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Counter-terrorism in Bangladesh: Religious studies should have minimal space in Bangladeshi educational institutions

Sunday 15 January 2017, by siawi3


January 6, 2017, 5:59 pm IST

Rudroneel Ghosh

Recent developments in Bangladesh cry out for commentary. First, a militant named Nurul Islam Marzan – believed to have been the operational commander of the July 1 Dhaka café attack last year – was killed in a shootout with the police in the Bangladeshi capital today. It will be recalled that after the café attack the Bangladeshi government had launched a substantial crackdown against extremists in that country. Marzan’s killing is in keeping with that security effort. In fact, so far Bangladeshi security forces have eliminated around 40 militants linked to the café attack, including the mastermind Tamim Chowdhury. Most of these terrorists were part of a neo-Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh module that was inspired by the Islamic State terror group.

It’s interesting to note Marzan’s educational background. Marzan passed Dakhil (equivalent to SSC) from Darul Ulum Markazia Madrasa in 2010 and Alim (equivalent to HSC) from Arifpur Fazil Madrasa in Pabna in 2012. However, he was actually a student of Darul Hadis Quomi Madrasa at Banshbazar in Pabna town. The reason this information is pertinent is because the former two madrasas are government-recognised aliyah madrasas. While the latter is an unrecognised quomi madrasa. Aliyah madrasas offer secular subjects such as maths and science in addition to religious teaching, while quomi madrasas wholly impart religious pedagogy.

Together aliyah and quomi madrasas account for 10.3% of primary and 21.2% of secondary enrolment in Bangladesh. And given the emphasis on religion in these madrasas, they have managed to create fertile grounds for Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh. The problem isn’t restricted to madrasas alone. I have written in these blogs before that even in general schools in Bangladesh the emphasis on religious studies is far too great for comfort. Students here are pressured to excel at religious studies and vehemently ridiculed for not being able to do so – the humiliation is far greater than underperforming in secular subjects.

Unless and until this changes and religious studies in schools are diluted in favour of secular subjects, Islamic radicalism will continue to be a problem in Bangladesh. The government should heavily crack down on quomi madrasas, get aliyah madrasas to expand the teaching of modern, secular subjects, and compel general public schools to treat religious studies as an elective subject. Given that recent terrorist attacks in Bangladesh – including the Dhaka café attack – have highlighted the involvement of students from both general and madrasa backgrounds, reforming the education system is something that the Bangladeshi government can’t afford to delay. In fact, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently called upon everyone to stay vigilant for signs of militant activities in educational institutions. But unless and until religious studies are diluted in these educational institutions, things won’t change. Religion is a private matter. It should have minimal space in Bangladesh’s educational institutions.