Dealing with Islamist madrasas: To mainstream or to ban them altogether?
Posted on December 29th, 2020

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.   

4 Responses to “Dealing with Islamist madrasas: To mainstream or to ban them altogether?”

  1. Ancient Sinhalaya Says:

    Fastest breeding religion aka religion of violence mussies have multiplied enough and flexing its muscles knowing
    divided Sinhala modayas are easy prey. Iran, afganisthan, pakisthan, bangladesh, malaysia and indonesia used to
    be Buddhist countries before the fastest breeding religion mussies arrived in those countries with their baby
    machine wives. They multiplied and multiplied and within a few hundred years and turned (murdered all the
    natives) made them all mussie hell holes. Sinhala modayas still can’t understand this simple truth and divided
    along party lines, religious lines etc. and pave way for mussie country before long.

    Fastest breeding religion aka religion of violence mussies tried the multiply, multiply and outnumber (murder)
    disgusting, subhuman trick in Buddhist Myanmar after creeping over hell hole bangladesh (former Buddhist country)
    over the years and multiplied and multiplied. Fortunately for Myanmar, they had patriotic leaders and quickly got
    rid of the menace and they all had to disappear across the border to where they came from.

    Destruction of the Sinhalese race, Sri Lanka and Buddhism:
    * First the colonial menace who imported tamil kings from tn to work in tobacco plantations and then to work in
    tea plantations.
    * Anti Buddhist, anti Sinhalese, anti Sri Lanka, Mother Lanka dismembering, minority worshiping (for their votes)
    GooandPee aka UNPatriotic_rats party who over promoted tamils and mussies and made Sinhalese pariah in their
    own land
    * Traitor alugosuwa (to Sinhalese Buddhists only) Thambi mudiuyanselage jr@ while killing Buddhist jaathidhroee
    vermins party aka jvpers mercilessly, mollycoddled catholic tigers of tamil drealam and paved the way for
    long protracted war. Traitor r@ then introduced a new constitution to please india and the minorities and
    destroyed the country. Then traitor r@ abolished Sirima-Shasthri Pact and gave citizenship to 650,000+ estate
    tamils who volunteered to go back. Today, they must be numbering 3-4 million and aspire for a greater drealam.
    Jr@ was an out and out r@ in every sense of the word. But for some Sinhala modayas it was a great president.

    Then traitor alugouswas (to Sinhalese Buddhists only of course) maranasinha LK porisada took over and got rid
    of 60,000+ Buddhist jaathidhrohee vermins’ party aka jvp while sacrificing men, women, tri forces personnel,
    Buddhist monks, police etc. etc and mollycoddled catholic tigers of tamil drealam to please india, tamils and
    the west. 100,000+, mainly Sinhalese Buddhists gone. Then the next traitor alugosuwa (to Sinhala Buddhists
    only of course) die hard catholic token Buddhist Batalande wa(n)dakaya r@ni_leech wickrama Sinhala killer
    took over and carried on from where the previous two alugosuwas left off.

    Traitor alugosuwa Batalande wa(n)dakaya did everything to destroy the Sinhalese race, Sri Lanka and Buddhism
    during traitor r@’s reign and today it is a statesman to some Sinhala dhrohiyas. In any other country on the
    planet people will demand traitor r@ be hanged for the murders (Buddhist only of course), robberies, treacheries
    it committed during its 40 years of destruction. Not in modayas’ paradise. For some Sinhala dhrohiyas it is a
    brain box, statesman etc. For any patriotic Sinhalese it is an out and out r@, just like its traitor uncle jr@.

    As patriotic Sinhalese, we are very very annoyed these traitor low lives who have done irreparable damage to
    our race, country and Buddhism. Now traitor alugosuwa’s son. LK porisada jnr pakanil getting ready to do its
    bit with tamils and mussies. You can already see a lot of Sinhala modayas going after him. For a packet of rice/
    Rs 1000 etc. etc.

