Over the last few years some light has fallen on the education system, especially madrasas and other Islamic religion-based institutions, with questions being raised by governments, local and international news agencies, media groups, researchers, policy analysts and politicians. Why do people send their children to the Islamic educational institutions? Many of our colleagues and political friends believe that the poor and rural families who cannot afford to provide food and lodging to their children as well as general education, view madrasahs and etimkhanas (orphanage) as the best alternative. At these institutions their children can receive education either for free or at a lower cost, with both food and lodging. Poverty, ignorance, and most importantly, the unavailability of general schools (both primary and secondary) in the local areas work as the main reasons for enrolment of hundreds of thousands of children at various Islamic educational institutions (which are either public or privately-controlled). Interestingly, madrasa and etimkhana students develop a culture of asking for donations and help from the local people and various charity organisations- this may be due to the atmosphere they are brought up in. On the other hand, the general school students do not have this mentality. When the state fails to address this issue and take up the responsibility to give affordable alternative educational opportunities to all these millions of children, then countless parents become forced to send their children to these types of Islamic educational institution.
For example, Morium (28), who has been helping us at our home for last five years, one day told me about the background of sending his son to an Etimkhana or orphanage. She said:
"Uncle, I didn't want to send my son to the Etimkhana. When I got divorced, I had a son aged only four and I stayed with my poor parents for a year. Then I decided to find a job. One of my relatives living in Dhaka wanted to take me with her and advised me to give my son to an EtimKhana (Hefzia, where they teach primarily Quran along with some basic Bangla education). She said: You don't need to pay any money. They will take care of your child and provide him with shelter, food, clothes and others. He will be secure there and you don't need to be worried about his future."
This example makes clear why hundreds of thousands of children coming from poor families join religious schools. This situation has arisen out of economic underdevelopment, the lack of secular education, poverty and unemployment. A significant percentage of the population living below the poverty level is primarily becoming the prey to various influential actors even active in many remote rural areas.
How is our education divided? Personal observations have shown that urban children receiving formal education (English medium, English version and Bangla medium schools) find it difficult to interact with rural children from local Bangla schools and madrasas. In most cases their subject matter of discussion (in terms of movies, books, music, cultural orientation, ideology and even the food habit and dress) do not match each other. Just by looking at a simple playing field in the capital of Dhaka, you can see that madrasa students play at one corner of the ground, while students from other schools play in another corner. Besides, the curriculum and the learning techniques at different types of educational institutions clearly show the various differences among different streams of education in terms of quality, curriculum, financing and facilities, theological and ideological positions, etc. Cultural, social and even economic differences are also observed among the students of Bangla, Arabic and English medium schools. Both psychological and ideological distances also exist among the students of different educational streams.
Presently, four different types of Islamic educational institutions are found in our country. They include Aliya (Dakhil, Alim, Fajil and Kamil), Qawmi or Khariji, Forkania and Hafezia. Aliya madrasas are controlled by the madrasa board. Kawmi madrasas are not yet under the administration of the madrasa education board. Both of these educational institutions are more organised than the Forkania or Hefzia/Hafezia educational institutions. Forkania and Hafezia educational institutions are very loosely and privately managed and are mostly based in mosques and orphanages. They mostly offer Quranic education only. It is important to note that the number of students in Kawmi madrasas is much higher than in the Aliya madrasas.
How can we reduce the gaps? To reduce the social, cultural, psychological and ideological differences among the students of all these Islamic education systems and between the Bangla and Madrasa education systems, a clear understanding of these education systems including the curriculum, objectives, functions, teaching methodologies and social trajectories is essential. Exploring the scope and opportunities for mainstreaming madrasa education and integrating it in the national education system and managing different educational streams through developing different models are also essential.
There is no doubt that the majority of Bangladesh's people and its civil society (including a majority of religious leaders) still subscribe to strong secular and inclusive cultural values. Recognition of plural identities is needed to maintain a society which includes a mosaic of people of different creeds, ethnic communities, religions and political persuasions and enable them to live in harmony with tolerance.
What does other study say? A very recent study conducted in Bangladesh by the Asia Research Centre (ARC) at the London School of Economics & Political Science reveals:
"At the macro level, the socio-political elites of the society have used Islamism for political purposes to hold state power and divert from problems of mass poverty and unemployment. In this process, external actors, using petro-dollars from Middle East countries, have imposed their version of Islamism through the work of charities to strengthen a madrasa culture and patronise mosques................ At the intermediate level, a decline in scholarship in the Islamic academic sector and inability of mainstream religious civil society, particularly mosque-based educated mullahs, to reveal the true version of Islam to the society, has led to confusion among some Muslims. At the micro level, increased migration of unskilled and semi-skilled workers to the Middle East has favoured efforts to impose an 'authentic' Middle Eastern version of Islam on the Hanafi society, as migrants return home to predominantly poor and illiterate communities in Bangladesh".
Where do the gaps lie? Increasing social, cultural and academic interactions among students and teachers of different educational streams on various occasions (such as cultural programmes, sports, debates and others) is very essential to reduce the gap. A common platform should be developed to bring teachers of all streams under a system of common training through engaging them in dialogues so that they can share their values and experience, which can be later incorporated in the framework of the national education policy. Increasing scholarships for advanced thinking; arranging visits to other developed Muslim countries like Malaysia and Turkey and raising awareness amongst themselves for changing the various negative attitudes towards each other are also important. Modernisation of madrasa education should be an integral part of the national education policy, and a part of the modernisation of the education sector as a whole. Apart from upgrading the curriculum and pedagogy, infrastructural development including classrooms and co-curriculum activities should be initiated without undermining the faiths, beliefs and practices of madrasa students and teachers, to give them a sense of belonging as well as to respect their needs.
What should we do? Most importantly, the government should consider that education is a right for our children and they should get all the necessary opportunities so that other groups cannot exploit them in the name of Islam. The government needs to set up a system where all these poor and orphan children coming from rural and peri-urban backgrounds, can have a secure educational environment. Introducing at least 68 pilot/ model primary schools in 68 districts of Bangladesh can be a possible alternative, where children can get education (need-based) in line with the national education policy with all the required facilities available like other madrasas and etimkhanas (free hostel, food, clothes, books, and others). These schools should keep provision for necessary religious education too. If such model primary schools prove a success, more of this type of schools can be set up in each upazila and gradually in every union so that a majority of the poverty-stricken youth population can get free education with other necessary supports and be free from the networks of various groups. Overall, the ultimate goal should be to develop an all-inclusive education system which will create a sense of social cohesion among the youths of the country.
Dr. Saifur Rashid is a professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Dhaka. email@example.com