Vol. 5 Num 143 Fri. October 15, 2004  

Political reform, not language lessons

The US Ambassador Harry K Thomas will reportedly provide scholarships to 40 madrassa students to learn English. The rationale, as described, is to help them learn English so that they can get better scope to be connected with the international arena. Announcing the scholarships at a ceremony recently, the US Ambassador said that English would not only open the door to a bright future and better economy, but also help people understand each other better. Ambassador Harry K Thomas called upon the students to achieve efficiency in English to "knock on the door of the state of world knowledge." The ambassador argued that English has become the language of trade and commerce and Bangladesh's economic success is closely linked to the education and English fluency of its citizens. He also cited the importance of the internet, saying that everyone needed to learn English to use it.

In today's world, nobody will question the importance and necessity of the English language. But why the US Ambassador is giving scholarships to Madrassa students is an obvious question. And the scholarship project came at a time when there is a growing trend of rising fundamentalism, terrorism, clandestine arms hauls, and bombings. All these issues have been reported to be linked with the religious fundamentalists. In the international arena, the US image is also affected because of waging a war in a Muslim country like Iraq and the US support for Israel against Palestine. In this context, the US Ambassador's scholarship programme has a strategic importance -- to get on good terms with fundamentalism and its perceived foreground, the madrassas.

Madrassas are Muslim religious schools where the students are given religious teachings according to the Koran and Sunnah. Considering the present-world reality, many Muslim moderates demanded modernisation of the madrassa education curriculum. But the Muslim clerics turned it down saying that the "modernisation" proposal was a conspiracy to westernise and Christianise Islam. They also think that the madrassa education is modern because Islam is modern and it doesn't need any reform. They believe that the madrassa curriculum is rich and it contains lessons to manage the human lives in today's world. But the madrassa education has remained to be a matter of concern for the US. There have been lots of propositions that the madrassa education system was the "cocoon of terror."

As the rising trend of Islamic terrorism is baffling the west, there are efforts in place to analyse the causes of terrorism. Except the political and economic reasons, analysts are putting importance on ignorance, superstition, and lack of modern knowledge. As in Pakistan, Sudan, and Afghanistan, madrassas in Bangladesh have been ill-famed for their alleged links to fundamentalism-guided terrorist politics. Several newspapers have published reports on arms training conducted either in madrassas or involving madrassa students and teachers. In retaliation, the madrassa students and teachers, backed by some religion-based political parties, threatened to kill the reporters and editors concerned and to close the newspapers down. They also threatened to "cleanse" the "unholy elements" from Bangladesh if they didn't stop such "negative propaganda against Islam." With a well-organised political patronage and foreign financial support, the madrassas in Bangladesh have developed as strong institutions.

Against this backdrop, it is a positive move to award scholarships to madrassa students to learn English for attaining modern global knowledge. But the scholarships are neither enough nor sustainable. To inspire the madrassas to reform in a coherent manner, there is no alternative to reforming their curriculum to incorporate modern knowledge so that everybody concerned is benefited. But it's not an easy task. The vested-interest political groups who run and back the madrassa system are unlikely to agree to such proposals because they may jeopardise their vested interest. Strategically, they will consume the financial benefits but wouldn't agree to any fundamental changes.

On the other hand, thousands of madrassa students will continue to be deprived of modern knowledge if an institutional reform measure is not taken. Reforming the whole madrassa curriculum, including training of the teachers, exchange visits of teachers and students, are some effective steps for mainstreaming the education system. But these steps can never be taken without a political reform. Only political will can be effective enough to break into the resistance from within the madrassa system. The most important issue is that the madrassas are guided and run by some political ideologies. So, the system has to be changed from within through political decisions and measures.

This political role has to be played by the Bangladesh political system. The government must realise the danger of keeping a huge population trapped in an age-old education system that doesn't equip people with productive knowledge. Without practical and productive knowledge, people are bound to be frustrated and frustration leads people to destruction. This is perhaps the rationale of launching the scholarship programme by the US Ambassador for the madrassa students.

Because of attacks on US people and interests around the world, the US nowadays is worried about fundamentalist and destructive politics. Our nonchalant government and progressive political parties must also understand this danger and act now to save the democratic process from the danger of impending religion-based politics and terrorism. Being in control of power, the primary responsibility is with the government to act and sit with the main opposition and other progressive political parties to chalk out effective measures.

Coming out of the current trend of politics, the opposition parties also shouldn't make politics with the issue because failure to reform and improve the madrassa education system will also affect them equally. Politicking with issues of national interest will only contribute to destroy the democracy, jeopardise people's security, and affect the whole nation. Critical issues like fundamentalism and superstition cannot be addressed through language education. The only solution is political reform.

Gobinda Bar is Communications Director of ATDP, a USAID programme.