Why don't Sri Lankan madrassas produce extremists?

MADRASSAS have become a major topic of global debate. Madrassa in Arabic means school but in South Asia, Madrassa means any institution which teaches Islam. But there are serious misconceptions in the West about what is taught in madrassas.

By Ameen Izzadeen

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Published: Tue 9 Aug 2005, 9:52 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:49 PM

In Sri Lanka, too, there are scores of madrassas. When I told this to a non-Muslim friend while discussing the recent crackdown on madrassas in Pakistan, he was shocked.

As a young Muslim boy, I attended a madrassa. Every day, after school, I would carry my Quran and notebooks to the nearby madrassa where we were taught how to read Quran.

We were taught Hadith —the Prophet’s sayings and traditions —a little bit of jurisprudence and Islamic history among other subjects. We were not taught to hate non-Muslims, though we studied about the battles of Badr, Uhad and Kandakh. We were taught about the virtues of co-existence and Islam was introduced to our young minds as the religion of peace that it really is. It was in my madrassa that I learnt about the importance of peace and how to love and help fellow human beings for the love of God.

It is because of my madrassa exposure that I learnt that seeking knowledge was mandatory for both believing men and women. My young mind grasped that Islam taught gender equality. Years later, I had to cite this Hadith to defend Islam, when half-baked mullahs of Taleban banned women from attending schools. But the Taleban, literally meaning students, are a product of madrassas too that operated largely in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. I often wonder whether they teach a different Islam in some 50,000-odd Pakistani madrassas.

Last week I was in Pakistan, meeting Pakistani leaders and academics with the war on terror and the role of madrassas dominating our discussions. I was told that there were some madrassas that interpreted Islam in such a way that made students see the West as an enemy. But most madrassas are doing a yeomen service to society —a fact which the government itself recognises.

The politicisation of madrassas began in the 1980s against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The children of early mujahideen attended these madrassas which eventually laid the foundation for the militant leadership that were to emerge in the 1990s. Most madrassas operate on charity basis but my parents paid fees for the education we received at the Colombo madrassa.

In response to a question I raised, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz tried to put the issue in its proper perspective. He said only a mere one per cent of Pakistani students went to madrassas.

According to the Prime Minister, madrassas are not bad institutions. They are doing a lot of good work. They give poor children free food and lodging and make them good citizens. But there are a few madrassas —only a few —which are misleading the youth, the premier said. "Whether there are madrassas or not, things could still happen," he said.

His comments came against the backdrop of a move by President Pervez Musharraf to expel foreign students studying in madrassas. Both the President and the Prime Minister are of the view that the madrassa curriculum should be broad-based including subjects such as mathematics, science and information technology.

My Christian friends back in Colombo tell me that they are taught not only the fundamentals of Christianity in their seminaries but subjects such as philosophy, economics, politics, sociology and contemporary religion, including Islam. Professor Akbar Ahmed, who holds the Ibn Khaldoun chair of Islamic studies at the American University in Washington, in his book, Islam Under Siege says Muslim societies need to have access to affordable, high quality education so that they can put themselves on par with other developed societies.

"Education must not be restricted to the small westernised elite. The majority who benefit from the madrassas must also learn sciences, technology, mass media, and information about the world and its diversity," he says adding that Muslim education needs to emphasise the tolerant and compassionate nature of Islam.

Understanding the need to broad base the curriculum in Islamic education institutions, a Sri Lankan philanthropist some two decades ago started an institution called Jamiyah Naeemiyah. The institution at Beruwela, some 50 kms south of Colombo, not only taught Islamic subjects to both male and female students but also secular subjects, leading up to a university degree.

But does that mean, if a madrassa student is taught mathematics, science and other subjects which will help him earn a living, he will not turn to extremism? If that is so, Al Qaeda co-leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who went to a medical school, would have adopted dialogue instead of dynamite to settle his scores with the West. The eternal question of cause and effect is therefore still important. A military response only deals with the symptoms of the problem, not its causes.

Ameen Izzadeen is a senior journalist based in Colombo

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