By Md Jawaid Akhtar
Bangladesh is planning to integrate hundreds of madrassas into the mainstream education system. The overhaul seeks to improve the quality of education offered at madrassas by training Islamic teachers and bringing facilities up to national standards. The project is a continuation of the programme launched last year by the Awami League government to reform madrassas which includes the introduction of compulsory lessons in Science, English and Information Technology.Is this integration plan simply an attempt to broaden the scope of career options for madrassa students? How much could it help de-radicalization in Bangladesh? How effective could this plan prove to be when Qaumi madrassas reform as a step to invalidate religious education in Bangladesh?
Integrating madrassas within the mainstream: Logic and motivations
Bangladesh has two types of madrassas; one, the state-regulated private madrassas popularly known as Aliya madrassas, and the other, financed by donors and known as Qaumi madrassas. Aliya madrassas offer a hybrid education where students are taught both religious subjects and modern general education. The curriculum of Qaumi madrassas, however, is completely theological in nature. A majority of the graduates of the Aliya madrassa system can pursue higher education in universities or join the job market while the graduates of the Qaumi madrassas end up being associated only with the religious sector.
The madrassa integration plan is part of new education policy which emphasizes modern education alongside the traditional madrassa curriculum. According to Bangladesh Education Minsiter Nurul Islam Nahid, the integration plan will apply only to Aliya madrassas. He however added that the government is holding talks with Qaumi madrassas as well to introduce modern education. The government has asked the administrators of Qaumi madrassas to come up with proposals and suggestions for the inclusion of market economy-oriented subjects in their curriculum without disturbing the facets of religious education. However, these madrassas are refusing to budge on the issue and have declined to accept any government funding or support. The revamping of the madrassas syllabus has already attracted criticism from Qaumi madrassa officials. Muhammad Abdul Jabbar, the Secretary General of the Qaumi madrassa board, opposed the move, suggesting that the government’s plan to modernize madrassa education will destroy religious education.
Such thought indicates that the administrators of these madrassas do not wish to widen the curriculum for students. This can be interpreted as an early sign of radicalization wherein liberal and progressive thinking is condemned. Since their curriculum does not include anything outside religious studies, the options for students become limited.
Integration and de-radicalization
Some would see the integration of madrassas into mainstream education as a de-radicalization measure, especially in the context of concerns that that some madrassas could be encouraging militant and hard-line Islamism. The discovery of a huge cache of arms in a madrasas in 2009 in a remote village of Bhola district triggered fears of the rise of militant Islam in Bangladesh. Since then the government has taken a tough stance on militancy and leaders of many hard-line groups have been arrested. The integration of madrassas could not only help youngsters opt for job-oriented courses but also help diversify, instead of focusing merely on religious studies. The integration plan might not be directly aimed at de-radicalization; but the step would certainly help the cause in the long-run.
Even if this plan primarily aims at improving the quality of education in Bangladesh, it is imperative to bring in Qaumi madrassas into the fold. A World Bank report on Bangladeshi madrassas suggests that initiatives to reform Qaumi madrassas will be a challenging task given that they are unregistered and their sources of financing are unknown, and many are organized informally under numerous federations/ boards. The report also suggests that “despite this complex challenge, the government should engage with this sector to discuss how students can best be imparted skills that are relevant to the needs of modern economy.”
What can be done?
As the government’s efforts to convince Qaumi madrassas to be a part of the integration plan have not yielded positive results, what could an alternative to ensure quality education to the students of these madrassas? Apart from revamping the syllabus, providing training to the teachers and improving the quality of education, there is a need to understand the presence, standard and output of government schools in rural areas, where most of these Qaumi madrassas operate. Some experts suggest that the presence of Qaumi madrassas in any location indicates a population of education consumers (students) whose needs are not being supplied by government schools. In that case, the government should set up schools nearby and provide stipends to the students. If parents get an option of better government schools that provide their children with accessible and affordable education which offers better job opportunities, they would prefer sending their children to government schools rather than to madrasass. This move could put additional pressure on administrators of Qaumi madrassas to introduce a modern programme of study along with their traditional religious structure.
Md Jawaid Akhtar
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]