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Islam and Politics ( 16 Jan 2018, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Stop Vilifying Madrasas and Start Discussing the Real Problem This Institution Faces


By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

16 January 2018

The recent statement by Uttar Pradesh Waqf Board Chairman stating that madrasas are producing terrorist has expectedly created a huge controversy. Roundly condemned by one and all, including his own party-men like Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, he later clarified that his remarks were targeted at ‘few’ madrasas which in the name of education promote enmity between groups and spread fanaticism. Whether the controversy will now die down after the clarification of the UP Waqf Chairman remains to be seen; what was very disconcerting was the reaction of many Muslim organizations and individuals on this issue.

The first salvo was fired by the Jamiat Ulema e Hind, which thinks of itself as the custodian of everything remotely Islamic in India. It filed a defamation suit against the person concerned for spoiling the reputation of Islam in India with an added intent of creating religious misunderstanding between Hindus and Muslims. There were other groups which went to Court charging the statement as a hate speech designed to create enmity between Hindus and Muslims. Why such a reaction? This is not for the first time that a person, Hindu or Muslim, has levelled such charges against madrasas. Hindu groups and their leaders like Shakshi Maharaj have been saying pretty much the same thing for decades now. No one thought of moving the Court against him. And certainly, this is not about Hindu groups alone. Not so much in the distant past, it was the Left Front government’s own Chief Minister in West Bengal who proclaimed publicly that madrasas produced terrorists. Not one Muslim organization thought it fit to go to Court against him or to charge him as promoting enmity between Hindus and Muslims. What is so different about Waseem Rizwi?

Part of the reason why there is such a vehemence against him is because he is a Shia. Social media platforms like twitter and Facebook are littered with voices pointing out that his statements against madrasas are only because he is a Shia. As a Shia, he is deemed to be less of a Muslim and more of an enemy of Islam. He is doing the work of the devil in trying to defame Islam. Posts on these platforms have delved into Sunni theology to support their arguments and all of them share the consensus that Shias must be considered beyond the pale of Islam.

One can only wonder where this amount of hate is coming from and how much our own Islamic theology is responsible for this. Rather than debating on the merits of the argument, it is very convenient to call out the minority identity of the person to proclaim that his arguments have no merit at all. This is the kind of laziness which has characterised many a so called Islamic scholarship. In reality this strategy tells us about the hollowness of the Sunni argument itself.

There cannot be any debate that much needs to be changed about the present state of madrasa education. But the allegation that madrasas produce terrorists is quite baseless and bogus and is borne out of sheer ignorance of this institution. Despite historic suspicion about madrasas, there has been very little on the table to show that madrasas teach or promote terrorism.

During the time when Advani was the home minister, he instituted a special inquiry into the linkages of madrasa education with extremism and terrorism. Despite the best efforts of the state, they could not come up with anything concrete and thus the inquiry was buried quietly. Hindu nationalism has always been suspicious of madrasas and such thinking about madrasas have informed their public discourse for long.

History of these institutions points to something quite the opposite. If nationalism is the benchmark against which any individual or institution has to be judged today, then there cannot be any debate that madrasas were nationalist. They participated in the national movement and were at the fore-front of struggle against the British rule, giving a call for total freedom even as most radical organizations were still toying with the idea of ‘home rule’.

Madrasas today are synonymous with conservatism and its outmoded ideology. What happens in these institutions in the name of learning is nothing but rote memorization of certain texts which have lost all relevance in the present time. In order that they remain relevant, radical changes are certainly required in the pedagogical structure of these institutions. They have to introduce modern texts and even interpret the old ones in new light.

Those who speak of reforming the system are very conveniently dubbed as opposed to Muslims and Islam. There are people within the Muslim community who have vested interests in linking madrasas with Muslim identity. Thus, any criticism of madrasa is automatically read as an attack on Muslim identity and cries of Islam in danger start doing the rounds in Muslim circles. This has to stop.

It is not that Muslims themselves are too happy with the institution. Time and again, there have been Muslims who have voiced the need to reform the system. These Muslims have been both liberals as well as those who have come out of the madrasa system themselves. Yet there concerns have been not been paid attention to. Orthodoxies within the Muslims have been successfully able to put pressure on various governments to keep the system as it is. Various governments have conceded to their demands in the fallacious belief that these good for nothing Ulema are the true representative of Indian Muslims.

There is a need to debate about the present relevance of madrasa education for Muslims in India. Part of the problem is that the social class of Muslims who access madrasa education. They come from the poorest of the poor Muslim families who come to these madrasas in the hope of some education and assured meals. Elite Muslims have never considered this section as Muslim enough and therefore have never paid attention to the problems faced by this section.

Added to this is also the fact that it is primarily low caste Muslims who acquire madrasa education. The dominant narrative of Indian Muslim politics which has been decidedly upper caste, has never paid attention to the requirements of the majority of low caste Indian Muslims. There is a need to have a dispassionate debate on madrasa education. Instead what we get is a polarised debate between a section who think that everything is wrong about madrasas and a section of Muslims who think that madrasas need to be defended at all costs. The tragedy is that no one is thinking about the Lakhs of Muslim children who are studying in these madrasas.

Arshad Alam is a columnist