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OP-ED: Mainstreaming madrasa education in Bangladesh

  • Published at 10:16 pm April 20th, 2021
File photo Madrasa students Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Madrasa education must be well-integrated with modern, mainstream education

As per Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS), as of 2015, a total of 9,319 Alia madrasas were operating in the country, with a total of 2,409,373 students. A recent article in a Bangla newspaper informs us that there are around 14, 000 Qawmi madrasas teaching 10,58,636 male and 3,39,619 female students, with 7351 teachers.

The prevailing idea was that madrasa education is the choice of only the downtrodden. But things have changed fast and it is no more the people of the bottom rung of the social strata alone who choose to send their children to madrasas -- a sizable portion of affluent people also make a conscious choice to send their children to madrasas.

It is a matter of great pride for a Muslim to be able to make their child a Hafeez-e-Quran (one who memorizes the whole Quran). On completion of their education, many come back to the mainstream and become professionals such as doctors, government servants, engineers, teachers, etc.

There are a plethora of types of madrasas, Qawmi and Alia being the main types. We have a board for madrasa education as well. There have been efforts to mainstream, modernize, and de-radicalize madrasa education in the country. In spite of whatever has been done so far, they remain a class all by themselves, with their distinct attire, attitude towards life, activities, and thought processes.

But it is really worrying if such a vast number of madrasa-educated youth stays away from the mainstream population, cannot contribute to our economy, and most disturbingly, subscribe to ideas which are detrimental to our culture, integration, and development.

We cannot be silent onlookers when intolerance, bigotry, or vengeance leading to social disorder and anarchy engulfs our surroundings. There cannot be any contradiction between religion, social harmony, and development.

We must convince our religious leaders and products of such madrasas that we need integration, not segregation and divide amongst the population based on what system of education they have been exposed to. In view of the recent unrest created as a follow up to the protests against the Indian premier’s visit, our vulnerability has again come to the fore. We can ill afford to have such anarchy continue in the country.

In the last few decades, there have been some changes in the curricula. In particular, Alia madrasas follow a government-formulated syllabus where they are taught all other general subjects in addition to exclusive religious subjects. If a madrasa is teaching Maths or English, for instance, I find no problem if the teacher is not a beard-sporting Muslim. He could be a Hindu or a Christian, so long as he has command over the subject.

If we could put this into practice, it would help grow interdependence and respect between religious groups, motivate them to contribute towards society, and overcome boundaries created by faith-based structures.

For instance, in madrasas in West Bengal, a good percentage of students and teachers are non-Muslims. This has rather enhanced the spread of madrasa education among the poor and downtrodden belonging to other religions. The strength of madrasas in West Bengal is that all students are treated equally without any religious bias, and even the syllabus of the madrasas are no different from the madhyamik -- the state secondary examinations.

Statistics show that 3 out of 4 madrasa-educated students remain unemployed. It is unfortunate that after studying 12 to 15 years in a madrasa, a youth is unable to converse in simple Arabic. If only they had a minimum level of language skill, this would have helped them get good jobs in Arabic-speaking countries.

Indonesia, having the largest Muslim population in the world, could be a very good example for us. Because of the active involvement and patronage of the government and the society as a whole, madrasas are well-integrated with modern, mainstream education. Madrasa-educated people are not fish out of water after they finish their education. Many join universities and the mainstream job market.

Unlike Malaysia, where state control is very stringent regarding madrasas, Indonesian madrasas are mostly privately owned, but their curricula is supervised by the state ie Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Compared to Pakistan, for instance, the difference in the societies of Indonesia and Malaysia are distinct. Social harmony, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence of multi-religious and multicultural elements are vividly manifested in both countries.

It is high time our decision makers, educationists, and political and religious leaders take this seriously and come up with deliberate short and long term strategies to deal with this.

Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc, psc (Retd) is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]

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