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An educated reform programme
Robert Karniol
Mon, Mar 31, 2008
The Straits Times
DHAKA - TERRORIST acts and the fight to combat them may attract the headlines, but a battle of greater subtlety has begun in Bangladesh.

Dhaka aims to move beyond direct action. To defuse the influence of Islamic extremism, it has launched a campaign to address a range of root causes.

'The programme had its genesis in the events of 2004 and 2005, the bombings and the violence, which caused people to question to what degree Islamic radicalism had taken hold in Bangladesh. And, if so, how to engage these elements,' said a Dhaka- based analyst.

Bangladesh's de-radicalisation programme has become increasingly pervasive, though its details remain little known.

'The aims are to educate people, employ them and generate international support to expand the curriculum of our madrasah (Islamic school) system,' a senior Bangladeshi source explained. He, and others with direct involvement, outlined the programme for the first time in a series of interviews with The Straits Times.

Bangladesh has a population exceeding 150 million, of whom some 90 per cent are Muslim. Together with Indonesia, it is often seen as a moderate Islamic state.

Religious extremism, some with a jihadist overlay, is nevertheless apparent in the country. This is expressed politically through the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, an Islamist party included in the last coalition government. It has been expressed more violently through two groups: Jama'at- ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad Al-Islam Bangladesh (HUJI-B).

The two have orchestrated a string of attacks in recent years, most notably a coordinated series of bombings on Aug 17, 2005, ascribed to the JMB. This involved 434 improvised explosive devices detonated simultaneously in 63 of Bangladesh's 64 districts, with a further 51 failing to explode.

The concurrent blasts inflicted relatively few casualties, their aim clearly political.

The country's security forces were revamped after the attacks. The Counter-Terrorism Wing within the Directorate-General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) was expanded to become the Counter- Terrorism Intelligence Bureau (CTIB), and the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion Force saw its law-and-order mandate enlarged to include counter-terrorism.

The JMB and HUJI-B were soon dismantled as their leaders were apprehended, along with numerous cadres. But their remnant elements may yet re-form and new groups could emerge.

The DGFI began a formal study of the root causes of Islamic radicalism in November 2004, even before the CTIB was set up in 2006. This led to the de-radicalisation programme's launch in July 2005, a month before the JMB's coordinated bombings.

The study, portions of which were made available to The Straits Times, provided Dhaka with a vital framework.

Looking at the religious education system, it notes that there are 23,337 alia madrasahs with some 2.5 million students and about 16,000 quami madrasahs with some 4.3 million students.

The former are government-controlled and provide practical education beyond the religious curriculum, while the latter are not officially monitored and focus exclusively on subjects relating to Islam.

The study further notes that Bangladesh has 250,000 mosques, which are at 'the centre of all religious and, in many cases, social activities in our rural culture'. This highlights the programme's massive ambition.

Other DGFI data was equally revealing. This included analysis of the JMB. Its peak membership was nearly 11,000 - 61 per cent activists, one-quarter of whom had received some sort of training, and 39 per cent sympathisers. The core element included a leadership council of seven, supported by 40 zone commanders and 169 full-time activists.

The background of JMB members is particularly noteworthy. Some 40 per cent were educated in the madrasah system and 53 per cent in the general school system, with the remaining 7 per cent illiterate. The madrasah-based tally is: 12 per cent from the hafezee system of concentrated Quranic study, 15 per cent from independent quami schools and 73 per cent from state-controlled alia schools.

The de-radicalisation programme had two objectives: One, the promotion of moderate Islam by influencing the imams, who head the mosques and madrasahs, while reforming and expanding the school curriculum; and two, creating greater economic opportunities to defuse social disaffection and provide jobs for madrasah graduates. These aims have been embraced by the government and global donors alike.

'We wanted to create an environment where local people would demand an Islamic research centre. We didn't want to impose this on them,' a source noted of the first objective.

The first of these research centres was established as a pilot project in Cox's Bazar in July 2005. This grew out of a workshop on 'Islam: Religion of Peace, Tolerance and Humanity', which drew teachers from 201 of the local religious schools.

The district has 408 madrasahs, with theologists and religious leaders exerting strong influence. The central authorities viewed the madrasah education system there as generally backward and deviating from the mainstream.

The research centre organises seminars and workshops, with open debate encouraged as participants seek theological justification for the perspectives offered.

The seminars centre on tolerance and pluralism in Islam, the role of theologians in countering terrorism as well as Islam and modernity. Workshop themes include Islam against terrorism as well as Islamic perspectives on education, science, modernity and gender equality.

The approach deemed successful, a second research centre was launched in Sylhet last April and a third in Bagra this February.

Further expansion is planned, together with greater involvement by moderately minded Islamic scholars. The programme will also begin providing scholarships to madrasah students, imams and others.

Other aims include help in reforming and expanding the curriculum of 'extremist' madrasahs, expanding the availability of libraries and audio visual systems as well as the introduction of motivational programmes for low-income youth.

The process is supported by the publication of books and placement of newspaper articles, sponsorship of websites and discussion in the electronic media. It is supplemented by a new legislative framework, including a revised anti-money-laundering law already in place and a counter-terrorism law under consideration by Bangladesh's caretaker government.

The programme's second aim, focused on economic opportunity, is being pursued through a newly launched process. This month saw the opening in Cox's Bazar of the first two vocational training centres, where courses include language training to open up job options in the Middle East.

'We're trying to engage in some preventative action here,' an official said.

This approach is generating international interest beyond the donor community. 'The United Kingdom, United States and Australia have picked up elements of our (de-radicalisation) model. Canada is interested, too,' a senior Bangladeshi source noted.

rkarniol@gmail.com


Fact sheet

  • Ninety per cent of Bangladesh's 150 million people are Muslim.

  • It has 250,000 mosques - the centre of religious and often social activities in its rural culture.

  • It has 23,337 government-controlled madrasahs, providing some practical education beyond the religious curriculum. There are some 2.5 million students studying in them.

  • It has 16,000 independent madrasahs devoted to subjects relating to Islam. These have some 4.3 million students.
     

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