Sunday, July 23, 2006


Maqbul Jamil

July 22, 2006

The proliferation of madrassas in India has been noted with particular consternation following the wave of terrorist attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

The perceived linkage between radical religious education and militant behaviour against secular interests has led a section of mainstream media and political establishment to label these institutions as dens of terror, repositories of medievalism, jihad factories, schools of hate and hatcheries for suicide bombers.

These criticisms may be true for some madrassas in a neighbouring country that served as de facto west-supported training grounds for jihadists fighting the occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Many of these religious fighters went on to become foot soldiers in later campaigns, including those against Jammu and Kashmir and against Shiite Muslims. They also helped forge the Taliban movement and gave succour and support to international terror networks.

From this record, some critics have put together a seemingly convincing chargesheet against madrassas across India. They extrapolate from this relatively small number of problem madrassas to conclude that all madrassas breed fanatics.

However, these criticisms do not apply for the majority of Indian madrassas.

The Indian madrassas actually present an opportunity, not a threat. It is understood that wherever the governments failed to provide general education to its common citizens, private religious establishments took the lead in filling this gap and administered the educational system according to their own principles.

In this context, a madrassa is similar to a parochial school for Roman Catholic children or the yeshiva for orthodox Jews. Although these institutions are academically assigned to provide general education, they also feel obliged to teach their students about the fundamentals of their religion.

For poor village kids, a madrassa education may be their only path to literacy. For many orphans and the young poor, madrassas provide indispensable social services: education and lodging for children who otherwise could well find themselves the victims of forced child labour, sex trafficking, or other abuse.

And for Indian policymakers, madrassas offer an important arena for public diplomacy - a chance to ensure that many Indian Muslims of tomorrow do not view the political establishment as an enemy inherently hostile to all Muslim institutions.

But a total denial of the madrassa problem is equally misguided.

The madrassa effect is real and visible. For good reason, madrassas in many parts of the country have come to represent much that is wrong with Muslim societies today. Such schools, for example, promote religious intolerance and encourage sectarian violence; and there is ample reason to fear that, in the long run, the fundamentalism emanating from madrassas and similar schools elsewhere in India will eventually threaten secular interests.

Due to administrative mishandling, radical political indoctrination of students and adopting a more conservative view of the simple religious teachings, the madrassas nowadays are frequently deemed as ideological and political training grounds for hatred against secularism. The heavy emphasis on religious teachings to the exclusion of more economically viable subject areas is simply wrong.

Madrassas are not a terrorism problem, per se.

And as part of a vital tradition of Muslim societies, many of them deserve our respect. Madrassas commit no actual crime by teaching only the Quran and Islamic law. After all, every religion has its version of faith-based schooling.

But it is easy to see how the local madrassa effect can have national reach - outdated school curricula offered by almost all madrassas means that these schools are at the very best graduating thousands of students unemployable outside the religious sector and hard-pressed to function in a globalised economy.

We all know that what India needs today is more science graduates (with less than eight per cent of college-going age group is enrolled in the college and university system).

It has been noted that official statistics about madrassas are sparse, government and media reports clash, and madrassa education is not monolithic.

Contrary to some media reports, only a small per cent of Muslim school age children are enrolled in traditional madrassas. Still, it is plain wrong to suggest that failing madrassas do not constitute a long-term threat to the secular polity of India, or that the government does not have an obligation to help fix them.

Rather than undermining the madrassa school system, policymakers should proactively engage it. Stereotyping and posturing may make for good media copy, but the reality of the madrassa system is very different: it is characterised by both orthodoxy and diversity and is host to a quiet debate about reform.

It is in the interest of the government and public good to ensure that the truly extremist madrassas are contained and apologists for terrorism duly prosecuted. But it is equally important for policymakers to pursue this goal carefully, by encouraging internal debate rather than demanding changes from above.

The financial commitment (public-private partnerships) to madrassa education-reform efforts will indicate how important these initiatives are to national interests. They should be viewed as necessary efforts in combating extremism, one of the hurdles for India achieving its destiny in the 21st century.

The main objective of the reform project should be to reduce the differences between madrassa and general education and produce skilled and productive citizens. It is imperative that we immediately update madrassa curriculum, improve textbooks, train madrassa teachers and science-minded madrassa students and help students achieve skills to face challenges in the real world.

Without reform and financial support, madrassas at best will continue to produce generations of graduates ill-suited to function in modern society and intolerant of other religious sects. At worst, those graduates will become misguided Wahhabi ideologues (Saudi and Gulf petro-money effect) or terrorists.

Regardless, the consequences are most certainly severe for the millions of poor Muslims in India.

Dr Maqbul Jamil is our regular surfer and works for Novartis Pharmaceuticals in USA. He can be reached at


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