    One foreigner lot killed 100,000+ and still hasn’t given up their drealam and
    getting ready to kill us all. Now the next traitor r@s, after multiplying and multiplying and getting ready to kill us
    all. Why Sinhala modayas can’t understand the danger at least now PETITION THE GOVERNMENT TO SEND
    THESE UNDESIRABLES TO WHERE THEY CAME FROM BEFORE WE ALL GET KILLED! DO IT NOW! START AN
    ONLINE PETITION NOW!

    People used to worship rivers, mountains, gods in the olden days in the absence of science. Today, religions have
    to pass the science test to be accepted as true.
    Some questions from the science test:
    Why people look different from country to country, race to race?
    Why the earth was built with built-in tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones etc. etc.
    Why there are millions of species, when the two legged creatures need only a few animals to live?
    Why no gods appeared to help in WW1, WW2, and now WW3 (Covid19)?
    Why two legged creatures not supposed to eat meat)
    Why they have different teeth/guts from meat eating creatures?
    Why the earth’s size is a grain of sand in the vast vast universe?
    What are those things we see at night in the sky?
    God wasn’t available for any comments!

    So what do they teach in these mad rasas? Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Or Darwin’s book, The Tree of Life,
    which explains how all the creatures on the planet came to be being. Or how to kill Sinhalese? Ban them
    altogether! There is only one true religion the world, that is Buddhism.
    All the crimes (sins) any two legged creature can do under the sun:
    1 killing (animals included? Only in Buddhism. They too have a right to life and we aren’t supposed to eat them.
    If you do, you get Covid etc. etc.
    2 Stealing
    3 Sexual misconduct
    4 Lying
    5 Alcohol/drug abuse
    Refraining from the above five is Buddhism’s Five Precepts. All the countries in the world use the Five Precepts
    as their penal codes. Do we need to say any more then?

  2. Gunasinghe Says:

    Idea of G. LPeris is disaster for Sri Lanka. We cant have Sharia system as a normal education system even under government supervision. This guy does not have common sense. HE is POTHEGURA. We should say NO to different education system for Muslims.

  3. Nimal Says:

    If Madrasas are misleading the Muslims to segregation from the rest of us and lead followers to commit crimes and murder, for the greater good of the country we must ban it.

  4. Ratanapala Says:

    Who are good Muslims, bad Muslims, moderate Muslims, peaceful Muslims and radicalised Muslims?

    No they are all the same.They follow the same book. Muslims are like water: at one time they are frozen ice, another time delicate snow, water – stagnant, bogs, fast flowing rivers and then steam , fog , mist and even high temperature super saturated steam. Then the basic constituent is the same water molecule.

    Likewise, Muslims behave differently under different circumstances. Whether peaceful, moderate or jihadist genocidal they all follow the same book. When it suits them they read different verses from it. Those of the early period of the Prophet they are peaceful and for coexistence. Those from the later years Medina and afterwards more warlike and genocidal.

    Therefore it is an exercise in futility to categorize Muslims, for one can find in the same family so called ‘good Muslims, radicalised jihadist and murderous Muslims and all shades in between. They all have one common goal – to make the whole world Islamic. For this they are willing to die, they are willing to sacrifice their own sons and daughters. They follow the Al Taquiyya Doctrine of shameless lying to hide the truth, deceive and evade justice.

    Madrasaas are the incubators dessiminators of the Jihadist germ. They must be stopped at all costs if nations around the world are to live in peace.

    How Islamists behave under different circumstances is explained succinctly by Dr Subramaniam Swamy of India. Listen to the following:

    https://www.facebook.com/SinhaleseRepublic/videos/4149248791770545

    Most Asian countries who are majority Hindu / Buddhist are under threat from Islam on warpath. These include Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Myanmaar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It is high time these countries met, along with China and Japan to discuss the scourge of militant Islam and came with solutions to stop it before being sorry later – that is if there is any left to be sorry!

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