Reforming Qaumi Madrassas of Bangladesh

02 May 2014


The ‘Daily Star’ has recently carried a report stating that the government initiative to bring about reforms in Qaumi madrassas and extending recognition to the degree issued by these institutions has suffered a set back due to opposition by the radical Islamist organization Hifazat-e-Islam. The Education Ministry of Bangladesh formed a commission on April 15, 2012 with Hifazat-e-Islam chief Shah Ahmed Shafi as Chairman and some Qaumi scholars as well as representatives of Education Ministry on the board to bring about much-needed reforms in the Qaumi madrassa curriculum to provide students with knowledge and skills required for the job market.

 It has been the official policy of the government of Bangladesh to promote Madrassa as an alternative system of education in Bangladesh. There are two types of Madrassas in the country – Alia Madrassa and Qaumi Madrassa. 

Alia Madrassas in Bangladesh follow the Alia Madrassa of Kolkata which was founded during the British rule. These Madrassas are affiliated with the Madrassa Education Board of Bangladesh government and the responsibility of preparing syllabus, holding examination and approving government grant or aid to these institutions lies with the Board. All subjects being taught in conventional schools including Bengali, English, Science, Computer and Mathematics are also taught here. These Madrassas are entitled to all facilities that are generally accorded to equivalent institutions of general education. Students passing out from Alia Madrassas can compete for admission in higher educational institutions or for employment in any government offices / agencies.
Qaumi Madrassas, on the other hand, are patterned on Darul Uloom Madrassa of Deoband, Shaharanpur, India. These Madrassas differ from Alia Madrassas in many respects. The need for reform and modernization of Madrassa education was acknowledged and it was introduced in Alia Madrassas, not in Qaumi madrassas. 
Qaumi Madrassa considers reform and modernization of madrassa education as dislocation of Islam from its fundamentals and “degeneration of Islamic teachings” in the name of modernization. The proponents of Qaumi Madrassas believe that Alia Madrassa of Kolkata, initiated and patronized by the British rulers, has curtailed the content and undermined the zeal and spirit of Islamic teachings. 
Qaumi Madrassas follow orthodox Islamic teachings and view Alia Madrassas as reformist or revisionist. These Madrassas follow the syllabus determined by the Deoband Madrassa and it is strictly restricted to study of Hadis and Tafsir-e-Quran (understanding and interpretation of Hadis and Quran) with emphasis 
on aspects of Jihad that is conspicuous by its absence in the Alia Madrassas syllabus. In Qaumi madrassas the focus is entirely religious. Sole focus on religious studies makes the students religiously blind.
Amir and founding chairman of Hifazat-e-Islam, Shah Ahmad Shafi, who headed the commission to bring about reforms in Qaumi Madrassa, is also the head of Befaqul Madarisil Arabia Bangladesh, an organization controlling all Qaumi Madrassas in the country. He is also the chief of Al Jamiatul Ahlia Darul Ulum Moinul Islam, known as Hathazari Madrassa. During the liberation war he was a leader of Nezam-e-Islam Party and had played an active role as collaborator of the occupying Pakistani forces in perpetrating brutalities on the freedom fighter.
Hifazat’s Naib-e-Amir Mufti Izharul Islam Chowdhury is Principal of Lalkhan Bazar Madrassa. Like Shah Ahmed Shafi he too was a leader of Nezam-e-Islam Party and actively opposed the liberation war in 1971. Chowdhury had traveled to Afghanistan on several occasions in the past and had very close links with international terror network of al Qaeda / Taliban. He had described his visits to Afghanistan and meetings with the Taliban leaders in many of his publications which are available in Lalkhan Bazar Madrassa. He wants Hifazat to shape up on the pattern of Taliban. On October 7, 2013 a powerful bomb rocked Lalkhan Bazar Madrassa when bombs were being manufactured by students inside the madrassa for carrying out disruptive activities. Following the blast he disappeared. Later on he has been arrested.
Maulana Habibur Rahman, another Naib-e-Amir of Hifazat, is Principal of Kazir Bazar madrasa of Sylhet with the background of working for ‘Taliban-style’ rule in Bangladesh. He had earlier revealed his links with international terror groups in an interview with a bulletin titled “Islami Biplob” (Islamic revolution), published on August 20, 1998, in Sylhet with the purpose of celebrating ‘victory’ of Taliban and establishment of an ‘Islamic state in Afghanistan’.
 These are some of the senior Hifazat leaders whose diktats run in the Qaumi Madrassas. In fact, Shah Ahmed Shafi’s Hathazari Madrassa, Mufti Izharul Islam Chowdhury’s Lalkhan Bazar Madrassa, Maulana Habibur Rahman’s Kazir Bazar Madrassa and Al Jamea al Islamia Patia, also known as Patia Madrassa, control the large chain of Qaumi Madrassa network in Bangladesh.
