By Merlin Francis for Youth Ki Awaaz:
“Islam is a radical faith. A madrasa is where children are taught religious fundamentalism. How else do these youth get brainwashed into taking up terrorism!”
Such prejudiced statements often fly in the face of the Muslim community’s insistence that Islam is a religion of peace. Many say this xenophobia has its roots in a grave misunderstanding about their religion and that it is about time they dispelled these myths. Towards this end, some leaders of the community in Karnataka have decided to overhaul madrasa education to let the world know that Islam preaches brotherhood.
While the post-9/11 narrative might have spurred such myths, whereby the word ‘terrorist’ seems to have been reserved for Muslims almost as a propaganda term, it is no secret that youth take to violence under the influence of different sorts of fundamentalist thought. Atheistic communists have taken up arms as have white supremacists. In overhauling madrasa education, community leaders are also trying to then address what is being seen as radicalisation of their youth by terror recruiters. Intelligence agencies had disclosed last November, for instance, that about 150 people in the country—especially in South India—were attracted to the ideologies of the terror outfit Islamic State (IS).
Shafi Armar, who hails from Bhatkal in Karnataka, is reportedly the key recruiter of the IS in India and is said to have helped the organisation gain about two dozen sympathisers here. A couple of days before Republic Day this year, National Investigation Agency had arrested six men in Karnataka on the charges of having links with the IS. Allegedly, one of them, Najmul Huda, was the commander of an IS-inspired module. Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a West Bengal-born software engineer working in Bangalore, was arrested for his pro-IS tweets and allegedly hobnobbing with the terror group’s activists. So Muslim leaders are now taking steps to end any such radicalisation.
The Holy Quran is said to be the last and final word from Allah, delivered to His messenger Prophet Muhammad. According to the holy edict, not a single word in the Quran can be changed. Yet, it is the Quran itself that is quoted by terrorists, appealing to the conscience of their prey to join their “noble cause” of “jihad”.
SSA Khader, the president of the Karnataka chapter of the Islamic Education Board of India (IEBI), told Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA) that extremist groups take certain verses from Quran, quote them out of context and twist their meaning to suit their agenda and brainwash gullible youth.
Mohammad Maqsood Imran, the Imam of Jama Masjid in Bangalore, said that if any Musim could be swayed to take up violence in the name of religion, it reflected his shallow grasp on their faith. “Our own people from the community do not understand that this is not what Islam asks you to practice,” he said.
All the religious heads YKA spoke to acknowledged that extremist organisations exploit this sketchy understanding of Islam to gain supporters. Mohammad Zainulabideen Rashadi Mazahiri, principal of Darul Uloom Shah Valiullah, a Bangalore madrasa, said nobody who understands Islam can condone killing of the innocent in the name of the religion. There’s nothing Islamic about the Islamic States or the likes, he said.
The Blind Leading The Blind
Muslim leaders in Karnataka pulled no punches when conceding that the poor quality of teaching at madaris (plural of madrasa) was responsible for leaving a section of the youth vulnerable to brainwash in the name of religion.
“Islam is misunderstood within the community because of illegitimate, ill- knowledged [sic], inexperienced teachers who do not understand the consequences of what they are teaching and preaching,” Khader said.
Another Muslim leader, requesting anonymity, made no bones about this grouse either. “We are in a funny situation today where the mosque managements are barely educated, our Imams are barely educated, and the community of Muslims that listens to them is also barely educated,” they said.
Pitting Knowledge Against Ignorance
With the belief that deep insights into the religion will make the youth immune to extremist ideologies, efforts are under way in Karnataka to overhaul the education system of madaris. Khader said they would like to increase the number of Muslims who understand their faith well and vocally condemn violence.
The IEBI aims to redesign their syllabus, giving equal emphasis to Islamic education as well as mainstream subjects such as maths, science, social sciences, etc. The books used for the lessons will be translated into all the main languages. Also, the lessons will be revised to fill in any gaps.
