Beware Islam in Bangladesh! In the latest Islamophobic scare story, the western media reported that Shaikh Osama Bin Laden has been financing Muslims in Bangladesh. It was widely reported (for example, by the Press Association on January 29) that an unnamed Bangladeshi police officer had said there were 421 madrassahs in Bangladesh, and that these had been offered funds by the Arab mujahid, Shaikh Osama Bin Laden, who has become the most publicised enemy of US-Zionist terrorists.
But like every other aspect of the west’s propaganda machine, the picture painted by the media is wildly untrue. Even the madrassahs, which either run or partially funded by Bangladesh’s government, far exceed that number. The exact number is not known but, given the number of Huffaz and Qaris, and the population of the Muslim country, it could easily exceed 50,000. Like madrassahs, the precise number of mosques in Bangladesh is also unknown. Estimates vary from one to 1.5 million. Many mosques in the rural areas offer Islamic classes to children. If these were included in the count, then the number of madrassahs in Bangladesh would easily reach 70,000 to 80,000. There are at least 572 madrassahs in Sylhet alone!
During the period 1972-1974, Mujibur Rahman, the country’s first president and later prime minister, conceived the idea of reducing the number of madrassahs by bringing them under direct government control in the manner of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s oldest university, which the secular Egyptian government nationalised by force. But like the colonial British rulers before him, Mujib’s venture failed and he retreated taking refuge behind the slogan, ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the madrassahs.
Originally non-governmental madrassahs came into being in Bangladesh after the British East India Company (established in 1599) conquered Muslim Bengal in 1757 and thus paved the way for the creation of a future British Empire. The British abolished the time-honoured, well-established and well-funded unitary Islamic education system in the early nineteenth century, and tried to impose their pagan Greco-Roman system (inaccurately called Judeo-Christian) to de- Islamise Muslim Bengal - the gate of fortune and future of the British Empire. Sulking, the angry Muslims, with the help of the middle class - yesterday’s rulers turned into menial servants overnight! - boycotted the British-imposed secular education institutions, as well as the English language: ‘The language of the Firringis; the unclean, white-skinned polytheists,’ as it was called. Muslims were later to be blamed for their ‘backwardness’ and suffered indignity and deprivation because of their boycott. Their response was to start setting up their own Islamic educational institutions up and down the country, much to the British authorities’ consternation. The British authorities’ response was to further crackdown on Islam, particularly by confiscating - and, where possible, abolishing - the Waqf properties. (Waqfs are Islamic religious endowments, mostly lands and real estate, whose proceeds were used to support mosques, madrassahs and other Islamic institutions).
In many instances such confiscated lands were transferred to the Jesuits or other Christian missionaries who were part and parcel of British colonialism and a tool to de-Islamise Muslim societies. They erected churches in almost every colonised Muslim town and locality, even if there were few Christians there. Yet the number of madrassahs continued to increase. The British then tried taking madrassahs under their direct control, but in vain. Depriving them of any grant or fund the British authorities hoped the madrassahs would disappear. Instead they flourished as Muslims tried to protect their children from British ‘learning’, and they were instrumental in the Muslims’ uprising against British rule in 1857, which British historians, for understandable reasons, have tried to minimise as a ‘Sepoy Mutiny.’ The uprising originated in Muslim Bengal, initiated by Muslim soldiers (sepoys) of the Bengal Regiment. Today, madrassahs represent the bedrock of education in Bangladesh. Teachers in secular, government-run schools would not hesitate going on an indefinite strike if they do not receive their salaries. Such a scenario the maulvis, maulanas, qaris and hafaz could not even imagine, much less enact. Hungry they might be (and in many cases they are) yet they will attend the madrassahs and teach their students.
It is also not true, as alleged by the NGOs stationed in Bangladesh, that only the children of poor Muslim families attend madrassahs. The current speaker of the Bangladesh parliament, Humayun Rashid Choudhury, comes from a well-to-do and respectable Muslim family and has madrassah education, like many others of similar background. Among the educated elite in Bangladesh, there are many madrassah graduates who hold important positions in the government and in civil administration.
In Muslim Bangladesh, girl students are enrolled in madrassahs where the curriculum is broad and varied and competes with secular institutions. The girls complete the entire course of study in the madrassahs. The number of madrassahs in Bangladesh exceeded 40,000 even before the mujahid, Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, was born. The madrassahs did not need petro- dollars to grow. Islam flourished in Muslim Bengal before the black gold was discovered in the Arabian Desert. Numerous madrassahs existed there even before America was discovered and colonised by the poverty-stricken European boat people and economic migrants! The US government’s idiosyncratic outbursts that Osama has been funding the madrassahs in Bangladesh is not only untrue, unjust, unethical, unbecoming and absurd but also extremely insulting to Muslim Bengalis. Naturally, the Muslims in Bangladesh are forced to ask: What right does the US have to launch such an unwarranted assault on their integrity? The Muslims in Bengal and elsewhere would have no problem with this situation, or with any situation, if they would heed all the Qur’anic injunctions, for example the following: ‘O ye who believe! Take not into your intimacy those outside your ranks: They will not fail to corrupt you. They only desire for you to suffer: rank hatred has already appeared from their mouths: What their hearts conceal is far worse. We have made plain to you the signs if you have wisdom and rationality.’ (Aal-e Imran :118).
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999