The government has no control or supervision over the Qaumi Madrassas that depend entirely on funding by non-resident Bangladeshis, local and International Islamic NGOs as well as local area residents. During the BNP-Jamaat Alliance rule (2001-06), the intelligence agencies of the country identified 10 foreign Islamic NGOs that were regularly supplying funds to these madrassas. 
Qaumi Madrassas do not observe national days like ‘Independence Day’, ‘Victory Day’, ‘Language Martyrs Day’ and ‘Martyred Intellectuals Day’. In fact, opposing the liberation war or taking up arms against the freedom fighters in 1971 is even now glorified and considered a part of Jihad in these Madrassas. These 
institutions do not hoist National Flag on national days or any other occasion, nor are the students allowed to recite the National Anthem inside the Madrassa premises.
Leaders of militant Islamic groups from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Middle East frequently visit these madrassas for recruitment of cadres. Short listed students of these madrassas are also sent to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Middle East countries for advance training. Many of these madrassas also impart arms training to the students at night to evade detection. Some training camps have also been set up by these madrassas in the inaccessible hills and dense forests in Chittagong Hill Tracts, beyond reach of the security forces and law enforcers.
International Islamic NGOs including the Kuwait based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS) whose bank accounts in Pakistan were seized following the 9/11 attack on ‘twin tower’, and Saudi based Al Harmain Islamic Foundation which was banned all over the world for its links with al Qaeda and other international terror groups, have been providing funds to these Qaumi Madrassas. Other Islamic NGOs which have come to notice in this regard include Al Fujeira of UAE, Saudi based Rabeta al Alam al Islami and International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO). 
Students are given food, lodging and education free of cost in these Madrassas and their guardians, mostly poor and devout Muslims, are persuaded to send their wards to these madrassas with promises of a renaissance through Islamic teachings.
What happens inside Qaumi Madrassas in the name of Islamic education is a close-guarded secret. It has been revealed by the parent of 9-year old Jannatul Ferdous, a student of Talimul Quran Madrassa, located in Kadamtali near Dhaka, that Jannatul along with 13 other children were seared with a hot spatula on their leg by the Madrassa teacher on May 1, 2012 to give them the “experience of hell-
fire” for failing to offer prayers five times a day. 
There has been an unbridled growth of Qaumi Madrassas during the BNP-Jamaat regime (2001-06). Many of these Madrassas have come to adverse notice for promoting Islamic militancy and Jihadi activities. A recent survey has revealed establishment of militant camps in some of these Madrassas. These camps have international linkages and impart motivational and arms training to the youth to stage revolution for establishment of Islamic rule in the country. 
Following declaration of the US-led war on terrorism against Afghanistan and Iraq, these Madrassas are also used to circulate audio and video cassettes eulogizing the Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar glorifying them as ‘Islamic heroes’, urging the students to emulate their 
subversive activities. Video clippings are also shown to the students depicting so called torture on the Muslims in Kashmir, Gujarat and other places of India as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq to whip up their religious sentiments and generate anti-west, anti-India mind-set and hatred.
Students passing out from these Madrassas do not find employment anywhere except in mosques / madrassas or end up being cadres of Islamic militant groups taking part in subversive activities across the country in the name of Islamic resurgence. They have been found involved in terrorist and disruptive activities including the country wide synchronized bombing in 63 of the country’s 64 districts in 2005 and the advent of suicide bombers the same year.
The government has asked the administrators of Qaumi Madrassas to come up with proposals and suggestions for inclusion of market economy-oriented subjects in their curriculum. But these madrassas are refusing to budge on the issue and have declined to accept government funding and support under the plea that the government’s plan to modernize madrassa education will destroy the very fabric of Islamic education in the country.
A World Bank report suggests that initiative to reform Qaumi madrassas will be a challenging task given that they are unregistered and their sources of funding unknown. The report also suggests that ‘despite this complex challenge’ the government should engage with this sector to discuss how students can 
be imparted ‘skills that are relevant to the needs of modern economy’. Awami League-led government’s efforts to reform these madrassas has not yielded any positive results so far due to vehement opposition from Hifazat.. 
Integrated development of all madrassas will not only help youngsters opt for job-oriented courses but also help diversify, in stead of focusing merely on religious studies.


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