Alia Madrasahs have a degree of state-defined parameters when it comes to constructing syllabi taught in classrooms – which brings with it administrative oversight in correspondence with the national education curriculum.
Nevertheless, at the core of recent deliberations, acts of violence and political lobbying has been its privately run counterpart – the Qawmi Madrasah system, the political derivative of which is the controversial Hefazat-e-Islam. Therefore, the question we ask ourselves is this – what is the future of the Madrasah system in a society where religion has been a methodical tool of political polarisation for the past four decades?
Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of British India, founded the Calcutta Alia Madrasah in 1780 – the idea being to use Islamic education as a means to create a more enlightened Muslim middle class in Bengal. The success of this measure is debatable to say the least – as is the case with most things British.
Madrasahs remained at the core of political messaging across both the British and Pakistan eras – a repetitive call of modernising the system being emblematic of the political posturing seen even today. Then came our independence. As per the Constitution of a sovereign Bangladesh, our state was to practice the spirit of secularism – this aspiration has transitioned from a utopian dream towards a fallacy.
The constant dillydallying with Islamic parties by every Government since the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is a testament to this notion. From coalitions, alliances, constitutional amendments to street movements, the presence and strength of right-wing forces that derive their credentials from their supposed reverence to Islam, is a living embodiment of why Bangladesh is distant from institutionalising secularism across its socio-political systems.
And due to these relationships, Madrasahs have continued to play a focal role in being a symbolic manifestation of the dependence of political regimes on religious-based groups and the institutions they run. This is the reality of our country celebrating its Golden Jubilee.
The Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS) indicated that a total of 10,450 Alia Madrasahs (2016 Report) and 13,902 Qawmi Madrasahs (2015 Report) operate in the country – given the fact that the latter is not managed under the purview of the state, the numbers are expected to be higher.
While there is indeed a lack of proper assessments and data regarding Madrasahs, local researchers indicate that anywhere between 1.4 million to 4 million students attend these institutions. In a nutshell, Madrasah education caters to a large proportion of rural populations.
Primarily, two questions arise in my mind when trying to analyse the empirical return on a Madrasah education for both students and society. What is the employability of Madrasah graduates? What is the socio-political impact of Madrasah education? The picture if looked at deeply – is dim and grim.
Economist Abul Barakat and his colleagues completed empirical research of Madrasah Education and illustrated the findings in their book titled Political Economy of Madrasah Education in Bangladesh – roughly 75% of Madrasah graduates remain unemployed in different forms according to the discoveries.
From 1950 to 2008, the number of Alia Madrasahs and Qawmi Madrasahs increased by 11 and 13 times respectively. To put this into context, not only did a constitutionally secular Bangladeshi state system push the growth of government-financed Alia Madrasahs, it did so while seemingly allowing a parallel process of the advancement of privately-funded religious schools.
Now let us take a trip down memory lane to April 2017. To appease growing anti-government sentiments on part of Qawmi Madrasa Administrators, Prime Minister Hasina announced that the Government would recognise their Dawra degree as equivalent to a Master's Degree from a University. The formal policy tagline for the Government resonated closest to the idea of internalising an externality – providing academic recognition to Qawmi Madrasah graduates would bring them into the mainstream job market. In theory, this seemed a positive move.
However, the crucial question of upgrading syllabi or reforming content taught in classrooms was neither revisited nor addressed. Effectively, a Qawmi graduate would be deemed equivalent to an individual attaining a postgraduate degree in Islamic Studies – this correlation between accreditations has been heavily criticised and rightly so. To be an Islamic scholar takes years of research and scholastic aptitude – something which Qawmi Graduates who remain part of the 75% unemployed group, cannot be given acclaim for.
May 2017 saw further social repercussions of acceding to the demands of Hefazat-e-Islam – they wanted the removal of the statue of Lady Justice from the Supreme Court Grounds, and Madrasah students across the country lent their voices in support of this demand. The Awami League yet again acceded to this demand – with Prime Minister Hasina banking on concessional politics as a means to keep Hefazat at bay.
Before the General Elections of 2014 and amidst the culmination of the War Crimes Trial, Hefazat had become the de-facto face of the broader Madrasah system. And increasingly, in the absence of mainstream political space, the curbing of social dissent and a lack of democratic exercises resulted in Hefazat becoming the primary oppositional force to Awami League rule.
The past eight years or so has witnessed Hefazat and the Madrasah system intertwined in a relationship which is a symptom of what happens when there is a systematic absence of democracy in the country. When concessions are provided to fringe right-wing groups that control the education and perspectives of the masses, you are bound to see the kind of protests and violence that was witnessed during the Indian Prime Minister's visit. In other words, the creation of an uncontrollable but dangerous faction facilitated an environment of restricting mainstream politics. Would it be far-fetched to suggest that the likes of Ahmed Shafi, Mamunul Haque or Junaid Babunagari carried greater social clout than Begum Khaleda Zia in the past 10 years? I think not.
In summary, Madrasahs in Bangladesh are producing unemployable individuals who lack knowledge regarding modern academic disciplines – individuals being exploited as pawns by political postulants masking their aspirations under the aegis of Islam. This is disheartening for the students. Their future is being compromised at the hands of a certain section of Madrasah educators.
Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on why Madrasahs continue being at the centre of donation drives, zakat provisions, aid and humanitarian support from our citizens. In addition to the Islam card associated with these institutions, Madrasahs provide services such as accommodation and food to their students, unlike Government-run schools. Particularly for the socioeconomically disadvantaged, Madrasah education continues to be more lucrative than schools.
Supporting orphans and the homeless has perhaps been another shining light across pockets of Madrasahs in the country – but this again is an issue for which the state needs to take accountability. The financing of Qawmi Madrasahs is perhaps another area that needs regulatory oversight – the flow of capital into this system has overarching concerns concerning terrorism financing from external actors outside Bangladesh.
To put it simply, there is an impending need to transition an archaic Madrasah system towards being modern-day education facilities – the clarion call of modernisation has remained constant, but political considerations have stopped Governments from taking bold steps towards reform.
Forget the politics and forget Hefazat – at the end of the day, we are failing countless Madrasah students in the name of faith and religion, and this cannot be allowed to happen in a progressive society.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a Toronto-based Banking Professional and a recent graduate of the University of Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.