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AWSJ: Even as Islamic Schools Face Scrutiny, They Gain in Popularity in M'sia
By Leslie Lopez

23/10/2001 3:21 am Tue

[Ada satu kritikan halus yang tersirat dalam rencana ini. Cuba fikirkan kenapa lebih banyak keganasan berlaku di negeri yang tidak banyak sekolah ugama (yang dikuasai Umno) berbanding negeri yang ditadbir oleh PAS misalnya. Malah penduduk 'negeri Umno' mengirim anak-anak mereka untuk belajar ke negeri yang ditadbir oleh PAS walaupun jauh beratus-ratus kilometer. Sekolah ugama lebih banyak baiknya dari buruknya (seandainya ada). Malangnya Mahathir mahu memusnahkannya kerana kebaikan itu akan menelanjangkan kejahatannya. Apabila semakin ramai rakyat celik ugama, akan tumbang regim Umno yang mengaku sudah Islam sedangkan bekas TPM sendiri tidak diadili mengikut kaedah ugama. - Editor]

The Asian Wall Street Journal
23rd October 2001

Even as Islamic Schools Face Scrutiny, They Gain in Popularity in Malaysia



KAMPUNG PULAU MELAKA, Malaysia -- Hasrol Che Hussain makes no excuses for the strict rules at the Darul Anuar Islamic school in this small village in Malaysia's poor, rural Kelantan state.

"We don't allow free mixing of boys and girls because it is not Islamic," says the Muslim teacher, as a speaker atop a nearby mosque crackles to life with the slow and melodious chant of "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Great).

Outside the mosque, young boys huddle over a large square tub filled with water, washing their hands and feet before hustling inside for midday prayers. Through a separate entrance, cordoned off by a plywood partition, teenage girls covered from head to toe file into their own section of the mosque.

Wearing a traditional white skullcap denoting that he has made the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, Mr. Hasrol declares: "We want our students to be good Muslims."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Islamic schools around the world have come under scrutiny. Critics often characterize the schools as breeding grounds for would-be Islamic militants, places where students absorb rigid religious doctrine and are imbued with political views that portray Muslims as the oppressed victims of the West, especially the U.S.

But in Malaysia, a secular state whose 60% Muslim population has long exemplified Southeast Asia's moderate style of Islam, schools like Darul Anuar are nonetheless now in vogue.

Malaysian Muslim parents are increasingly sending their children to such schools to shelter them from social problems -- such as drug abuse in city schools and teenage pregnancies -- which are on the rise in urban Malaysia. Many parents are also attracted by prestigious Islamic schools that offer their children more rigorous academic training than do government-run secular schools.

The growing preference for Islamic schools coincides with an increase in recent years of religious commitment among many Malaysian Muslims, who are mainly ethnic Malays.

"A lot of children these days can't read the Quran" in the original Arabic, says Mat Saad Ramli. "I want at least one child of mine to have a very strong grounding in Islam."

A senior plantation company executive in Kuala Lumpur, Mr. Mat Saad yanked his 16-year-old son out of a government school three years ago and enrolled him at the elite Al-Imam International Institute in Kelantan's capital of Kota Bharu. "You can really see the change, he is really a very good and well-mannered person," Mr. Mat Saad says, adding that the boy has become a positive influence on his three other children.

In Kelantan, increased demand has prompted more Islamic schools to open and forced the best of the privately owned institutions to raise their requirements for enrollment. Now, those schools are attracting bright Muslim students from all over Malaysia. Currently, there are more than 40,000 students in 92 Kelantan-based religious schools, according to the state Islamic Foundation. Since 1994 the passing rate for students taking government secondary school examinations in these schools has averaged above 90%, significantly above the national average.

Still, officials in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government say they have doubts about whether the Islamic schools are benign, particularly in Kelantan, where the state government is controlled by Malaysia's main opposition party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, or PAS. Security officials contend that the loosely regulated schools -- many of which are owned or run by PAS members -- may, indeed, spawn new Muslim militants.

