Dealing with Islamist madrasas: To mainstream or to ban them altogether?

Children and youth are the most precious wealth just as much as the most productive resource of a country. They are the most creative, and the most forward looking section of any community. 

by Rohana R. Wasala

According to a news item carried in The Island/December 28, 2020, Russian Ambassador in Colombo Yuri Materiy forewarned Sri Lanka’s Minister of Public Security Retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera that extremist Islamic terrorist organizations may channel funds to their Lankan counterparts on the pretext of extending COVID-19 aid. ‘In response the Minister said that after the war a new strategy had been formulated by the then Sri Lankan government to increase the intelligence battalions from 3-7 and deported nearly 160 madrasa scholar leaders who under the guise of religious studies were spreading hate and extremist propaganda’. He also told the Russian diplomat that the previous yahapalanaya dismantled that intelligence network, and that the present government is engaged in remedying the situation.

The popular Qatar newspaper Gulf Times, quoting Reuters/Islamabad,  reported April 30, 2019 that Pakistan was planning to take over a network of over 30,000 madrasas as part of a drive to ‘mainstream’ the Islamic schools by bringing them under state control. This information was provided by a Pakistani military spokesman. The madrasas mentioned were often accused of radicalising Pakistani youngsters. Groups of madrasa-educated young men were held responsible for terrorist attacks in India and Afghanistan. 

There was global pressure on Pakistan to control this trend. But it was a complicated issue as, according to the news report, these madrasas are the only schools available for millions of poor children to obtain any education at all in the deeply conservative Muslim country. Anyway, the new government under Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to introduce reforms to madrasa education; PM Khan vowed not to tolerate extremist groups operating in his country.

The madrasa education system in Pakistan was criticised for reasons including the following: children spend most of their time memorising the Quran; it is ill equipped for the modern world; some madrasas have become nurseries for breeding militant outfits. This seems to be why, as General Asif Ghafoor said, the government had decided to ‘mainstream’ the madrasa system (i.e., incorporate it into the regular state controlled school system, which is what some politicians have suggested in relation to the same problem in Sri Lanka - RRW).  ‘An Islamic education will be provided, but there will be no hate speech’, Gen. Ghafoor added. Religious schools would be brought under the ministry of education and other subjects would be incorporated into their syllabuses. ‘The benefit will be that when children grow and leave these institutions, they will have the same career opportunities that those coming from a private school have,’ Ghafoor said. ‘We want to end violent extremism in Pakistan and that will only happen when our children have the same education and opportunities.’ So much for the Gulf Times news report about the issue of madrasa education in the Muslim majority Pakistan. 

But while thus tackling the domestic issue of controversial Islamist madrasas, PM Imran Khan, had trilateral talks at UN New York with his counterparts in Turkey and Malaysia in September 2019 to jointly launch an anti-Islamophobia TV to counter ‘misperceptions’ of Islam, according to the Voice of America (VOA). No doubt, these and other possibly well meaning leaders of Islamic nations have a daunting task defending their religion to the rest of the world amidst growing global concerns generated by Islamist extremism.  

Incidentally,  the Arabic word madrasa means  any type of school, an institution of educational instruction, secular or religious. However, in Sri Lanka where the Muslims are a minority of about 9.7% of the population, the term is understood in the exclusive sense of ‘a school for Islamic religious instruction’. In the present context in Sri Lanka, the word madrasa carries connotations of religious extremism, intolerance and violence towards the vast majority of multireligious Sri Lankans including mainstream Muslims who do not subscribe to Islamic fundamentalism. It must be stressed that this negative perception is not due to any intrinsic fault of the mainstream  Muslims or of the rest of the non-Muslim Sri Lankans; it is because of the relatively recent emergence (say, during the past 50 years) of unmistakeable signs of Islamic fundamentalist activity in the country. 

Pakistan has always stood by Sri Lanka as a steadfast friend in critical situations. Her experience with Islamist madrasas and the unconservative leadership of  prime minister Khan  provide great inspiration for Sri Lankan leaders in dealing with Sri Lanka’s own Islamist extremism, which has grown with the connivance, and probably the cooperation of opportunistic politicians. However, the Pakistan government’s policy of dealing with madrasas cannot be duplicated in Sri Lanka because there are important differences between the two mutually friendly countries that far outnumber any similarities we might think of, in terms of geography, history, total population, demographic composition, literacy rate, religio-cultural diversity, mode of governance, and the rest. With its roughly 212 million (2018 estimate) population living on its nearly 882,000 square kilometre area, and its population density of 244.4/km2, Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world and has globally the second largest Muslim population (which is 96.28% of the country’s total). 

