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The Madrasa Series: How Deoband Became Shorthand for Extremism and Violent Intolerance Entered Its Ideology - Part II

By Yasmin M Khan

Feb 23, 2016

The Deoband brand of madrasas, which has mushroomed all over Asia and beyond, preaching an orthodox version of Islam and radicalising Muslim youth, is one of India’s most popular exports.

Recently, the Financial Times reported that the word ‘Deobandi’ (a graduate of Darul Uloom, Deoband) has become “shorthand for a Sunni Muslim extremist”. The “ubiquitous” Deobandi madrasas, described as “dens of jihadism and violence”, it said, were everywhere – estimated to run into “tens of thousands”. “Wave after wave of Deoband graduates have gone on to found their own madrasas across [the] region,” wrote the paper’s South Asia bureau chief Victor Mallet in a comprehensive survey of madrasa son the subcontinent.

Despite its progressive role in the freedom struggle and during the Partition debate, when it rejected Jinnah’s two-nation theory, Deoband always preached a hard-line and exclusivist version of Islam based on a narrow literal interpretation of the Quran as opposed to the syncretic Sufi Islam that came more easily to Indian Muslims.

Compared to their counterparts in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Indian madrasas have been relatively benign in that they don't teach violent jihad and their boys have not been directly involved in terrorism. But their radicalising influence is very real. By propagating a narrow and selective interpretation of Islam and its texts that portray women as inferior to men and non-Muslims as “Kafirs”, they sow seeds of extremist thinking. They promote a harsh and intolerant version of Islam and insist that their understanding of the Quran and Sharia alone is authentic – and those who don't accept it are not ‘true’ Muslims.

Indian madrasas are unfamiliar with what Europeans call “non-violent extremism”. But it is a slippery slope. Those brought up on a heavily sectarian discourse and bogey of “Islam under threat” are known to become easy prey to al-Qaeda and Islamic State style propaganda and instigation to violence.

“The cultural alienation that madrasas breed make their boys sitting ducks for Jihadi groups who are able to exploit for their own purposes,” said a former member of the National Commission for Minorities, who wished not to be named.

Experts in the West call it the “conveyor-belt effect” whereby madrasas initiate the process of radicalisation putting them on the path to further – and often violent – radicalisation. A friend of mine who lives in Meerut decided to send her ten-year-old son to a madrasa during summer vacation to learn the Quran and “something about Islam”, told me she was shocked when after a few weeks the child started asking “strange questions” like why she didn't wear Burqa; and was it “Haram” to watch movies and have photographs in the house? When she asked him who had told him these things he said his “Maulvi Saheb” at the madrasa had. “But I was really upset when one day he asked if our Hindu maid was a ‘kafir’. I told him to stop talking such nonsense and decided that he was not going back to the madrasa,” my friend told me.

And this brings us back to Deoband. Over the years it has become a sort of a franchise, with its graduates setting up their own madrasas based on its teachings and producing some of the most virulent extremists in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Most of these madrasas are funded by those Saudis intent on promoting their fundamentalist and ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam – it draws its name from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century scholar who launched a movement to revive pure Islam purged of other non-Islamic cultural influences and practices such as visiting shrines of saints or even constructing concrete graves.

But it isn’t just Saudi money that is propping up Wahhabism. Several other rich Arab countries are ploughing in “millions of petro-dollars” into madrasa as to promote conservative Islam in the name of protecting and preserving Islamic culture, said Sultan Shahin, editor of the progressive New Age Islam website.

“Along with funds, the petro-dollar rich Arab countries also provide the core curriculum and textbooks for these madrasas. This teaching provides basic grounding in an extremist religious outlook that keeps children from interacting with other communities, even other Muslim sects...They are brainwashed in madrasas by semi-literate mullahs and then thrown out without any means or skills for survival,” he told the UN Human Rights Council in a submission.

Meanwhile, Deoband takes pride in the fact that its old boys are broadcasting its message far and wide. “There's not a single city which doesn't have a Deobandi madrasa,” boasted an Ulema. I have visited Darul Uloom several times and every time it felt like being on another planet which doesn't bear any resemblance to the real world outside. The atmosphere – from the orthodox dress code, restricted individual freedoms to a discourse rooted in the idea of a separate Islamic identity reeks of a world sealed off from modern society and outside influences. Students are discouraged from talking to outsiders except with the permission of the authorities, and in the presence of an authorised minder.

Its vice-chancellor Mufti Abul Qasim Nomani makes no bones – in fact declares it with pride – that it’s “mission is to preserve Islamic culture”, as he put it in a newspaper interview. He denied that this meant teaching a hate for other cultures insisting that it preached “only love and peace”.

Deoband's influence goes beyond madrasas: one of the country's most divisive right-wing groups, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board is dominated by Deobandis and has close links with Deoband. Progressive Muslims including Professor Tahir Mahmood, a former chairman of the National Minorities Commission and a member of the Law Commissioned have called for it to be banned because of its toxic agenda.

Moderate madrasas are struggling to resist the tide of radicalisation even as the government has launched a programme of modernisation of madrasas. Introduction of computers and courses in modern subjects have had no effect on the core curriculum which is teaching Islamic theology and training imams of the future. And that curriculum remains unreformed; and it is taught by Maulvis whose own worldview has been shaped by fundamentalism.

According to Maulana Waheeduddin Khan, noted progressive Islamic scholar, traditional Maulvis have no understanding of the “complexities of the contemporary world and so cannot address modern problems or interpret Islam in a way that would appeal to modern minds" (interview with Yoginder Sikand in Islamopedia Online). His views are echoed by another Muslim scholar and historian S Irfan Habib. He said, madrasa education, the way it is structured, is “not relevant for the mainstream employment opportunities”.

It is important to stress that Indian madrasas don't preach violence and there is no suggestion that they are involved in anti-national activities. In fact, Deoband is intensely nationalistic — always has been. The violence is embedded in the ideology of intolerance, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism they preach. The fact that most madrasas practice gender segregation even in state-funded institutions as highlighted in the first part of this series, speaks for itself.

The key to modernising madrasas in the real sense lies in reforming the core theological curriculum — the guts of Muslim education — and bringing it in line with the changes brought in several Islamic countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt and Tunisia. Some madrasas in Kerala and West Bengal have taken the lead on this and hopefully others will follow their example. Any attempt by the government to force the issue will be seen as interference but perhaps a start can be made by initiating consultations with Ulema.

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