The Prime Minister's lumping of madrasahs within a three part strategy to tackle extremism at the Tory party conference on Wednesday problematises an inherent and crucial feature of the British Muslim landscape, and, if anything, stigmatises the thousands of children that attend these institutes each day.
While comments about British Muslims facing abuse and how that defies equality and opportunity are welcome, his assertions about madrasahs are out of place. There is a global problem with radicalisation and terrorism, a phenomenon which affects the world's 1.6 billion Muslims more than anyone else. In this battle of hearts and minds, the mainstream Muslim community should be seen as partners instead of being viewed with suspicion with headline-grabbing sound bites that simply wreak more havoc.
It is this suspicion that perhaps instigated the Prime Minister to speak about madrasahs and provide fodder to the far right on the one hand and contribute to the "grievance culture" among radicals on the other. The fear is that hundreds of thousands of young Muslim children throughout the country going about their daily lives and doing what generations have done peacefully will now be viewed with suspicion.
What makes the matter worse is the absence of evidence to support the Prime Minister's views. Like all education systems, there is always room for improvement, and madrasahs are no exception with many constantly evolving for the better. This can be seen in the way they presently function and the way they were initially founded ad hoc in humble terrace homes in the 60s and 70s.
Yes, some madrasahs have poor management and a minority of teachers might break the law by employing corporal punishment, but surely that is a safeguarding issue for which local authorities have mechanisms in place as they do when children are abused in mainstream schools. The inference that madrasahs teach children not to mix with the wider community also does not hold water, after all the majority of children who attend usually do so after a normal day at mainstream mix-faith state schools.
In the hustle and bustle of modern life, people are often engrossed in materialism and often lose their sense of direction. It is in this setting that the madrasah functions as a spiritual oasis to help build the character of young children to be devout, tolerant, principled, upright and aware of the rights of their Creator and also fellow humans of all faiths and no faiths--values that are inherently Islamic and also British.
What makes the Prime Minister's comments all the more concerning is that it seems he has never visited a madrasah (or, to give them their proper name, a maktab or kuttab). Britain has put its colonial past far behind. In spite of the oppressiveness of the policies of the British Raj and the negative impact on the lives of those it touched, the Raj was also an interesting time in which British colonial administrators took a keen interest in understanding the communities they ruled, their religions and their institutes, even visiting and documenting madrasahs, shrines and other places of devotion.
Perhaps the Prime Minister could follow in the steps of people like Sir James Meston, Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, who visited a leading madrasah in north India in 1915. Impressed by what he saw, he delivered a speech in Urdu in which he mentioned his long time wish to undertake the visit and then made some insightful comments regarding the selflessness and purpose of madrasahs which equally apply in Britain today.
In his speech, Meston said that the people of his day are inclined to three "imperfect matters." The first being that people have no "consideration for the eternal comfort of the hereafter" and "keep trying day and night for the acquisition of worldly lucre and expend their intellect and wisdom, which our Great Creator hath bestowed on us for better objectives, in this very inferior work."
The second is that people "have a propensity towards external elegance and adornment, fame and show, and do not want to spare any part of their time for acquiring spiritual and inner blessings and advantages which are the true and real bounties."
He then moved on to radicalisation and extremism, which are issues that are of equal concern today. "People behave," he said, "fanatically under the cover of religion and incite mutual discord and rancour instead of instilling their minds through religious exhortation and education that in the sight of God of this universe all his slaves are equal and all should treat each other with humility and forgiveness..."
He then concluded, "You abstain completely from all these three unsound matters, and I am fully certain that thus you are imparting such education and training to your students which would be the cause of their comfort and happiness in both the world and the hereafter... Although your community is passing through a period of trouble and pessimism, you keep showing them the light of wise moralisation and keep comforting and pacifying them in this state of despondency with the teachings of true religion. Thus their troubles will vanish."
With the Muslim world in utter turbulence today, Meston's concluding comments clearly epitomise the way madrasahs function in Britain. Instead of viewing madrasahs with suspicion, the government should view them positively, particularly for the benefit of the Muslim world as evidence of the way tolerance and freedom are values practically engrained within the UK. Madrasahs are definitely not incubators of extremism; rather their purpose is spiritual and recognising the rights of all--Muslim or otherwise.