Education reform is key to defeating the IS extremists

EDUCATION is a means of gaining knowledge and developing good habits. There is no greater asset that a young person can obtain than a good education.

An uneducated or poorly educated person is unlikely to have a good life. Talented individuals may find ways to survive, but for the uneducated, life’s opportunities are severely limited. A poorly educated person may even turn to drug abuse or crime and become a burden to his or her family and society.

Education helps to overcome ignorance, poverty and backwardness. Learning is a life-long process, which is not confined to schools and classrooms. It is said that a tree is known by its fruit.

If there are flaws in content, delivery or assessment of education, the results may turn out to be other than expected.

It seems that not all is well with the education of Muslims. This is confirmed by the fact that a number of Muslims have joined Islamic State (IS), an organisation that has acquired notoriety on account of its extreme brutality. What causes some Muslims to become extreme?

At a counter-terrorism conference in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Feb 22, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayib linked the spread of extremism to a “bad interpretation of the Quran and the sunnah”.

One manifestation of “a bad interpretation of the Quran and sunnah” is the practice of suicide bombings. We see this on a daily basis, whether in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen or elsewhere.

Acts of extremism committed in the name of Islam are due to a lack of knowledge about Islam. A person who does not know that committing suicide is forbidden in the Quran (surah 4:29) is more likely to become a suicide bomber than a person who knows that the Quran prohibits suicide.

Thus, it is necessary to ensure that people obtain a proper understanding of the Quran and sunnah. This requires ensuring that students obtain education rather than indoctrination. An educated person is able to explain his or her beliefs and why he or she holds on to them.

An indoctrinated person, by contrast, is like a robot. He or she can be programmed to believe or do anything his handler wants. Such a person is not truly responsible for his or her actions.

The grand imam of Al-Azhar University also emphasised that Muslims must stop labelling other Muslims as disbelievers.

“The only hope for Muslim nations to recover unity is to tackle in our schools and universities this tendency to accuse Muslims of being unbelievers,” he said.

Since young people in particular are vulnerable to radicalisation, a more intellectual approach in the teaching and learning about Islam is required. Rote learning methods need to be supplemented by analysis and discussions. Students need to become active participants in the quest for knowledge rather than passive recipients of spoon-fed doctrine.

Refraining from thinking should not be mistaken for piety; on the contrary, attaining faith requires opening and engaging both the mind and the heart. Similarly, rigidity should not be mistaken for strength.

To say that one has to abstain from thinking to become pious is to set up a false dichotomy between thinking and faith. Contrary to a popular but mistaken belief, attaining faith requires the use of one’s intellect (‘aql).

Now more than ever, young people need to be taught to think critically. Otherwise they will be left vulnerable to the lure of jihadist rhetoric now flooding the social media and Internet from every corner of the earth. Simply following blindly will not do, as blind following leaves a person unable to differentiate right from wrong.

Due to their lack of knowledge, extremists have cast Muslims in a poor light. An effective response therefore requires reforming education. The sooner this takes place, the better.

Extremists must not be allowed to take centre-stage and claim that they speak for the vast majority of the law-abiding, moderate Muslims.

Published in the New Straits Times on April 8, 2015

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