Madrassas In Bangladesh A Breeding Ground For Extremism? – Analysis


By Amitava Mukherjee*
Hasina Wazed, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, must not turn her attention away from the madrassa education sector in her country in spite of the fact that the assailants in the Holy Artisan Bakery incident were from affluent backgrounds and had studied in elite alma maters. Role of the madrassas in the process of Islamization in Bangladesh has again come to the fore in the wake of eight Islamic students unions’ opposition to the Draft Education Law, 2016 in Bangladesh and the discovery that four out of the nine dreaded fundamentalists recently shot dead in Dhaka were madrassa students.
Although the above-mentioned draft has dwelt on many aspects of education like infrastructure in classrooms, yet its core aims are to reform the madrassa sector by incorporating three following stipulations – mandatory teaching of mainstream curriculum subjects, compulsory two year pre-primary and eight year primary period and that no private madrassa will be allowed to operate or be established without its registration with the government.
This draft education act is the natural culmination of the Education Policy which the Bangladesh government had formulated in 2010 but later on backtracked under intense pressures from the extreme conservative blocs. Meanwhile, the government has brought about some changes in the education sector like providing cash benefits to girl students for enrolling in educational institutions but the government’s effort had fallen short of any fundamental course correction. The proposed Education Act is a step in the right direction.
Although there is no concrete evidence to show any correlation between Islamic terrorism and madrassa education, yet the above mentioned opposition by Islamic students’ unions to the proposed madrassa reform has raised many eyebrows. The madrassa system is now the fastest growing sub-sector in the education system of Bangladesh. Unlike other Muslim dominated countries like Pakistan and Indonesia, there are two types of madrassas in Bangladesh – the Aliya madrassa or the government controlled ones and the privately run and financed Quomi madrassas.
The Aliya madrassas are run by the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board (BMEB) and teach mainstream secular subjects like mathematics, literature,geography, history etc. but the Quomi madrassas’ curricula are centuries old and comprise Islamic jurisprudence.  Even the Bangladesh government has admitted on previous occasions that the latter’s source of finance, comprising mostly individual donations from within the country and abroad, is unknown to the administration.
There is now a great amount of confusion about the total number of madrassas in Bangladesh. According to some government sources there are now 10,000 primary and nearly 12,000 post primary madrassas in Bangladesh. Unofficial sources however put the total number of madrassas around 70000 which was only 4100 in 2005. Whatever may be the exact number of such institutions, government controlled Aliya madrassas cater to two million students while the uncontrolled and independent Quomi madrassas have enrolled more than four million students.
In spite of absence of any concrete evidence of madrassa-terrorism relationship, some recent features like growing participation of females in fundamentalist terrorist activities should make governmental authorities in Bangladesh apprehensive. In the early 1990s percentage of girls in the secondary level was only 20 percent. Since then, due to introduction of stipends, there occurred a four-fold increase in the number of girls within a decade. But observers are apprehensive that this increase went hand in hand with proliferation of madrassas and most of these girls went to madrassa schools rather than government or secular private ones. More important, in order to take advantage of these monetary grants, a large number of unregistered Quomi madrassas converted themselves to Aliya madrassas without effecting much change in their internal structure or character.
Quomi madrassas are situated mostly in inaccessible rural areas which are still to experience footfalls of either the MSEB controlled Aliya madrassas or mainstream government schools, other madrassas or even NGO sponsored schools. Since the Quomi ones impart rudimentary level market oriented skills and harp on traditional Islamic values, more and more boys and girls are flocking to such institutions in search of low level employments. Girls coming out of Quomi madrassas are also high on demand in the domain of marriage since they are supposed to carry traditional village-level values.
Although successive governments in Bangladesh have always harped on the ‘modern and mainstream’ character of the Aliya maqdrassas yet the Bangladesh Nari Pragati Sangha has alleged that the BMEB, the controlling authority, lacks in appropriate curricula and even the secular subjects in the Aliya madrassas have a religious slant. In 85 percent of the Aliya madrassas girls have to wear ‘purdah’ inside the classrooms, the corresponding percentage for the Quomi ones is 95 percent. Even in 3 percent of secular up market private schools Niqab is mandatory.
Many intellectuals from Bangladesh are always ready to point out that madrassa education sector accounts for a small percentage of students- only 1.9 percent by the Quomi madrassas, 8.4 percent by the Aliyas and 3.5 percent by other madrassas. But it enjoys quite a disproportionate share in terms of influence over the society as the religious sector in Bangladesh employs 10 lakh people in 38000 madrasas and 50000 maktabs which is equal to the total number of employment the country’s public sector can offer. A rough calculation establishes that Bangladesh has at least three lakhs, if not more, mosques and each mosque has at least two employees- one Imam and one Muezzin. Then there are Khadims (provider of services) in urban mosques.
Moreover there is at least one religious teacher in 78000 secular schools of the country. In addition Bangladesh has positions for one lakh qazis. Mumtaz Ahmed, an authority on the madrassa system, thinks that there are 4.3 million jobs earmarked for the religious sector. Even if we consider his opinion to be on the higher side, then again it cannot be denied that madrassas’ influence on the Bangladeshi society has now reached its crescendo as 32 percent of the university teachers are madrasa graduates.
Certainly one cannot be faulted if one concludes that a symbiotic relationship may develop between poverty and religious extremism in a not-too-distant-future. Statistical calculations have thrown an interesting picture in this regard. Among students of class 7 to 10 grade 13 percent of the poor go to registered non-government madrassas in contrast to 5 percent of the non-poor.
*Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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