"Every morning children in these schools take oaths on the virtue of jihad and mati sahid," says a senior government official, referring to the Arabic words for struggle -- though jihad is often used to denote a holy war -- and religious martyrdom. "The brainwashing starts at a young age."

Each year, according to the Kelantan Islamic Foundation, which funds many of the state's religious schools, about 250 students from Kelantan go overseas to continue their Islamic studies. Many head for Pakistan and some have spent time in Afghanistan for brief sabbaticals in Taliban-run schools in recent years, government security officials say.

Some students return with degrees in religious studies only to find that they can't land good jobs in Malaysia's market-driven economy. Some end up as bureaucrats in the religious department of Malaysia's civil service; others work as independent Islamic preachers or teachers in private Islamic schools.

Malaysian security officials contend that some of these foreign-trained teachers propagate radical views among their students. And they want to tighten regulation and supervision of the religious schools to protect multiethnic Malaysia from potential sectarian conflict. Education Ministry officials can't say for sure how many such institutions exist because no license or permit is currently required to set up an Islamic school.

Security officials in Kuala Lumpur say that the curriculum in Islamic schools is peppered with subtle antigovernment themes. Classroom lessons and sermons after prayers at the school mosques often extol the goal of creating a theocratic state in Malaysia, they say.

In late September, Malaysian police jailed one teacher from Darul Anuar, Nik Adli Nik Aziz, and eight others for two years, alleging that they were planning to overthrow Dr. Mahathir's government. Another six alleged members of a group that police call the Kumpulan Mujahedeen Malaysia, or KMM, were arrested this month under the Internal Security Act, known as the ISA, which permits detention of suspects for up to two years without formal charges or trial.

Mr. Nik Adli, who police allege heads the KMM, has denied the charge and challenged the government to produce evidence of his allegedly subversive activities. PAS leaders say the arrests are politically motivated and allege that the detention of Mr. Nik Adli -- the son of Kelantan chief minister Nik Aziz Nik Mat -- is intended to discredit the increasingly popular Muslim party.

"On what basis are these allegations being made?" asks the turbaned Datuk Nik Aziz in an interview. "It is without proof."

Teachers at Darul Anuar insist that politics isn't part of their education agenda. Nik Omar, Darul Anuar's principal and brother of the jailed Nik Adli, says his students were upset when his brother was arrested. "They wanted to wear anti-ISA badges in protest. But we said no because the school isn't the place for politics."

But political controversy hasn't dulled the Islamic schools' appeal for many Malaysians, nor the Kelantan schools' popularity among Muslim parents.

A relative economic backwater carpeted by rice fields interspersed with small rubber plantations, Kelantan has long been an outpost for strict and conservative Islamic views in Malaysia. Kelantanese traveling to Mecca to perform the Haj often remained in Islam's holy land for years to study the Quran. Many eventually became religious leaders upon their return, heading local mosques that often doubled as Islamic schools. By the early 1950s, Kelantan's schools were attracting Muslims from Cambodia, Thailand and Brunei.

Today, their fame reaches farther. Muhamad bin Muhamad, a 20-year-old student from Ghana, heard about Kelantan when studying in Pakistan and enrolled in the Pasir Tumboh school outside Kota Bharu early this year.

There's nothing fancy about the premises. The school has 1,000 students who live in a compound of wooden huts on stilts. They use outdoor toilets and eat in an open-sided pavilion, subsisting on a simple diet of mainly fish and rice.

Mr. Muhamad concedes that the "facilities here aren't that good and it takes some time learning the local language." But he adds that "in Islam, we have to struggle." He plans to live in Kelantan for another two years before going home.

At the Darul Anuar school, spread over four hectares and ringed by tall coconut trees, more than 50% of the students come from outside Kelantan. Azlin Abu Mutalib says her parents -- who live in Negeri Sembilan state, 320 kilometers to the south -- sent her to Darul Anuar hoping that she would get better grades, stay out of trouble and receive proper religious instruction. The 15-year-old Azlin, who wears the traditional Muslim tudung -- a long scarf that covers the head and shoulders, but exposes the face -- says she doesn't mind the strict rules at the school. "It is good here because we are forced to study hard."