Changing the lens


In conversation with Saiful Haque, the man working to destigmatise madrasa students.

Madrasa students of Bangladesh – who are often seen through the same lens as terrorism or Jamat and Hefazat activism – have a story to tell that is different from the one commonly believed by civil society.

Saiful Haque currently works with nine madrasas. Through his organisation MOVE, he and seven others are working to change this perspective. MOVE teaches the students about advocacy, how institutions work, about the constitution, about their rights, their responsibility to state and vice versa.

Saiful shares his experiences in our interview.

Why did you choose to work on this?

This is a social issue and we have to address it. The mainstream community and the Dhaka-based elitist civil society tend to portray madrasa students negatively, claiming madras a breeding ground for extremists, without any firsthand experience with them.

Our civil society does not spend the time to understand them; they instead just make judgments.

How do you approach them?

We believe we must move from the elitist approach of trying to “reform” the system. Everyone wants reform; even those in that system want reform, but you can’t impose that.

If we can bypass some controversial issues and address the basics, there is hope that one day they themselves will ask to address the larger, more controversial or more complicated issues.

For example, discussing adolescent healthcare or family planning is taboo for them. But if you break it down, into a logical chain of questions and explanations, it’s a lot easier for them to relate to.

Traditional NGOs will talk directly about incorporating sex education or family planning, and of course this conversation is not welcome in the madrasas. But if you sit with them, and mould the question differently, they are much more accepting and will even express interest. But the ultimate result depends on how we approach these issues with them.

We must move away from the elitist view; we must get rid of the attitude that we should decide what they do.

What were some of the challenges in addressing them?

They have an objection to the word “reform” because it somewhat contradicts the status of certainty/ permanence that Quran has in their lives. However, if we bring in the scientific aspect, it helps.

When I brought in the comparison between science and Islam, drew parallels and then told them many believe the faith-based approach is putting Islam on the back foot, the madrasa leaders were receptive. They were concerned about changing that.

They were a bit reserved about the constitution being taught as well.

We explained that Quran is an important document in every Muslim’s life, and similarly, the Constitution is the binding principle by which a state is run. The madrasa education system has no provision to learn about the constitution, civil law, electoral law – and these are needed.

What are some of the positive observations you’ve made?

They are excellent learners. We’re talking about students who memorise the Quran – their learning and application capabilities are excellent.

What are some of the misconceptions our civil society has about them?

There are many. For example, many NGOs promote the idea that madrasas don’t allow newspapers because they don’t want their children to learn about the politics. This is not true. Their argument for not having newspapers is the Islamic restriction on viewing men and women. Men aren’t allowed to see pictures of women, and vice versa, so they cannot officially allow newspapers which have pictures of celebrities.

What about the politics of madrasa students?

They mostly want to stay away from it. Yes, there’s a group that is Jamaat-inclined, but 95% aren’t bothered because they have their own issues to deal with.

Madrasas often tell us they see constant fighting between student groups at the private and public universities. They ask: “But have you heard of our students killing each other? Maybe, a small pocket of our students are involved or influenced by militancy, but that’s everywhere. Why call us extremists? That’s you guys.”

And we had nothing to say – because it’s true. This again shows why we can’t make judgments about them, and call for reforms or initiatives without getting to know them.

What role does civil society have to play?

Civil society has to open up to the concept that they are not extremists. If you assume first they are extremists and/or hardcore conservatives, then you can’t work with them. You have to create the space for them.

Qwami madrasas seem very eager to be incorporated into the mainstream system, and how we do that is on us.

But our system, through social exclusion and stigmatisation, is leading them to the wrong end.

Instead of pressurising them to change their mindset, we should work towards changing our perspective – our lens for viewing them.


Web Links

1. Dhaka Tribune

2. Dhaka Tribune – e-magazine