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Asia

Why madrassas and the West need to interact with each other

In a DW interview, Jamal Malik, an Islamic scholar at Erfurt University, explains why madrassa reforms cannot be imposed from outside. Instead, he is trying to bring madrassa pupils and German students closer together.

Pakistan's Islamic seminaries are often portrayed in the Western media as breeding centers for religious extremism. It is estimated that currently more than 20,000 registered madrassas are functional in the South Asian country - the number of unregulated seminaries could be much higher. Most of these religious schools belong to the Deobandi sect of Islam, which according to some experts promote intolerance and extremism.

Former Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf attempted to reform the madrassas during his tenure from 1999 to 2008. His initiatives were severely resisted by the country's Islamic parties and Muslim clerics. A number of national and international rights groups also initiated several projects to bring the Islamic seminaries into the mainstream, but most of them failed to achieve their targets due to a lack of government support and resistance from the madrassas' administrators.

Prof. Jamal Malik (Privat)

Jamal Malik: 'We have tried to acquaint the madrassa students with new methods of learning'

In July, Germany's Erfurt University invited a group of Pakistani madrassa students to a workshop, aiming to debunk "myths" about Islam. 12 participants from four prominent Pakistani mardrassas took part in the conference entitled "Religious Pluralism and Religious Plurality: Towards an ethics of peace."

The conference organizers believed a greater exposure for these Islamic pupils to the Western culture would help them understand and appreciate secular and democratic values.

DW speaks to Jamal Malik, head of the project and the chair of Religious Studies at the University of Erfurt, about the aims of the exercise and the challenges the organizers are facing in "modernizing" the Islamic seminaries. Malik was recently in Pakistan to evaluate the success of the project.

DW: When you embarked on the project, what exactly were you aiming at?

Jamal Malik: The aim of the project is multifaceted. First of all, we wanted to bring the students of different Islamic schools of thought to one platform. We know that there have been various conflicts among these sects – the Deobandis, the Barelvis, and the Shiites. We wanted to negotiate about how they could deal with their disagreements. I believe the management of disagreements is extremely important. This part, obviously, is aimed for the Pakistani public, who do not have a clear idea about the madrassas, or there is a negative perception about them in the country.

When we look at the European context, the Islamic seminaries, just like in the Pakistani media, are not looked at positively. We want to promote a meaningful cultural encounter between the madrassa pupils and the Erfurt University students. We had collaborated with mainstream Pakistani universities in the past, but engaging with madrassas was something new and challenging. So far, it is a singular attempt to bring these students who don't have any exposure to the West, and usually the doors of Western educational institutions are close to these pupils.

We want to make these madrassa students feel that the Western institutions recognize them, do not ostracize them, and that they are willing to learn from them also.

Are you saying that there is no truth attached to the "negative" reports about the activities of the madrassas?

No, I won't say that. Madrassas have been linked with a number of terrorist attacks. But we must also admit that in many cases the attacks have been perpetrated by those belonging to mainstream universities and other institutions also. I am not saying that the madrassa students and their teachers are naïve and innocent. But we should not generalize the issue. Many madrassas are also doing a pretty decent job in terms of providing education to their students.

Do you think that only Western exposure to these students can change the complex dynamics of integration between madrassas and a modern milieu? Also, after attending your workshops, are the seminaries you're working with also changing their way of teaching and the curriculum?

Everybody knows that the curriculum of the madrassas is not up to the modern standards. But I also have this impression that many of their administrators are willing to reform it. But it is very difficult to impose some ideas from the outside. Through our workshops, we have tried to acquaint them with new methods and approaches to learning. After that we observe what these people can do with the newly-acquired knowledge.

I recently went to Pakistan to evaluate that. We also offered workshops in their madrassas. I was very much interested in seeing how the madrassa students had implemented the knowledge in a specific cultural setting. I was very happy to see that for the first time the major Islamic seminaries held workshops where both male and female students participated together. The students who had come to Germany were trying to use new methods of learning, albeit in a modest way. So it is not about imposing things on them, as the government, at times, tries to do by changing the curriculum altogether. Of course, there will be resistance to such a move. We want to make them feel that they might be able to change things themselves, and that the new approaches also exist in the Islamic system and history.

Madrassa Pakistan (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamic seminaries are often portrayed in the Western media as breeding centers for religious extremism

It seems that your project presumes that the madrassa students need to expose themselves to Western norms and ways of education to improve their standards, which some would say puts them on an inferior level. Is there a similar attempt to send the German students to Pakistani madrassas to learn from their ways of teaching?

I agree that our aim is to improve a number of things about the madrassa education. But we are also willing to send our students to madrassas in Pakistan. It might take a while, but we are working on it.

How did the German students feel after interacting with the madrassa pupils? Did their opinion change about the Islamic seminaries in general?

In the beginning, our students were a little intimidated, but eventually they got to know the madrassa students and vice versa. Now, we see that these two groups interact through the Internet, and they are trying to understand each other. My students have told me that they really enjoyed the exercise. There is a great deal of interest among our students to register for the next workshops, which are to be held in February 2017.

Dr. Jamal Malik is a Pakistan-born German professor of Islamic Studies and the chair of Religious Studies-Islamic Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.