Colours of confusion

Balbir K Punj, March 2002


What is more important - form or content; appearance or purport? And what will you say about those who confuse demeanour with character? Is it not a fact that most of the time in one's life, the reality inside vibes poorly with the impressions gathered outside?

The confusion between myth and reality has been used since time immemorial to confound the naive. This ruse is employed by the state, individuals, different creeds and ideological groups to achieve their end. We see this phenomenon at work in most situations in life, but more so in politics, and particularly during the elections. Besides the common man, truth becomes the next casualty in such an exercise.

Communities and religious groups are exhorted to vote en-bloc against or for a political party. All this is done in the name of "secularism." Fundamentalists of various hues gang up together to "save pluralist society." One-man-briefcase parties lead battles to uphold democracy and Constitution. Parties claiming to speak for the Dalits allot their party tickets against cash payments to those very people they are supposed to be fighting against. Gangsters (masquerading as politicians), seek mandate to restore law and order and frame even fresh laws to put down lawlessness. Such contradictions are galore in the tapestry of our democracy.

One such recent instance was the shrill cry raised by the entire "secular" cabal to save and help the madarsas. Those who joined the chorus were in the secular pack, ranging from Italian-born Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Oxford educated former West Bengal Chief Minster Jyoti Basu and former wrestler from rustic plains of Uttar Pradesh Mulayam Singh Yadav. Their plea: Promote madarsas to endorse secular values! There were others who advised we should modernise madarsa curriculum with technological education to aid Muslims in joining the national mainstream.

The argument of the "secular pack" goes thus. Most Muslims cannot afford to pursue any kind of education other than madarsa curriculum. By providing the madarsas with funds, the state can aid them in the process of modernisation. Once that happens, young Muslim minds will be weaned away from obscurity and obscurantism, and the problem of fundamentalism will be solved.

This is how the form is sought to be confused with content. In this argument, madarsas pass as centres of education, which they are not. They definitely teach, but do not educate, for their students do not evolve into human beings abreast with the contemporary world. Students do learn (only religious scriptures) but remain ignorant about physical sciences, social sciences and their (pre-Islamic) heritage.

In such seminaries, students do not read, they generally learn by rote. This system of "education" does not sharpen their analytical faculties but keeps their minds closed. They indeed study but do not understand. They become literate (mostly in Arabic and Urdu) but remain ignorant of Hindi, English, or the regional language, which could have put them in touch with their fellow countrymen and the world at large. The Islamic theological instructions shape in them a "middle-east bound" worldview. They bind them to Mecca and Medina but severe their links with the land of their birth and its cultural continuity.

The Islamic military conquests in India and elsewhere in the medieval era were in themselves attempts to impose Arabic hegemony upon the world. After all, it was not Muslims that came from outside as plunderers in history who created Pakistan, but Indian Muslims, who were converts. But once converted, they found themselves uncomfortable in the land of their ancestors. They worked for its vivisection and got Pakistan. Of course, the Communists put at their disposal all the intellectual arguments they ever needed.

The madarsa "students" are initiated to a highly skewed worldview and distorted history but denied access to any alternative paradigm. Children who join such seminaries are destined to be inward looking, living in a "glorious" past. They are divorced from realities and seek to settle historical scores (real or imaginary) with those who they perceive as their civilisational enemies through the prism of their theology. And then proposals are moved to put more resources in their hands to modernise the madarsas.

There is something to laugh about the "modernisation" suggestion itself. We presume that by providing madarsas with technical education and computers, we can modernise them. We are actually providing them modern tools to extend their medieval mindset in the 21st century and adding a multiplier to their destructive potential. In fact, Osama bin Laden was one of the first to use geostationary global satellite telephony in 1998 to communicate with his network. An engineering degree from Britain proved no deterrent for him to subscribe to medievalism.

Jeffery Goldberg of The New York Times, who visited Haqqannia madarsa in NWFP of Pakistan in May 2000, termed it as a "jihad factory." Omar Sheikh (an accused in Daniel Pearl murder case) had attended London School of Economics. Mohammad Atta, who carried out the first attack on World Trade Centre on September 11, was trained as an architect in Hamburg. Several nuclear scientists from Pakistan were amongst die-hard Osama admirers.

Whether or not you teach mathematics and sciences in these institutions, it hardly makes any difference when their specific purpose is not to educate but to indoctrinate. So the mindset that emerges from them is the same, irrespective of adding some mathematics to the syllabus. That is because, as several analysts have pointed out (including Harvard researcher Jessica Stern in Foreign Affairs, a highly respected journal, in November-December 2000), central to the madarsa teaching is the invincibility of Islam, the justification of killing and terror as means of imposing any arbitrary action in the name of religion. They implant a sense of universal grievance against non-Islamic countries and nations that resurfaced with the decline in Islamic hegemony represented by Turkish Ottoman Empire and Mughal rule in India between 16 to mid-20th centuries, aided by the rise of Western powers.

Going by madarsa logic, the British, while leaving India, should have handed back power to the Muslims since they had wrested it from the Mughals. The reality though is that they took it from Marathas who had brought the last of the Mughal kings under their protection, Nawabs of Oudh and several others as a paramount authority in India had declined by 18th century. A heady mixture is created for a community already enraged by self-imposed isolation, ghetto type living, and nurturing a strong sense of grievance against anyone and everyone.

In such an environment, they are "reminded" of their historic destiny and religious duty to forcibly impose their own world-view on the entire humanity, including some Islamic countries. This forms an ideological substratum, the most explosive stuff to blow up the rest of the world. Against this backdrop, what can introduction of modern technology in madarsas achieve? It can surely help them change their appearance but not their mindset. This mindset is responsible for most of the global terrorist activities - from the attack on the World Trade Centre in the US on September 11 to the storming of Indian Parliament on December 13. The slain American journalist Daniel Pearl is the most recent victim of this mindset.