By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
17 December 2020
With the Boko Haram now taking responsibility for the raid and capture of more than 300 school children, we are reminded again that Islamists have an antithetical relationship to modern education. Indeed the very term Boko Haram means ‘Western education is forbidden’. Not just forbidden, but it seems that the terrorist group is hell bent to wipe out its very existence from certain parts of Nigeria. Earlier, the same group was responsible for raiding and abducting hundreds of school girls, only some of whom were eventually released after much international outcry. This time too, the rationale seems to be the same: to ideologically convert these school children to the ‘cause’ of jihad through radical indoctrination and arms training.
That small children are being used for purposes of armed jihad should come as no surprise because in the wider Islamic world, they have been used in similar fashion before. The ISIS and other terror groups have made use of them in their serialised violent videos, in which children could be seen brutally beheading those who had been condemned to death by the sharia kangaroo courts. Much earlier, children were sent to their death by the Iranian regime during their war with Iraq; all such children were declared martyrs by the same regime.
One would normally think that schools should be respected as sacred sites; that it should be off limits for all manners of radical groups. But this clearly is not the case for Islamists. From Chechnya to Pakistan to Afghanistan to Nigeria, Islamist terror has shown no compunction in targeting schools for their own nefarious ends. The reasons for such attacks might differ but what unites all such attacks is their understanding that there is nothing morally wrong with targeting schools and children therein. A major part of this reprehensible understanding comes from an ideological standpoint which sees schools and modern knowledge systems as inherently antithetical to Islam.
Marwa Hamza Kankara, a parent of a missing Government Science Secondary School student waits for news on her child in Kankara, Nigeria, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. Rebels from the Boko Haram extremist group claimed responsibility Tuesday for abducting hundreds of boys from a school in Nigeria's northern Katsina State last week in one of the largest such attacks in years, raising fears of a growing wave of violence in the region. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
For Islamists worldwide, the central goal is to create an Islamic state, everything else is subservient to this ideal. Education, although considered important, is also to be analysed through its utility in terms of creating that Islamic ideal. Moreover, the problem gets complicated when these forces realise that western model of education provides the template for much of the educational systems in the Muslim world. For terrorist groups like Boko Haram, the ISIS or the Taliban, such schools and colleges teaching ‘western ways of life’ have no utility and hence should be completely destroyed. The problem that these groups have with modern education is not the science that they teach but the ‘lifestyle’ and ‘ways of thinking’ that they promote. After all, terror groups are quite fond of western science and technology without which they would not be able to wield their weapons or even indoctrinate through the social media. Thus, western or modern education is only tolerable to the point that they further the Islamist agenda. But when the same system starts to create doubt about Islamic epistemology, then it is better to just bomb them out.
Young girls walk to school in Bama camp in northeast Nigeria. Girls have been particular targets for Boko Haram militants and many were severely traumatised by years of violence — Photo credit: UNHCR / Helene Caux
Such thinking however is not the monopoly of Islamist terror groups alone but is widely shared by non-jihadist Islamists as well. The ideologue of Jamat e Islami, Maududi used to call modern universities like AMU as ‘slaughterhouses’ rather than houses of education. Although Maududi was appreciative of many features of modern education, especially its methodology, but argued that such institutions took out the religious soul of the person. For a Muslim, this constituted a real problem as the whole point of education was to create an Islamic personality ideologically committed to the creation of an Islamic state.
Similar sentiments were expressed in Egypt by Muhhamad Abduh, who warned Muslims not to blindly imitate the west in terms of education.
It is not just the Islamists but even the ‘traditionalists’ like Deoband who campaign amongst Muslims against the ills of modern western education. The earliest Deoband curriculum positively forbade the study of Greek philosophy because it ‘corrupted’ the minds of Muslims. Identifying the study of philosophy and science as western, the founders of Deoband argued that was no merit in studying such sciences except when done with the express purpose of refuting them. On their own, these did not constitute knowledge (Ilm) which was only to be found in the Islamic texts of Quran and Hadees. Again, the learning of allied and professional sciences was permissible only as acquisition of skill (Hunar) without actually believing in their theoretical underpinnings. The only theory worth applying was the Islamic one through which all the mysteries of the world could be unlocked. In this scheme of things, science could be studied but only as a peripheral aid which would illuminate the central core of knowledge constitute by Islam.
This is not to suggest that Islamism and its silent allies are the only ones who have sought to reject the western system of education. In India, both Gandhi and Tagore criticised the western system of schooling in their own ways. But what distinguishes the Islamic critique from all others is its insistence on its own monopolistic finality. Islamism wants to reshape the whole world in its own image and wants to use education as a tool towards this end.
However, even those opposed to Islamism share the same assumptions about western education. Certainly, Boko Haram is a violent expression of a deep rooted antipathy against western education, but we should not forget that such ideas have considerable credence within the wider Muslim society.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com
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