By Ameer Ali –
Over the last two years, and since that Easter Sunday infamy of April 2019, ultra-nationalist politicians and their apparatchiks, the Secretary General of Bodu Bala Sena, and certain sections of the Sangha had joined forces to demand the closure of all madrasas in the country. Just to please these agitators, the Yahapalana regime decided to register all madrasas with the government, which did not satisfy this mob. The Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa (NGR) regime, which is facing crises on multiple fronts, politically, economically, in public health and foreign relations, has now embarked on a crusade against madrasas. Accordingly, the Minister of Public Security, Admiral (retired) Sarath Weerasekera (SW), either on the order of President NGR or in consultation with him, has decided to close down around 1000 elementary Quranic Schools and bring the rest under some form of government control, the details of which are not clear yet. This announcement was a follow up to an earlier one that banned imports of books on Islam authored by Muslim intellectuals and writers whom the regime considers extremists. Incidentally, even copies of the Quran have been confiscated by the police for scrutinizing their content. What is the real objective or the agenda behind this crusade? It is a question that worries not only Muslims but also others who are alarmed at the emerging symptoms of totalitarianism in Sri Lanka.
The main argument behind the crusade seems to be that madrasas are teaching Islamic fundamentalism, which produced and will produce, if allowed to exist, Muslim extremists like Zahran Hashim and his ilk. Taking that argument on its face value, did the spread of Che Guevara’s revolutionary extremism in university campuses in the 1970s lead to the closure of all universities? Similarly, did the spread of LTTE’s separatist ideology in many Tamil schools in 1990s convince the government to close such schools? The killings and destruction caused by Wijeweera’s JVP and Prabakaran’s LTTE were, quantitatively and qualitatively, of far greater scale than what Zahran and his murderers accomplished in 2019. Why then did madrasas become the collateral for the Easter massacre? Is it to deflect the criticism by Christian leaders like Cardinal Malcolm Ranjit, who is accusing the government for not catching the “boss”, who masterminded that macabre act? Or is it one more step to demonize the Muslim community, and part of a sinister agenda to de-Islamize Muslims in the name of de-radicalization? Is there an input from China, which is already de-Islamizing its Muslims in Xinxiang? Or is the regime repeating what Stalin tried to do with Muslims in the former Soviet? Or is this a delayed response to BBS Secretary Ven. Gnanasara’s failed appeal to the previous regime to place the Muslims under their care for “molding”? Whatever it is, this crusade will certainly add more to the mounting criticisms against this regime internationally.
To begin with, let us make one point clear. There had been calls for reforming and modernizing madrasa education, at least since 1990s. Given the context of today’s rapidly expanding world of knowledge, those reforms are absolutely imperative if religious education among Muslims were to produce piety blended with scientific rationalism. In a sense, it is the failure on the part of those who establish and operate madrasas to modernize and initiate changes to keep pace with a tele-techno-scientific knowledge world that has led to the current situation where a government, without any expert knowledge about madrasa education and the role it plays in the community, and in order to save its own skin for mishandling the investigation of the Easter carnage, has picked in haste and dubbed this historic institution as the mother of Islamic extremism and producer of killers like Zahran. Does SW, who is heading this crusade know one basic truth about Zahran, i.e., he was not the product of any madrasa, but a reject and a truant who dropped out and came under the influence of ISIS, and ended up as a self-promoted backyard imam?
Madrasas and Quranic schools have been in existence in this country for almost 150 years. If their mission was to teach extremism and produce extremists, as SW and his supporters claim, why did it take that many years to produce just one Zahran? Is it not a testimony for the failure of madrasas to produce enough extremists? In short, there is absolutely no case to charge madrasas for what happened in April 2019. They have become the smokescreen for a regime that does not know or does not want to reveal the true identity of the real “boss”, who masterminded the carnage. Having arrested Noufer Moulavi and Hajjul Akbar, both with madrasa educational background, and having declared prematurely by SW that they were the mastermind behind the carnage, it dawned on him that closing down madrasas should be the next logical step.
As the American spiritual author Wayne Dyer (1940-2015) once said, “the highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about”. This seems to be the truth about the anti-madrasa crusade. The mob behind this crusade neither knows what fundamentalism is, nor the difference between that and extremism. They also don’t seem to have any knowledge about the history and contribution of madrasas to human civilization and the role they played in Muslim life in Sri Lanka. It is time the Muslim community leaders and particularly its intelligentsia take measures to educate these ignoramuses.
