quran, and they studied the religion. So, they became religious figures on town. So, then, my upbringing was very religious. And I even memorized the book of the Islam, which is a big deal. Not all people memorize it. It’s over 600 pages and I had to master its pronunciation. There’s schools to teach you how to do that. It’s a very intricate science, and it’s very old. Each verse has to be read in a particular way, and so on. And Yemen in general, is a very conservative country. More so than Saudi Arabia, than any other country. Yemen holds to its tradition very strongly. And so, I grew up there. For one concrete example, for conservatism is in Yemen, genders are very segregated. I did not have any sisters in my home. And outside of the community, you never see women. They are covered from head to toe, that’s one, and they are separated. So, you go to the school, you don’t see them, you go to the community, you don’t see them, you go to the mosque, you don’t see them. And if you see them, it’s forbidden to talk to them unless they are married to them. And some people in Yemen, say the voice of the woman is forbidden to listen to. Just the voice, let alone her face, left alone everything else.
Things are changing now but it’s very slow. And I’ve been there seven years ago, and the atmosphere hasn’t changed that much. So, that’s where I grew up. It’s very different than the US, right? And so, when I came to the US, as some of my professors say, they said that they have a huge cultural mismatch. I’m coming from one place to another place, and they don’t talk to each other, right? And so, when I came to the US, I was confused as a person on how to relate to other people. One example is just continued with women. I just don’t know. I have no experience with talking with them. So, how should I do it? For 20 years in Yemen, I have no experience talking with women, or friending them or anything like that. So, then that puts you in a challenge because now you’re in a university, you have to communicate with people, you have to engage with people, how are you going to do it? And most people actually don’t understand that. They just say, “Oh, this is normal” because that’s their experience. But here’s me coming from a totally different background. And at that time, I started to think what’s wrong with my education with my background? What went wrong? And that’s the question I started asking. And that’s when I started reading books. From one book to another, from one book to another, until I came across books from this scholar called Bassam Tibi and he wrote a number of books, one called Islam’s Predicament with Modernity. And I think that was a game changer for me because he explained the predicament of Islam with modernity. And it goes into depth about, for example, the woman thing, and segregation and so on.
Will Brehm 10:57
I want to go back to your time in Yemen. You obviously were raised in a very religiously, conservative community, and the household seems as if it would be maybe fundamentalist in a sense. If your father was sort of a religious leader in the community, people looked up to him, you memorized the Quran. What was the schooling like? What was your education like in that environment? And did you ever have any inkling of sort of a liberal tradition of Islam? Were you ever tempted to think about Islam, sort of in other ways beyond this sort of conservative approach?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 11:36
No. In Yemen, you are inside the circle that you cannot see outside of it. And education in Yemen, is rote learning, it’s by memorization. I did well in that system because I knew how to memorize. And that memorization still exists in other countries. But in Yemen, you just memorize the text and then in the exam, you recite it. If you know how to memorize well, and long texts, you will do well, and that’s how I did it. It doesn’t encourage thinking. I mean, Yemen is so conservative that music is forbidden. They don’t teach music, art is forbidden. They don’t teach art, they don’t allow you to express yourself. It’s very limited, and very focused on memorization. So, you just read the Quran and memorize, read other texts and memorize. And that’s it. So, there is no creativity. And they also when they treat scientific theories, they treat them with suspicion. So, the theory of evolution, for example, they don’t teach it. They would say that is against the creation story in the Quran. I had a teacher who said no we humans cannot grow out of monkeys. And they make fun out of it. You know, they don’t even understand the theory. And they make fun out of it. And as I said, that kind of education is a huge mismatch with the US. You come to the US and they want critical thinking. And I’m like, what do you mean by critical thinking. They want your opinions, they want scientific. That’s something foreign to me, you know?
