- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2009

KOLKATA, India | After Sept. 11, 2001, many outside the Muslim world have identified South Asias Islamic madrassas as breeding grounds for aspiring terrorists.

But in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, many government-sponsored madrassas have become so successful that they attract large numbers of non-Muslim students. In some institutions, non-Muslims outnumber Muslims.

The Brookings Doha Center, located in Qatar and sponsored by the Brookings Institution of Washington, cites West Bengal madrassas as models for modern education and has suggested that Pakistan emulate them.

“Madrassas have a noble history of use in furthering the cause of science and learning in medieval Islam, but that tradition has been largely forgotten in Pakistan because of a relatively uneducated theological establishment taking over the administration of most madrassas,” said a recent Brookings study, “Pakistan’s Madrassas: The Need for Internal Reform and the Role of International Assistance.”

The report notes that in West Bengal, “a survey of Islamic schools in January 2009 found that because of the higher quality of education at madrassas, even non-Muslims were actively enrolling in them.”

The study says non-Muslims, including Hindus, Christians and animist tribals, send their children to Bengali madrassas in the same way that some Pakistani Muslim families send their children to Christian schools “because of the high quality of teaching and discipline” there.

Seventeen percent of the pupils studying in madrassas across West Bengal are non-Muslims, according to Abdus Sattar, West Bengal’s minority development and madrassa education minister.

Unlike traditional madrassas, Bengal’s state-run versions follow a mainstream school curriculum. Their students are being groomed to become engineers, doctors, scientists and other modern professionals.

West Bengal state’s ruling Communist Party government is happy to receive accolades from abroad, which it says it merits because it has ensured quality and progressiveness in madrassa syllabuses.

“Our good work in Bengal’s madrassas is being recognized today. It’s heartening to note that the study advises Pakistan to emulate the Bengal model,” Mr. Sattar said.

“Arabic and other Islamic studies form only a small part of the curriculum in our madrassas,” he said. “We are teaching our students all other general subjects that their counterparts are studying in regular schools. Competing on a par with them, our students too are joining the stream of today’s successful professionals.

“Non-Muslims who are aware of our modernized infrastructure find no difference between regular schools and our madrassas, which could be the key reason behind the presence of so many non-Muslim pupils,” he said.

Mr. Sattar added that the government-sponsored madrassas in Bengal were still undergoing further modernization and that the number of their non-Muslim pupils is increasing.

There are 576 government-sponsored madrassas in the state, including 474 “high madrassas” that have modern school syllabuses and 102 “senior madrassas” that focus on Islamic theology.

Sohrab Hossain, president of the West Bengal Board of Madrassa Education, which controls the schools, said they should not be considered minority institutions anymore.

“Eleven percent of our madrassa teachers are non-Muslims, and our madrassas are contributing to the mainstream education system in Bengal,” Mr. Hossain said. “Can you imagine that at a time when the country in most parts is polarized on communal lines, 22 Hindu students are studying in one of our [theology-based] senior madrassas?”

Located mostly in rural West Bengal, the schools charge no fees, which make them attractive to students from poor and middle-class families alike.

“Until the recent past in Hindu majority India, madrassas carried a sort of stigma which kept non-Muslim students away from these originally Islamic institutions,” said Anwar Hossain, headmaster of Chatuspalli High Madrassa. “But the mind-set of people is changing. Desperate for good and affordable education of their children, many non-Muslims are no more hesitant to send their children to these modernized madrassas.”

He said his school, at Orgram village, has about 1,000 students, of whom 64 percent are non-Muslim.

Suprabhat Dey, one of four Hindus among 12 teachers at the madrassa, said that when he got the news of his posting two years ago, he felt “somewhat hesitant or awkward because of madrassas’ so-called fundamentalist image.”

“But after I joined this madrassa, I discovered that my impression about this place had been completely wrong,” he said. “Just like all regular schools, I find it a clean and secular institution.”

Nasim Akhtar Mandal, who attended a West Bengal madrassa and now works for an American information technology firm in Hyderabad, said that the example of many Muslim students who attended the schools and went on to enjoy successful modern careers was spurring non-Muslim families to send their children there.

“Now non-Muslims know that it is not difficult for a madrassa student to become a doctor, engineer or scientist in the future,” Mr. Mandal said.

Some Hindu students say their madrassa education has helped them better understand Islam and has brought them closer to Muslims, helping at least partially to bridge the historical divide between the two communities.

“In the society, we often hear negative comments about Islam and Muslims,” said Sudip Khan, a Hindu student at Chandrakona Islamia High Madrassa in the West Bengal district Midnapur. “Before I came to study in a madrassa, I was told that Islam was a militant religion and Muslims were biased against other religions. But by studying at this madrassa now I have found that people have many incorrect beliefs about this religion.”

“My idea about Islam has changed completely since I became a student of this madrassa,” agreed Suparna Chakrabarty, another Chandrakona Islamia High Madrassa student.

“Now I know that Islam teaches its followers to always be respectful of all other religions, and I believe that throughout my life, despite remaining a Hindu, I shall have a special bonding with Islam and Muslims,” she said.

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