These statistics dwarf Sri Lanka in comparison: its population is only about 21.8 million (2019 estimate) with a population density of  327/km2. Very nearly 75% of the population are ethnically Sinhalese and over 70% of the population profess Buddhism (which is not actually a religion in the sense that Christianity and Islam are religions, though most ordinary Buddhists are harmlessly or innocently ignorant of the fact). In terms of access to education, children of Sri Lanka - irrespective of ethnicity, and the economic and social background of parents - have enjoyed  free education provided by the state from kindergarten to university since 1944 (that is, since four years before independence). The government school system largely consists of secular unsegregated  (10,000+) schools, in addition to many institutions of tertiary education including sixteen public universities. These are common to students from all racial and religious backgrounds. The pre-university school curriculum includes religious instruction according to the students’ specific religious identity: Buddhist students study Buddhism, Christian students Christianity, Hindu students Hinduism, and Muslim students Islam. It is likely that, at present, school children are taught, in the barest outline, the very basic doctrinal elements of other belief systems than their own.

Over the past four decades, in addition to the government school system, there has also been an expanding network of fee levying English medium  ‘international’ schools teaching UK and US syllabuses. No formal teaching of religion features in them, as far as I know. Local students who enroll in these schools usually belong to the monied class.  They gain access to the generally much coveted English medium education provided by international schools. A larger proportion of students attending these schools are naturally children of parents who work in business and the professions (doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants, etc.) Now, historically, Muslims started coming to Sri Lanka as traders at least eight hundred years ago, mainly looking for spices  and  later some of them settled in Sri Lanka, having got married to local Sinhalese women. Even today the Muslim community is strongly associated with commerce, and is considered economically better off than others, though the lot of ordinary Muslim citizens is the same as that of their counterparts in the other communities, who together form the common masses. (Ironically, the two brothers Imsath Ibrahim and Ilham Ibrahim who blew themselves up on Easter Sunday in 2019, respectively, at  Shangrila and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo, are sons of the fabulously rich spice merchant Mohamed Yusuf Ibrahim; the two young men in their early 30s were well educated, and were themselves well established in their own businesses, but deeply and dangerously radicalized by the Jihadist ideology. They had undergone the sort of ideological brainwashing that the mushrooming Islamist madrasas are accused of providing.)    

There are also schools that are supposed to usually cater to children from specific religious backgrounds, namely, Buddhist, Catholic/Christian, Hindu, and Muslim. Buddhist schools, being inclusive, usually accommodate children from minority religious backgrounds as well; so do Christian schools; in some of the latter the majority of the students are Buddhists as they are in the majority. Hardly noticed divisions based on religion and language are not subjects that excite little enthusiasm among ordinary Sri Lankans but for the predatory interest that politicians take in them.  Just to mention the number of Muslim schools for the purpose of this esay,  there are 749 Muslim schools and 205 madrasas, with an Islamic University (the Jamiya Nalimeey at Beruwala). All this is to show that there is no need for Islamist (not Islamic) madrasas for the education of the children of the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka.

Although Sri Lanka’s Constitution confers the foremost place to Buddhism considering certain important historical reasons and existing ground realities that cannot be overlooked without violating the human rights of the majority community, it is by no means the official or state religion of the country (unlike Islam in Pakistan). The uniqueness of Buddhism as a practical, profoundly ethical but a-religious spiritual teaching is today taken for granted, especially among intellectuals. However, in mundane practice, it assumes the normal attributes of an ordinary religion, with a religion’s inherent ‘worship’ element (= the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity); ‘deity’ element is replaced by the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha), a kind of an impersonal Buddhist Sacred Trinity. Buddhism therefore is highly compatible with principles of modern secular democracy, which is arguably the best form of government so far evolved, provided it is followed true to its letter and spirit. Islamic fundamentalists do not believe in such things as ‘man-made’ democracy (and the human rights it defines) as opposed to what is ‘divinely decreed’ in their sacred book. 

For Pakistan, as it appears, its madrasas can only be a problem because of their negative impact on that country’s relations with non-Muslim majority countries. Within the country itself, it can create problems for the religiously diverse 3.72% minority, which it is the duty of the government to manage, because religious freedom is constitutionally recognized in that country. However, the religiosity of the Muslim majority and the ignorance of some minority members regarding, for example, the blasphemy law that is adopted in the sharia-based Pakistan can bring trouble to the latter, as in the ‘notorious case’ (BBC) of Asia Bibi, pauperised Christian mother of two daughters, who was condemned to death by hanging on blasphemy charges in 2010, but was lucky enough to be acquitted for lack of evidence, and managed to migrate to Canada with her family in 2019 after nearly ten years in prison in solitary confinement. She was held in solitary confinement allegedly to protect her from other inmates, which was sensible given that it was her bigoted Muslim neighbours who for days on end cried for her blood for committing the crime of blasphemy (by insulting the founder of their religion) and terrorised her family until she was arrested. Two politicians who were prominent among those who actively sympathised with the woman were assassinated before the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted her in October 2018 on the basis of ‘insufficient evidence’; about six months later she was helped to migrate to Canada. The relevance of this story to the madrasa issue goes without saying. A book dealing with her ordeal titled ‘Free at Last’ jointly authored by Asia Bibi  and Anne-Isabelle Tollet was published just three months ago in September 2020 by Amazon.)

