- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

AWANTIPORA, India — Islamic scholars and clerics in Indian Kashmir are learning English in an attempt to propagate Islam’s “true message” and remove misconceptions in the West about their faith.

The one-year intensive course is being taught at the new Islamic University of Science and Technology just south of Srinagar, summer capital of Indian Kashmir, where an Islamist separatist revolt has raged against New Delhi’s rule since 1989.

“English is a global language, and once we speak it, we’ll be able to easily convey Islam’s true message through this language to people of other faiths,” said student Irshad Ahmed who heads a seminary in Awantipora, where the university is situated.

The long-bearded students say Islam has been wrongly portrayed as a religion of violence since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

“We want to clear that perception. Islam is for peace and brotherhood, justice and friendship,” said another student, Tanveer Wani.

The course is one of a range being taught at the university, which was set up eight months ago and offers degrees in business administration, food technology, Islamic studies and Arabic language and literature in addition to English-language diplomas.

The university is run by a board that manages Islamic shrines in Kashmir and is open to students of all faiths.

In a classroom of the university overlooking the riverside town, the imams listened attentively as their teacher taught them the parts of the body.

The students, who speak Urdu and Kashmiri, have never learned any English and must start with basics.

“This is a hand,” teacher Nazia Majeed, who wears a head scarf, slowly enunciated.

The imams from all across Jammu and Kashmir, mainly Hindu India’s only Muslim-majority state, repeated the sentence.

The teacher then got them to drum their feet on the floor to learn the word “feet.”

“They’re very obedient and keen to learn,” said Mrs. Majeed, whose classroom is decorated with bright posters illustrating letters and vowels.

At first, the clerics, who have little interaction with women outside their families, were “very shy” with her but later became used to her presence and vocal in asking questions, she said.

“They pay me a lot of respect as a teacher.”

The one-year course, which began in August, has drawn 21 imams and Islamic scholars from across Kashmir. University officials said they have received calls from many imams and expect more to join the course next year.

The students spend eight hours a day, six days a week studying, and course organizers are confident they all will become fluent in English.

“They know the importance of English. They want to use it in the proper direction,” said Rafiq Zargar, head of the English language department. “Their teachings could go a long way in reducing tensions between Muslims and the West.”

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