Will Brehm 13:16
So, would it be fair to say that your introduction to sort of this liberal tradition of Islam, where it has a closer connection between religious ideas and say, modernity and to science, did this happen in the United States?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 13:34
It happened during the last years in my undergraduate at the University of Miami. I wasn’t planning to come to the USA. And in high school in the last year, I wasn’t always a good student. And I was a trouble making student. But in the last year of high school, I had like an epiphany with myself. And I said, this is the last year of high school. So, let me just give it my best. And I sat with myself – I still remember that moment – and I said, I’m going to study very hard. Because I was an average student, okay. I wasn’t the top of the class or anything. But in the last year, I said, I’m gonna take this thing seriously. And I did. So, I went studying very hard. I’m doing things I never did. And in the end in Yemen, they make a national exam it’s similar to the SAT in the US and other standardized exams. And I did very well in it that I was placed at the top of the country. And so, the government and other organizations gave me a scholarship to study where I want, and they picked up the US and then I came to for an Intensive English Program first and then I applied to multiple universities. I really didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I was just wanting to go to any university, and I didn’t know the difference. So, the University of Miami accepted me, and I just was happy to go.
Will Brehm 14:57
So, you’re in Miami. You’re taking courses, and you say in this process, you start to sort of question, basically your faith, right? Like what you were taught your whole life, you end up beginning to question. That couldn’t have been an easy process to go through, especially far away from your family.
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 15:17
It was very difficult. And that’s why I came up with the zero-generation idea. A lot of people start with advantages in life, okay. I mean, first of all, we go on the genetic lottery. Some people have better genetics than others. Then we go to family. Some people have nourishing parents, some people have toxic parents. So, we start in different footings in life, right? Some of the students who come to the University of Miami, their parents are presidents of companies, professors. My family are in Yemen, they don’t know anything about Miami or the US. They don’t know anything about the Western culture, they cannot understand what I’m going through. And so, the zero generation, I mean, nobody can start from zero, you know, but it’s almost zero. Like you come to this country, you don’t know the language, you don’t know the culture. So, how are you going to advance in the system, and in the Western culture, in the US, we have this notion of merit, and people sometimes think they are self-made, but they forget the advantages that they have.
So, somebody like me, right, who is the zero generation, the advancement that I made is probably more than somebody who’s from here, right? But they will be farther ahead in the system than me because we just start in different footing. And I mention this because it also explains the challenge. Because a lot of people in the university cannot relate to where I’m coming from. They just say, Oh, its individualism, you work on yourself, but they don’t understand that where I’m starting is way far below the average. I mean, for example, all of my freshmen incoming year at the University of Miami, they all know how to speak English. They all know how to socialize. That’s very important, how you’re going to socialize with people. I mean, the university is not just a time for cognitive learning, it’s time for social and emotional development. They already have that experience because they went to high schools where they engaged with all kinds of friends, with the different gender, right? And here I am coming from a culture where I never talked with anybody from the opposite gender. That creates serious challenges. And so, the university really don’t understand where I’m coming from. And here’s another point, you know, Black people in the US, they always say they want Black professors, they want Black staff, right. They want to see themselves on the leadership, which is very important. Women on the STEM fields, they say they want women on the faculty, and they made great advancement. And I’m delighted for that. But we foreign students, if you go and look at the university, all the people who help foreign students are not foreign student. So, you go to the writing center at the university they are all domestic students. I mean, I want somebody like me to help me or to teach me. And that’s part of the zero generation. So, I just have to figure it out by myself because it doesn’t seem like anybody has travelled this path before me, or not a lot of people at least. So, my strategy was to read and to find mentors outside of the university, and sometimes from the university, who can invest time and energy in me. And I was fortunate to find a couple of mentors who have helped me to grow on various areas, and I can talk about that if that’s of interest.
Will Brehm 18:40
Yeah. What areas have you been helped with?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 18:43
So, one big area for me was writing for obvious reasons. I mean, I did not know how to write in English. And so, to become a writer in English when I only really seriously started learning English in 2016 and I was almost 19 years old. I did not know how to read. I mean, I would read the books, and I would not understand what I was reading. So, I reached out to a lot of people. And there’s this professor at Duke. His name is George Gopen – I reached out to him in 2020 – I told him my story and he said, let’s meet on Zoom for one or two hours each Sunday. And he just invested in teaching me how to write. He developed a whole approach to teach writing and through my mentorship with him, I learned everything I know now about writing. If it’s not for Gopen, I would not be able to write a single piece because he not only gave me the techniques but also the confidence because it takes a whole lot of confidence to say, I will write. I know some of my professors who have lived in Arab countries – I’m just giving you a counter example – for years and some American students who go to Saudi Arabia to study Arabic and it’s very rare for them to write, use papers to get published in Arabic. They maintain writing in English. So, for me to do it in a different language is very challenging. And I really do it through Gopen and I’m grateful for him.
Will Brehm 20:15
It’s an interesting sort of story about an international students coming from such a different background, going into a university system and just having to sort of find his way and make it on his own and find these connections and sort of like you said, start from zero. I guess, as you are changing so much as you were studying abroad, of course, Yemen was also changing right? From my understanding, there’s a war going on. So, to what extent do you think the war and changes in Yemen -have they impacted you at all while being in the USA?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 20:49
They did. So, I spent 20 years in Yemen, and that shaped who I am. And then I left Yemen and left everything in Yemen. I came here by myself and a couple of my cohort mates. So, I think – and this is an analogy – everything I learned in Yemen, I often say, is not helping me here. It’s an exaggeration, but I think it makes a point. And so, since I came here, I just tried to change basically, my foundations because if I want to integrate in this new society, I need to redefine myself, I need to redefine how I relate to other people. A lot of changes. And the situation in Yemen is just not healthy. And I think one big moment for me was when I realized I couldn’t go back to Yemen. Because when I came here, I was planning to go back. Like, for example, Saudi students. They come to the US for four years, get their degrees, go back to Saudi and work there. That’s the end of the story. And that’s the typical international student story. For me, because the war in Yemen, and this happened when I finished University of Miami. So, this is 2020. It’s at that time, I realized I really cannot go back to Yemen. So, then I said, Whoa, like now I really need to think of myself as somebody who wants to work and live in this country, and not just study and leave. And that then requires -it’s a new game, then you’re not an international student, you cannot become a refugee, an immigrant, and my visa situation has changed alongside that because the US government gave the citizens of Yemen, the opportunity to apply for temporary residency and to work as well. So, now I have those documents, which doesn’t make me a typical international student. But it also means that I now need to think of myself as an immigrant and as a refugee, and how I want to integrate into the society. These kinds of questions, international students don’t have to face because they will just say, Hey, we are here for four years, we get our degrees and go back home, get the job. And that’s it.
Will Brehm 21:01
So, was it the war that prevented you from going back? Or was it because you sort of had a change of heart or changed ideas?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 23:00
It is both. The war in Yemen destroyed everything. And if I went back with my doctoral degree to Yemen, I would sell bananas there. There is nothing for me to do in Yemen at this stage, and its war. And it’s very dangerous too to go because in Yemen, if you are a free thinker, they will silence you, assassinate you. So, it’s not a good environment for free thinkers. And it’s just as I said, I feel like a lot of people when they talk about immigration. I don’t recommend it. I think it’s very hard. So, I don’t want to relocate a lot. I already made a big change. And now I’m trying to think of myself in this context, then another relocation doesn’t make sense to me, and then I need to readjust back to that situation. And that process is hard. So, I’m just trying to get anchored and settled in one place rather than moving around a lot.
Will Brehm 23:57
And are you able to talk to your parents? I’m so interested in just thinking about your background, being educated in such a different tradition of Islam than what you sort of come to over the last seven years. And what is it like then to talk to your parents and do you ever talk about differences of opinion in terms of Islam?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 24:16
Yes, and no. I usually started talking with them about it and we always have debates, vehement debates. I already came to the conclusion that they will not change because this is what they know. And for them to change, they would have to do what I did. Go to another country and being unable to integrate into the society, reading a lot of books, reflection. For me, it took it took me four years to say this old way of thinking is not helping me, it’s leading me to stultified ends, I need to revamp how I think. But for them life is good in Yemen, so they don’t see the urgency to change. So, I stopped talking about these issues with them because again it’s a mismatch. They don’t see my situation here, so they don’t resonate with it. And often these kinds of debates are not good for families. They don’t build bridges. So, I started to avoid talking about these things. And also talking with my parents is hard because the internet in Yemen is weak. Simple things like, I cannot have a Zoom call, or WhatsApp video call. It’s all just texting, and that just make it very hard to keep in touch with them.