With the rapid emergence of increasingly sophisticated digital communications systems and the exponential growth of internet telecommunication based social media platforms, people across the globe, predominantly the young, are gaining access to all forms of knowledge including that about traditional religions, most of which have so far been regarded as infallible divine revelations beyond the human capacity to question. Free exchange of views both in support of religious beliefs and against them is the norm. Instead of blasphemy laws, which could differ from religion to religion, there are common social media guidelines that guarantee rational civilized healthy construction of various types of human knowledge and cultural expression. This is a challenge to fundamentalists of all descriptions. 

Now the criticisms that the Pakistani authorities recognised concerning the madrasa education system under fire in that country are the same as or very similar to those raised by the Buddhist monk activists against the Islamist  madrasas: children studying in them are subjected to a very narrowly religion based type of instruction, that is not equipped for the modern world; the children learning in them are not allowed to interact with non-Muslim children; their mode of dress is different; girls go about completely covered from head to foot in black, which is very inconvenient in hot weather that is normal in the country; their appearance in public causes fear and suspicion in others; the young madrarasa boys and girls cannot indulge in any recreational activities including listening to songs and music, or watching films. Incidentally, Abdul Razik, secretary of Ceylon Thawheed Jamaath (CTJ), told the presidential commission on Easter Sunday attacks that music and dancing and even listening to a song on the radio is contrary to the Islamic teaching. He had previously formed the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaath (SLTJ) organization with Zaharan Hashim who led the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks. Razik left SLTJ to form the CTJ. (The monks point out that extremist Islamist groups only pretend to break up into splinter groups as a strategy to deflect the attention of the authorities away from their central objective to which they are collectively committed and severally contribute in secret.) Abdul Razik’s rejection of music and dancing as contrary to Islam is in conformity with his extremist religious ideology.  

Ironically, it is already more than six years since American Muslim hip-hop artist Hisham D. Aidi started exploring ‘the significance of music for transnational Muslim consciousness, asking his own question: What happens when American musical traditions, infused with the unique history of American Islam as a voice of resistance, find new audiences in Muslim-majority societies?’ The answer to this question is emerging now in some majority Muslim countries like Turkey and Indonesia where young people who are getting fed up with the restrictions imposed on them by their conservative rulers. According to Güney Akgül, a lawyer-turned-Lindy Hop teacher, ‘Istanbul is a chaotic city [of 15 million people] and there aren't a lot of places to relax, but in Lindy Hop, you can express yourself at the fullest level’. In Indonesia, recently, a Sinhala music video titled ‘Adambarai’ produced by local pop musician Iraj Weeraratne went viral after being played in a pub there, and it received more than 5 million hits within a short time and dozens of young Indonesians teenagers of both sexes have turned out Tik Tok videos featuring themselves singing and dancing in various indoor and outdoor settings. With a population of over 267 million, and nearly 87% of it Muslim, Indonesia is the most populous Islamic country in the world, but Islamism is not popular in that country.

Children and youth are the most precious wealth just as much as the most productive resource of a country. They are the most creative, and the most forward looking section of any community. The hip hop or rap music craze that is sweeping across some Islamic countries is both a non-violent protest against the oppressive religious conservatism of their parents and a celebration of a life that is getting increasingly free from it. This is comparable to something that happened in our country recently. There was a spontaneous  resurgence of youth creativity in two departments  in Sri Lanka inspired by new hope in the wake of the election of a non-politician as president in November 2019: a wave of wall painting by volunteering young amateur artists whose central themes included celebrating the victorious assertion of national identity and unity just shown, environmental preservation, memorable moments of history, industrial development, etc.; almost paralleling this, a self-motivated cooperative movement emerged, initiated by a young man (Nalaka Senadheera of Dedigama near Kegalle, himself a dramatist, poet and writer) that started recultivating rice paddy lands lying abandoned and fallow in various parts of rural Sri Lanka; it caught the enthusiastic attention of young Sri Lankans at home as well as abroad. It is doubtful whether our jaded old politicians took sufficient notice of these manifestations of youthful patriotism.    

Five or six weeks ago, media reported that Minister of Education Prof. G.L. Peiris indicated in parliament that the madrasas would be brought under the country’s normal education system, and that he had a responsibility to bring it under his ministry’s supervision. He probably didn’t understand that he was biting more than he could chew. This sort of cloud cuckooland palliative response to the issue of Islamist madrasas is simply astonishing (but again, not surprising given his past record) from a senior politician in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings that caused such mayhem, for which all politicians who made it to parliament in recent times (including before 2009) up to the end of Yahapalanaya bear some responsibility. There is no doubt that madrasa type of education was responsible for the indoctrination of those young Jihadist suicide bombers. A few days later, minister Wimal Weerawansa, in an obvious allusion to his cabinet colleague’s  ill conceived suggestion regarding the madrasa issue, expressed the opposite view that the Islamist schools should be banned within Sri Lanka, for they are a hotbed of dangerous religious monomania and terrorism, enough evidence for which has been revealed at the commissions of inquiry appointed by the government. Wimal Weerawansa’s proposal is sure to go down well with the majority of ordinary mainstream Muslims who are themselves victims of Islamist extremism and who are not represented by the old time-servers that they have for politicians.