September 22, 2004


There have been some disturbing and gruesome news in Bangladesh media in the last couple of days about some Madrassa teachers cutting of ears of students, killing & raping students etc. In all the cases the students are victim of the sodomite or mentally disturbed teachers whose deed in anyway cannot be called Islamic. These incidents caught media attention quickly as Madrassas have a bad reputation being a breeding ground for extremists. And the Islamic parties surprisingly kept mum about their atrocities, which give an impression to people that they are shielding them. However these incidents should be viewed on the whole perspective rather than some small information.

Madrassa refers to an Islamic school for Muslims, just as parochial schools for Catholics or yeshivas for Jews. All of these institutions are responsible for general education, but also have the purpose of teaching children about religion, in the case of Madrasas, Islam. At least four million poor children (many of them are orphans) are studying in more than 50,000 of these religious schools across Bangladesh. The Madrassas offer a 16-year course divided into three levels. The primary level known as Forkania Madrassa teaches the Koran, Arabic, Bengali and Mathematics. Students, who pass exams here, graduate to the Hafizia Madrassa. The Kowmi Madrassa is the final level that issues degrees claimed as equivalents of a Masters level. Such degrees are provided by over 3,000 such Madrassas.

There have been much debate on the unstructured and obsolete curriculum of Madrassas with superstitious concepts and antiquated social values; which produces students, who cannot even read or write properly in their own mother tongue Bengali let alone English. Science, Geography, Physics and other modern subjects are conspicuous by their absence, with most students encouraged only to memorize the Koran. The degrees issued by such schools are practically useless outside the seminary circuit. The job industries have a reservation about these certificates for obvious reasons and the students cannot get admission in modern educational institutions even if given the chance as they are easily beaten in competition from students of other traditional institutions. So it becomes a vicious cycle where graduates only option is to return to the Madrassas, as teachers or else become clerics in mosques, which only offers a poor compensation package. The highest-degree holders set up their own ventures and only a handful can get important government posts. It creates a sense of insecurity among those students and they usually loathe the students of the traditional education system. That’s where politics come in.

Almost all these Madrassas' funding derives from donations and religious grants. Besides, principals of these Madrassas privately arrange grants from Middle Eastern countries. And many extremist elements are exploiting the students and institutions poverty for their own interest. A large number of Kowmi Madrassas are controlled by the Islami Oikyo Jote (IOJ), a radical Islamic party that is a partner of the ruling coalition. They are keen to preach their version of Islamic zealot to the students. Besides, banned Islamic groups also target students of these Madrassas as their recruits.

Salahuddin Shoaib Chowdhury writes:

According to records of police intelligence in Bangladesh, members of "Al-Haramine" organization use the kindergarten Madrassa as camouflage. They regularly communicate with various underground-armed groups in the country and even recruit locals and send them to Palestine as guerilla fighters. Each recruit gets US$ 1500-2000 as an up front payment for their 'new job'. Later family members or legal representatives or spouses of these guerilla fighters will receive US$ 150-200 per month as salary. If any of them were killed during the war, their family would get US$ 5,000 as compensation.

For above reasons the Madrassa students are encouraged to involve in these organizations out of poverty even more than the religious zealots, which are fed up by the politically motivated teachers.

But it would be unwise to undermine Madrassas' contribution in the society. Many Madrassas have been virtually acting as orphanages for the poor. If there was a uniform syllabus, computer education and vocational training it would establish a centralized link between Madrassa and modern education, thus making these large numbers of students really educated and established in the society. The Mullahs are much criticized for their bigotries, which actually are based on their poor education. In fact if the Madrassas curriculum were modernized, the students would easily blend in the society with logical thinking and respect, which in turn would only benefit and strengthen Islam. And the poor students would be free from exploitation and resentment from various quarters.

At LGF this news was highlighted and there were many negative remarks against Madrassa & Islam. But I think it's a mistake to take a single incident and indict an entire culture or religion for it. "Because we have been conditioned to hate and think the worst about other cultures, or certain other cultures" – as one of the commenter said there. We are doing injustice to the Madrassa students by not condemning the atrocities against them and not bettering their conditions regarding education and establishment. The government has a great role to play for modernizing & updating Madrassa education.

Related readings:
* The madrassa & me
* Website of a Madrassa and orphanage

Two responses to my post:
* The problem with Madrassa - by Wamy
* Madrasa System of Bangladesh: A deeper view -by Rifat

And an excellant summation by Daniel Brett
* In defence of the Madrassas

Enough said on this topic.


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