Khader’s Khykha Foundation, which funds educational institutions for upliftment of poor Muslim students, has started two training institutes for teachers in Bangalore in a technical tie-up with Jamia Markazu Ssaquafathi Ssunniyya, an Islamic university in Kerala. Called Markaz-Khykha Institute of Higher Islamic Studies (abbreviated as MARKHINS), these establishments aim to make secular, well-read Islamic scholars out of Muslim youth.
Those selected avail of a free, residential, seven-year course, upon completion of which they are certified to teach in madaris. Aware that poor men are an easy target for terror recruiters, MARKHINS caters exclusively to the poorest of the poor.
Khader said that at MARKHINS, emphasis is on secularism. He reasoned that being well versed in Arabic, English, their mother tongue, and another local language would enable the scholars to understand the Quran, explain it to people, and quash the misconceptions about the religion.
Opening Up To The World
Also, over the last couple of months, books used to teach students in madaris are being translated into English. The Imam of Jama Masjid in City Market, Bangalore said the translated syllabi can be accessed and understood by all, and that shall for once and all settle the argument that children are being brainwashed at madaris. He said this transparency should also put an end to the accusation that madaris are a stepping stone to sleeper cells of terror outfits. Besides, he said, it would provide people of other faiths with an opportunity to read and understand that Islam preaches peace, not violence.
He said teachers were being trained to impart teachings of the Prophet and Islam in English. On the outskirts of Bangalore, a college is being built to train teachers. Though the current batch has 15 trainee teachers, the institute will be able to accommodate 700 of them once the infrastructure is ready. The Imam stressed that it was important for Muslims to understand their religion well, that they knew the context and the rationale behind their commandments.
It is not just the leaders of the community who have taken steps to fill the knowledge gap about their religion. Youth in the state are matching their endeavours in their own capacity. In December 2014, the Bangalore chapter of the Students’ lslamic Organisation (SIO) brought out a report recommending upgrades to the madrasa education system. Their report was based on a survey of 55 madaris across the state. Its main suggestions were:
1. Setting up a non-governmental body to regulate madaris;
2. Better focus on learning of Arabic, it being the language the Quran is written in;
3. Introducing subjects such as maths, science, social science, computer and ensuring that students are taught both English and Kannada; and
4. Only knowledgeable persons with a degree in religious studies be appointed as faculty members and be paid a minimum monthly salary of Rs. 15,000.
The report rued that today madrasa was a maligned term whereas during India’s freedom struggle, it used to be the hotbed of anti-British planning.
We’re Taught Peace
Arshad Sadiq, a fifth-year student at the Al Jamia Islamia Scool in Kerala, sought to clear up the false notions regarding Islamic education. He said many people believe these institutions teach hating other religions, when the truth is the exact opposite. He said they are taught that it’s the responsibility of a Muslim that they treat other people and their religion with respect.
He had joined Jamia after clearing his class 10 exams and is now studying for a bachelor’s degree at the institute. An IAS aspirant, he said his previous and current batchmates want to become Islamic scholars, some want to teach Arabic, Urdu, Islam in colleges abroad while some want to teach in madaris. Then there are those who want to land a government job.
S Balan, an advocate and trade union member who fights cases for Muslims charged with terrorism-related activities, agreed that Islam is widely misunderstood. He said most of his clients are facing false charges. He welcomed the move of the Karnataka Muslim community to overhaul their education system and make it transparent.
By resorting to ground-level action—and not a mere image makeover—the Muslim community of Karnataka seeks to assert that it does not stand with terrorists. Earlier this year, the growing influence of the IS in India had led to about 6,000 mosques in Karnataka condemning its actions during the Friday prayers. They rue the dishonour that terrorist organisations bring to their religion by fashioning themselves after Islam. Muslim leaders in Karnataka are hoping that their endeavours succeed in impressing upon the society that they and their faith does not condone violence and stands for peace and harmony.
Merlin Francis is a Bangalore based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.