Will Brehm 25:27
Thinking about being in the USA, and your own sort of story of changing the way you think, in a way, religiously -your religious beliefs sort of changing through the context in which you live, and how sort of unsettling that can be. I would imagine that in the USA, non-Muslims sort of perceive you and perceive Muslims in a particular way. Did that ever sort of shock you?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 25:56
So, for me, I think that American Muslims have a different engagement with Islam than me. And that goes to the history of 9/11 in the US, which I didn’t participate in. I mean, I came from Yemen, I didn’t know about 9/11. So, an American Muslim has this challenge with identity. They don’t feel like they are American enough for the Americans, Muslim enough for the Muslims, right. And so, they exist on that in between. And some of them try too hard to assert their American identity over their Muslim identity. And so, I noticed that change from the American Muslims. So, when I came here, it’s interesting. I was the president of the Muslim Student Organization at the University of Miami, which we have, like 500 members and more American Muslims and international. And from the outside, you would say these two groups should go along but they did not. They had a lot of issues. And I thought about it, and I read on it. And I think one of the dynamics going on there is American Muslims, most of them are first generation. So, their parents are kind of like me. And I met with professors at the university who came when they were 20. We connected meaningfully and deeply. They say, Oh, I see myself in you. I mean, a couple of years ago, I was like you. I came from Egypt, from Morocco to here, studied, became a professor and got kids here. And they tell me, hey, please, can you meet up with my kid, teach them Arabic, their original language, teach them some about Islamic values. And I said, you know, I’d be happy to, I meet with the kid, a college student, and we don’t get along. It was like, Oh, you look like my father, and I don’t get along with my father. So, that dynamic replicates when they meet a foreigner Muslim and it’s “othering”. They other us, and we other them, and it’s not a healthy environment. Now, the non-Muslims in America, ironically, I found them to be very receptive of who I am. So, with American Muslim we sometimes clash but with non-Muslims, they somehow see me as an authentic representation. They say, Oh, you’re from Yemen. That’s where Islam came from, basically, tell us more. They are curious to know about my background. But American Muslims, their parents came from these countries, and they struggle with that. So, there’s a lot to unpack there and I have written about it.
Will Brehm 28:36
Yeah, and everything you’re sort of talking about, there’s a lot to unpack. And by way of final question, it makes me wonder what you’re studying for your PhD? What are you going to be researching and writing about now that you’re doing your PhD at the University of Minnesota?
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 28:53
Yeah. So, I have two missions that I am trying to work on simultaneously. One is this zero-generation thing, which I alluded to earlier. I want to have this slogan “foreign services for foreign students” or something like that. So, at the Writing Center, we want foreign people to work there, we want foreign professors. We want the zero generation to see themselves at the university. So, I’m trying to study the zero-generation experience and language and culture that’s my two foci, and how those two factors impact their learning of literacy. Because I came here as a literate in Arabic, okay, but am I highly literate in English, I was not. And if you want to get a job in the US, if you want to do advanced things that not everyone can do, right? You want to write for Psychology Today, you want to publish here and there, you need the new tools of skills, and how can you learn those when you don’t speak the language natively, you don’t understand the culture. And I mean, for me, I learned from trial and error. I made so many mistakes but sometimes it’s just helpful to have somebody to guide you along the way. And this is where the importance of mentors come along. The other mission is the liberal Islam. And I’m trying to teach Americans, both Muslims and non-Muslims, about this tradition in Islam. And I think that is the way to deal and cope with modernity. We have this great tradition on the past, and now it has been forgotten. And I think it’s the time for it to come back again.
Will Brehm 30:25
Abdulrahman Bindamnan, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. Really fascinating story and best of luck on your PhD journey.
Abdulrahman Bindamnan 30:32
Thank you very much. And I appreciate talking with you.
Want to help translate this show? Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Related Author Publications/Projects
Reflecting on my Islamic education
Hamline, Islam, and the freedoms of religion and speech
The experience of the “zero-generation college students”
Book Review: Schooling as uncertainty
Art history professor fired for showing painting of Prophet Mohammed
Islam’s predicament with modernity
Muslim sensitivities and the West
Who is afraid of academic freedom?
Blasphemy and freedom of expression
Contemporary debates in Islam: An anthology of modernist and fundamentalist thought
Yemen – Educational system overview
Inclusion and safe space for dialogue” Analysis of Muslim students
Muslim international students in the United States
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