The concept of fundamentalism is not Islamic in origin but started in late 19th century Protestant America where the Protestants believed in the inerrancy of the Bible and preached to believers that they should adhere to the fundamentals of their religion. If Christianity is a religion of love, compassion and peace what could be wrong in adhering to its fundamentals? The same sort of belief prevails in other religions too. No religion advocates violence and extremism, and those who follow the fundamentals of those religions are considered by their respective communities as the most pious.
Islam is no exception to this rule, and if madrasas are accused of preaching fundamentalism, i.e., to adhere to the five pillars of Islam and teachings of the Prophet, they should be encouraged to do so and not condemned. Outside madrasas, movements like the Tabligh Jamaat, a few of which are now banned by the government, preach exactly the same ideal. The real criticism against these madrasas and religious movements is not that they advocate fundamentalism, but they teach a kind of orthodoxy, which makes their students and followers become obsessive with life in the Hereafter and not with facing and tackling the problems in this life. Madrasas were once at the forefront of knowledge and progress but stagnated and became moribund because of the rise of orthodoxy and conservatism.
Unfortunately, this stagnation has turned a historic educational institution into a vehicle for transmitting yesterday’s knowledge and not laboratory for producing tomorrow’s knowledge. This is why reforms are desperately needed. There is indeed a running battle between Muslim conservatives and modernists in this regard. Given the necessary incentives the local community in Sri Lanka has the talent and even resources to undertake necessary reforms. Instead of closing them the government should set a time limit and provide incentives to carry out the changes.
Through their educational role madrasas provide an alternative route for thousands of Muslim families who would otherwise find it hard to educate their children through government schools beyond the primary level. The family background of a vast majority of madrasa graduates would bear testimony to this fact. The piety and discipline imparted through madrasa training make those students models of good behaviour and law-abiding citizens when they pass out. This is no different from what the Pansala schools do for Buddhist kids from poorer families.
However, there are some rotten apples that need be thrown out. After 1980s, a number of madrasas were established with foreign funds, especially from Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries. Saudi funds in particular came with strings attached. Wahhabism penetrated with its ultra-conservative ideology into madrasas funded by Saudis. Even teachers and textbooks were dispatched directly from Saudi Arabia to these madrasas. That Wahhabi indoctrination led to intra-religious rivalry and fights for sectarian supremacy within the Muslim community, as happened in Kattankudy, Beruwela and few other places. Those madrasas along with other Wahhabi practices should be weeded out. There is also a need for rationalization of the remaining ones. Where is the Muslim leadership to spearhead this task?
One should also remember that it was the Saudi funded madrasas in their tens of thousands in Pakistan that produced the Taliban and so called mujahideen freedom fighters, as they were described by President Ronald Regan. They were armed by the United States to chase out the Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Later, when Al-Qaida under Bin Laden recruited the same mujahideen to fight against the “US and Crusaders”, the notoriety earned by those madrasas tarnished all madrasas in the world. The freedom fighters of Regan soon became extremists and terrorists for President George W. Bush and his Western counterparts. That sticker of extremism and terrorism got stuck through the Western media, and unfortunately, madrasas are now viewed as cradles for extremists and terrorists. The dastardly act of Zahran and his mad bunch provided an excellent opportunity to paste that sticker onto all madrasas in Sri Lanka too. The rest is what we observe today.
A worrying piece of information is circulating that Ahnaf Jassim, a young Muslim poet, who was arrested on charges of writing poems in Tamil, which encouraged extremism, was later found to be untrue when his book Navarasam was read by Tamil Scholars. This author too read that book and found no evidence in it to promote extremism. The police then altered their charges and claimed that his poems on love and romance were sexually provocative and would be damaging to young readers. This is ridiculous because, in which case the entire corpus of Tamil literature on love should be banned from schools. What is terribly worrying is that the police are now accused of torturing this young man and forcing him to confess that the prestigious Naleemiya Institute in Beruwela had been teaching fundamentalism to its undergraduates. Even the poet’s father had been harassed by the police and been asked to compel his son to confess to that effect. This is nothing but paranoia and desperation on the part of a government that is fast losing its popularity and looking for any excuse to close down any Muslim educational institution, just to safeguard its vote bank. If the regime suspects even Naleemiya’s education is promoting extremism through fundamentalism then even that institution may soon fall under its axe.
In short, this crusade is a splendid illustration of how a desperate regime acts desperately in times of mounting pressures and losing popularity. In the meantime, the Catholics who suffered in that horror, and Muslims who had nothing to do with it but forced to suffer as collateral, will continue to demand justice and the identity of that “Boss”, who engineered that bloodbath.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia