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South Asia, Militant Islam and Al Qaeda
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
For years, in a number of South Asian nations, Islamic militancy is continuing to gain strength, thus finally leaving potential threat to regional as well as global security and peace. On the other hand, Jihad and terrorism is being preached in Madrassas, not only in Muslim nations but also in several non-Muslim countries. Jihadist notions are also planted in the minds of people through ‘Dawah’ promoted by Tablighi Jamaat. First of all, it is essential to understand the latest situation of Madrassa education in Muslim and non-Muslim countries.
Madrassas in Pakistan and Bangladesh:
The madrassas in today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh, as in India, represent the legacy of the spectacular resurgence of Islamic religious education in India during the late nineteenth century, beginning with the establishment of the Deoband Madrassa in 1867.
In most of the madrassas there are no formal admission procedures. and legitimacy to the respective madrassas. Major policy decisions regarding doctrinal preferences, curriculum, and selection of teachers and students remain the exclusive prerogative of the ulema. Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh has two kinds of madrassas: Quomi madrassas—estimated at more than 57,000 at the secondary, intermediate, and higher levels with about 5,762,000 students and 400,000 teachers. The Quomi madrassas are private, receive no financial support from the government, and are supported by local and foreign donations, mostly from the Middle East.
According to the latest data [2007–08) available to the madrassa education board, there are 6,906 non-government Alia madrassas in Bangladesh with the largest number, 12,740, at the dakhil level. The total number of students at all levels in the Alia system is 3,786,500. The number of teachers in these madrassas is 312,898. Unlike the graduates of Quomi madrassas, whose degrees are not recognized by the government and who pursue their careers in religious establishments and private businesses, the majority of the graduates of Alia madrassas merge into the general stream of education by continuing their education in colleges and universities. It is no wonder that a recent survey found that 32 percent of Bangladesh university teachers in the humanities and social sciences were graduates of Alia madrassas.
There are also elementary level madrassas known as maktabs, or ibtedai madrassas, first formally approved by Bangladesh’s the then President Ziaur Rahman in 1978. The Madrassa Education Board has approved 9,320 of all independent ibtedai madrassas, with 45,300 teachers and 689,865 students. But in reality there are more than 38,000 ibtedai madrassas with 130,000 teachers and close to four million students. This latter figure is supported by Bangladeshi Ministry of Education estimate made in 1992 which shows the total number of ibtedai madrassa at 17,279. More than 50 percent of students in Quomi madrassas and more than 70 percent of students in Alia madrassas come from an ibtedai background.
In Pakistan, the number of secondary and higher madrassas 12,000; Senior and graduate level madrassas 7,446; Deobandi madrassas 5,120; Barelvi madrassas 3,765; Ahl-i-Hadith madrassas 400; Shia madrassas 280; Number of all students Pakistani students in madrassas 15,765 and Afghan students 61,876. There are a few thousand madrassas in Pakistan which are not registered with the government. And, while in 1947, there was only 137 Madrassas in Pakistan, in 2001, the figure went upto 4,345.
There are approximately eighteen million students in various Madrassas in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Majority of these students come from poor families. In Pakistan, the majority of madrassa students belong to the rural areas of the North West Frontier Province [NWFP], Pakistani part of Kashmir, and Punjab. They are mostly drawn from the low strata of society. In a survey conducted in 1976, more than 80 percent of the madrassa students in Peshawar, Multan, and Gujranwala were found to be sons of small or landless peasants, rural artisans, or clergies of the village mosques. They remaining 20 percent came from families of small shopkeepers and rural laborers. A survey, conducted in 2000, found that 55 percent of madrassa students came from peasant families and petty traders. The interesting thing to note is that the number of students whose fathers were employed in lower level private sector jobs rose from 5 percent in 1976 to 35 percent in 2000. Only 3 percent of students in the 2000 survey said their fathers were imams [clergies] of the mosques. The majority of students come from large but low-income families. The 2000 survey found that 63 percent of madrassa students had five or more siblings, and 28 percent of them had seven or more brothers and sisters. In the case of Bangladesh, an overwhelming majority of Quomi madrassa students [82 percent] come from poor families of rural areas and small towns. Sylhet, Chittagong, Comilla, Noakhali and some northern districts have traditionally been the main base of recruitment for the Quomi madrassas.
Madrassas are breeding ground of Jihadists:
Several reports on internationa media including CNN, BBC etc, as well as Jessica Stern’s article in Foreign Affairs and Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in the New York Times Magazine, besides several dozen columns of Thomas Friedman, have suggested that the madrassas in Pakistan have become a hotbed of Islamic extremism and the breeding ground of terrorism. They have been variously described as dens of terror, jihad universities, jihad factories, and, as the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee described them, factories of terror.
There is no doubt that Madrassas have become actibely linked to terrorism and terrorist training camps. Many journalists and commentators have suggested that these madrassas teach Jihadist literature in their course of studies and that their entire curriculum is intended to produce holy warriors. It has also been suggested by many Western scholars that there is an inherent relationship between what is taught in the madrassas on the one hand and religious extremism, Talibanism, militancy, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and terrorism, on the other.
Madrassa students, through their reading of religious texts, become soldiers of Allah [God] and engage in militant activities against those they consider enemies of Islam [Clergies and teachers in Madrassas teach the students to hate Jews and Christians and term them as enemies of Islam, thus giving provocations of Jihad, alluring heaven and 72-virgins, if anyone would become martyr.
Understandably the US Congress keeps itself informed of the madrasa education in South Asia. A report by the Congressional Research Service [International Terrorism in South Asia] states that among the approximately ten thousand madrasas in Pakistan some that have been implicated in teaching militant anti-western, anti-American and anti-Hindu values. Many of these madrasas are financed and operated by Pakistani Islamist political parties and foreign entities. Foremost US analyst on South Asia Stephen Cohen states that the largest Islamic sects with the greatest control over religious schools are the Deobandis, who are among the most militant in their demand for Pakistan to become truly Islamic. Incidentally Deobandi groups were in the forefront of declaring Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslim in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, anti-Ahmadiyya activities started under the patronization of some Islamist clergies as well as some Islamist leaders thus finally causing series of attacks on Ahmadiyya mosques in various parts of the country under the leadership of Mufti Noor Hussain Noorani and Moulana Momtaji.
Radical Islam and Madrassa:
The Iranian Revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, both in 1979, inspired a profound shift in the Muslim world—and in the madrasas. Iran’s mullahs had managed to overthrow the Shah and take power, undermining the idea that religious education was useless in worldly matters. Although Iranians belong to the minority Shiite sect of Islam, and their madrasas have always had a more political character than Sunni seminaries, the image of men in turbans and robes running a country provided a powerful demonstration effect and politicized madrasas everywhere.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime promised to export its revolutionary Shiite ideas to other Muslim states. Khomeini invited teachers and students from madrasas in other countries to Tehran for conferences and parades, and he offered money and military training to radical Islamic movements. Iranians argued that the corrupt Arab monarchies must be overthrown just as Iranians had overthrown the Shah. Iran’s Arab rivals decided to fight revolutionary Shiite fundamentalism with their own version of Sunni fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries began to pour money into Sunni madrasas that rejected the Shiite theology of Iran, fund ulema who declared the Shiite Iranian model unacceptable to Sunnis, and call for a fight against Western decadence rather than Muslim rulers.
When Awatollah Khomeini captured power in Tehran, he stared funding anti-West and anti-Semitic groups under the umbrella of ‘Al Quds Society’ and Iranian embassies in various countries openly or secretly continued to fund such activities. Even in the official newsletter published by the Iranian embassies in a number of countries, extreme propaganda against United States, Israel, Jews and Christians are continuing in the name of re-capturing the Al Aqsa [Temple Mount] by the Muslims through Jihad. Leaders and ministers in Khomeini’s regime even visited several Muslim and non-Muslim nations to deliver cash to the Islamist groups promoting Tehran’s theology. Unites of Hezbollah were created in several Muslim nations and were assigned to recruit members mostly from the madrassas.
In the midst of this conflict, and the madrasa boom it spawned, the United States helped create an Islamic resistance to communism in Afghanistan, encouraging Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states to fund the Afghan resistance and its supporters throughout the Muslim world. Pakistan’s military ruler at the time, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, decided to establish madrasas instead of modern schools in Afghan refugee camps, where 5 million displaced Afghans provided a natural supply of recruits for the resistance. The refugees needed schools; the resistance needed mujahideen. Madrasas would provide an education of sorts, but they would also serve as a center of indoctrination and motivation.
General Zia’s model spread throughout the Muslim world. Maulana Samiul Haq, headmaster of the Haqqania Madrasa, is a firebrand orator who led anti-U.S. demonstrations soon after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. When asked if he thought it appropriate to involve his 5 and 6-year-old charges in political demonstrations, Haq remarked, “No one is too young to do the right thing.”
Later, he added, “Young minds are not for thinking. We catch them for the madrasas when they are young, and by the time they are old enough to think, they know what to think.”
The ‘success’ of General Zia’s experiment led to the creation of similar free schools in places as diverse as Morocco, Algeria, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America established madrasas alongside their mosques, ostensibly to teach religion to their children. Islam requires Muslims to set aside 2.5 percent of their annual savings as zakat [charity], and religious education is one area on which zakat can be spent. Madrasas do not need huge funds to run, though. Teachers’ salaries are low, the schools need no funding for research, and books are handed down from one generation to the next.
Madrasas have proliferated with zakat and financial assistance from the gulf states. [Some classrooms at Haqqania Madrassa in Pakistan have a small inscription informing visitors that Saudi Arabia donated the building materials for the classroom]. Modern technology has also played a role, whether by creating international financing networks or new methods of spreading the message, such as through online madrasas. Pakistan had 244 madrasas in 1956. By the end of 2004, the number had risen to 10,000. As many as 1 million students study in madrasas in Pakistan, compared with primary-school enrollment of 1.9 million. Most Muslim countries allocate insignificant portions of their budgets for education, leaving large segments of their growing populations without schooling. Madrasas fill that gap, especially for the poor. The poorest countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Yemen, and Indonesia, boast the largest madrasa enrollment.
Islamist militancy is showing new signs of life in Bangladesh despite crackdowns.
According to a Christian Science Monitor [CSM] report, terrorist groups are showing a persistence and resilience that has left local authorities worried. However, the CSM says that militancy in Bangladesh is not on the scale or tone that exists in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but has shown a frightening persistence in recent years.
It says that in 2006, police and paramilitary forces systematically targeted and took down the top terrorist organization, Jamat’ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, or JMB. Seven of JMB’s leaders were hung in 2007.
One estimate suggested there were about 12,000 cadres actively operating in the country, mostly madrassa [Islamic seminary] teachers, students and clerics of mosques.
In April of this year, Bangladesh intelligence agencies declared that the Islamist terrorist groups are reorganizing with the aim of making a deadly comeback.
Bangladesh’s teeming cities and rugged countryside have proven an unlikely safe haven for some of the jihadi world’s most hardened operatives. In September 2009, police in Dhaka [capital city of Bangladesh] arrested an Afghan war veteran with ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned Pakistani terrorist organization held responsible for the Mumbai attacks in November 2008.
The Christian Science Monitor reported in June that Bangladesh was becoming a hideout for South Asia’s terrorists: Bangladeshi police in June uncovered a plot that used Bangladesh to funnel thousands of weapons to an Indian separatist group.
The police also arrested an operative working for notorious South Asian terrorist Daud Ibrahim, who is alleged to have ties to Al Qaeeda. The operative disclosed that 150 of Daud Ibrahim’s operatives are stationed in Bangladesh.
Religious extremism in Bangladesh:
Definition of political parties has changed for some from the time of Edmund Burke as “an organized assembly of men, united for working together for national interest” to one that may not accept members from the minority community and is insistent on establishing Islamic rule or Khilafat. Indeed the head of the Hizb-Ut-Tehrir [HuT], Hizbut Towhid [HT], Khelafat Majlish [KM] as did few other Islamist parties publicly announced that “we always want to oust all governments in all Muslim countries in the world to establish Khilafat states”. The world is already mired in the militant activities of al-Qaeda operatives, their latest victims being the carnage at Mumbai [India] and the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad [Pakistan].
In recent months, although Dhaka is governed by a political party having secularist ideology, notorious Islamist militancy group named Hizbut Towhid is allowed to openly publish and sell books and DVDs pronouncing Jews and Christians as ‘enemies of Islam’ and instigating the Muslims in waging ‘holy war’ against them. Hizbut Towhid denounces democracy and promotes Caliphate Rule in Bangladesh and other nations in the world. Leaders of this extremist group consider notorious terrorists like Osama Bin Laden as ‘hero of Islam’. It was already reported in local and international media that Hizbut Towhid has expanded its activities in a number of Asian nations as well ‘successfully’ created its base in some Western countries.
After Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalism went global with its appeal to a section of Muslim society based on moral, cultural and political grounds. The Islamists argue that western culture particularly the one practiced by western women is essentially degenerative and incompatible with Quranic literalism. They argue that the values propagated by the West threaten Islamic “purity” and hence their advance is to be thwarted at any cost. Political argument is by far the easiest to sell to the wayward Muslim population who despite declaration of piety could have nursed in the darkest corner of their heart a desire to commit the original sin. The Islamists argue that the reasons for economic backwardness, political repression and societal dysfunction were caused by Western, particularly American assistance given to the repressive regimes in the Muslim world. The situation in Bangladesh is no exception. Under the embrella of “Organization for welfare of the reptariate soldiers from Afghanistan and Palestine”, militancy and anti-Semitic notions are planted in the minds of people. It was clearly proved that several terror patron nations, including Iran, is continuing to finance such activities. Later, a large number of people belonging to Organization for welfare of the reptariate soldiers from Afghanistan and Palestine, entered Harkat-Ul-Mujahedin Bangladesh, Harkatul Jihad [Huji] and other ferrocious Islamist militancy outfits. There are also evidences that a number of Islamist political parties in Bangladesh, as well as some ‘secularist’ forces have openly or secretly joined hands with such extremist Islamist groups either with ulterior political motive or for expanding their vote banks.
Democracy and Islam:
An inconclusive debate remains about the incompatibility of democracy with monotheistic religions. Robert Dahl in his classic book ‘Polyarchy’ had set eight essential requirements for democracy: - right to form and join organizations; freedom of expression; right to vote; eligibility for public office; right of political leaders to compete for support for vote; and institutions for making government policies dependant on vote and other expressions of preference. Other political scientists have added that democracy must also have a constitution that by itself is democratic in that it respects fundamental liberties and offers protection to minorities. Additionally democratically elected governments must rule within the confines of their constitutions, be bound by law and be accountable. From historical observations it has been found that religions place inherent obstacles in the way of democracy. Philosopher John Rawls found it particularly difficult in a pluralistic society in which citizens hold a variety of socially embedded, reasonable yet deeply opposed comprehensive doctrines to arrive at an overlapping consensus.
In the case of Islam some western scholars have found that because of its Prophet’s fusion of military and spiritual authority and because Quranic laws are deemed to be final the space for democratic debate for the formation of secular laws does not exist in Muslim societies. Some other scholars however have found that appropriation of political Islam by Islamic fundamentalists is untenable and millions of Muslims living outside the Arab world live in intermittent democracies and they may not become victims of so-called Islamic Free Election Trap in which fundamentalists use democratic means to get to power only to abolish democratic practices through legislation.
Democracy is a dynamic process and “a state’s raison d’etre does not lie in the protection of equal individual rights but in the guarantee of an inclusive process of opinion and will formation in which free and equal citizens reach an under standing on which goals and norms lie in the equal interest of all”.
Clearly then an ethical question would arise as perceived by Italian political scientist Luigi Bonante while discussing the difference between the individual and the state. He argues that while the state has sufficient tools to defend its rights and reject its duties; for the individual as recipient it is much harder to elude his duties than to achieve his freedom.
This kind of asymmetry of power during the BNP-Jamaat [2001-2006] rule in Bangladesh provides strong argument for the protection of human rights. The Orwellian tyranny of the majority was further compounded by increasing activism of Islamists who wish to recreate a truly Islamic society not simply by imposing the Sharia but by establishing an Islamic state where religious edicts will be integrated into all aspects of society.
Jihad and Islamist militancy is gaining strength every day inside Madrassa in both Muslim and non-Muslim nations. Most of the Western nations, although are by now aware of the fact that Madrassas are the potential breeding grounds of Jihadists, there is no initiative yet to combat such notorious growth of millions of terrorists from such religious schools.
Western nations should also take urgent measures in giving strong signals to the developing countries in particular and the Muslim world in general to immediately adopt necessary measures in stopping hate speech, anti-Semitism and anti-West propaganda in the countries. This is so urgently required and the people in the West should not sit tight in taking such intiatives.