Many have written separately about Western Islamophobia and Islamophobia in the Global South. The aim of this article is to show how both work in tandem. I focus on much-publicized media coverage of a recent viral video about the merciless beating of a minor student by a teacher in Bangladesh’s madrasa. That the incident is immoral and criminal is beyond debate. What I contest is its dominant framing in which Muslims’ religion and educational institutions are non-evidentially presented as its primary cause.
I argue that Islam is mobilized as the explanatory vector to connect the discourse of Islam as a threat or barbarian by the power elites in the Global South with similar discourse of threat in the West. For this discourse to prevail, media go silent about a) similar practices of beating in Hindu, Christian or other institutions, and b) erase non-religious factors like outdated pedagogy, flawed notions of knowledge, gerontocracy and poor status of parents whose children go to madrasas. I demonstrate that one key mechanism to sustain Muslims-as-a-threat discourse is to fashion a global narrative uniformity, which tears incidents like beating students apart from the multiplicity of local factors responsible for them.
Generalization as Demonization
Consider the report “South Asian Madrasa Students Face Widespread Corporal Punishment,” published by Deutsche Welle (DW), “Germany’s international broadcaster.” As the title screams, it sweepingly generalizes about madrasas across South Asia. But how do its reporters — one each for Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — know about every madrasa in the three countries? Since the report gives no data to back it, it would have been defensible to put “some” or “many” students in the title.
In fact, the title betrays the report’s own fact. It quotes a survey, which didn’t “specify the ratio of punishments between public schools and madrasas, or religious schools.” Since the report itself states that beating also happens in public schools, what is the rationale to sensationalize madrasas alone?
As the report progresses, the reason becomes clear. The generalization is fashioned to demonize Islam and madrasas, a process set in motion with the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and accelerated after 9/11. For instance, it makes repeated attempts to equate the practice of beating with Islam and madrasas. As if madrasas are not taken as already religious, the report repetitively translates them as “religious schools” and “religious seminaries.” So that readers have no confusion, it goes on to highlight the religious factor by asserting that it is “Muslim parents” who send their children to madrasas.
So preoccupied is the report with the religious nature of the punishment that seven times it described madrasa teachers as “cleric/s.” Factually too, this Orientalist rendition is wrong. Madrasas also have teachers who teach diverse languages (including English) and “modern” subjects like math. They are, therefore, no “clerics.” Contrast the fanaticism with which the report renders madrasa teachers as clerics with the popular depiction of Hindu religious figures or teachers. The terms used for the latter in English are either transliterated Hindi-Sanskrit words or as “spiritual” gurus or “seers.”
Demonization as Religionization
The demonization of madrasas continues in the DW report as it paints the issue in religious vocabulary alone. It describes Bangladesh as “the Muslim-majority country.” However, there is no mention of India as “the Hindu-majority country,” which statistically it is. It is important to note, however, that Dalits (ex untouchables) and aboriginals (Adivasis), now officially counted as Hindu, have historically not been Hindu.
Description of Muslims in exclusively religious terms is part of a much wider recent trend. In 2020, The Guardian described Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) as “Delhi’s Muslim-majority” university. However, the same newspaper did not describe even Banaras Hindu University as Hindu-majority, which, like Jawaharlal Nehru University or Delhi University, it factually is. During conversations in early 1990s, when I studied at JMI, if a qualifier was need before its name, it used to be a minority or Muslim minority university.
The addition of the prefix “Muslim-majority,” especially in relation to negative things linked to Muslims, is now frequent in media and academia alike. The blurb of the story, “Malaysian jailed for more than 10 years for insulting Islam” in Al-Jazeera terms Malaysia as “the Muslim-majority country.” According to The Independent, Kenya’s Lamu Island is “Muslim-majority.” However, Kenya itself is not described as “Christian-majority.”
This prevalent (over) religionization in case of Muslims stands in sharp contrast to de-religionization of even explicitly religious issues, for example, among Hindus. Ban on beef and violence unleashed in the name of “cow protection” in India perfectly illustrates this. For most believing Hindus, cow is holy. This is because in Brahmanical theology, as Dutch anthropologist Peter van der Veer notes, cow is Kāmdẖēnu, the goddess who meets all wishes. Rather than being a mere animal, she is doubly sacred because all the gods reside in the cow. In one oral account, as recorded by commentator-critic Ziya Us Salam, all the Hindu gods who number 330 million reside within the scared animal.
The holiness of the cow extends to its urine and dung, which are deemed purifying, not pollutant. Hindus use both in their religious rituals. American scholar of religion Frank Korom observed that in Banaras, a Hindu holy city in north India, Hindus reached out to get their hands wet while cows urinated. Once wet, they brought them to close to their lips. In media reports, especially those in the West, the characteristically religious bases of numerous cases of lynching Muslims (especially, since 2014), on the allegations of possessing and eating beef or smuggling cows, are mostly erased or mystically presented as “secular.”
To return to DW report, the impulse or need to demonize madrasas is such that when the India reporter finds no recent incidence of beating in madrasas, an incongruent link is made to call for reforms in Hindu Ashrams, the hyperlink of which describes them as “heavens of spirituality.” In contrast, in case of madrasas and Islam, there is no reference to anything “spiritual.” Recall that in Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, Nobel Laurate VS Naipaul, “a new global Hindutva mascot,” had stigmatized Islam as a “faith growing out of spiritual vacancy.” DW thus conducts its own brand of Orientalism as it forges a necessary link between “religious education” in madrasas and “corporal punishment.”
Quote or Bite as Weapon of Authentication
Imposition of narrative uniformity from outside is one among many tools of Islamophobia. To make itself credible, Islamophobia also deploys the weapon of authentication from inside. To this end, it uses quotes or bites from Muslims themselves. But as quotes are selections, their choice, media scholars argue, tend “to confirm the reporters’ [prior] theories.”
For the report under discussion, DW India journalist contacted me for an interview. We had had over one-hour telephone conversation. I explained that some teachers definitely beat students but it was not specific to madrasas because it equally prevailed in Hindu, Parsi (Zoroastrian), Christian, modern, and government schools. When published, out of this long conversation, only three paltry quotes were “chosen” to authenticate the Islamophobic orientation of the story.
Disparaging remarks and writings about Islam and Muslims by authors such as Necla Kelek of Germany, Ayaan Hirsi Ali of the Netherlands and the United States, Irshad Manji of Canada, Salman Rushdie of Britain and others largely work as voices of authentication from within. Taslima Nasreen is one notable example of such an internal authentication from the Indian subcontinent.
One way to combat the global narrative of uniformity at the heart of Islamophobia is to stress multiplicity of factors responsible for the merciless act of beating a student in a madrasa in Bangladesh and beyond. Below I also show how this multiplicity is woven into local cultures and socioeconomic asymmetry of the Global South.
Multiplicity against Global Narrative of Uniformity
The root cause of beating is not religion per se but the supra-religious Indian idea that to learn is to memorize. Since most teachers have distorted notion of knowledge as rote learning, the failure in memorization leads to beating — a practice equally prevalent in Hindu, Christian, modern and “secular” government schools in India where most teachers and students, like the overall cultural ambience, are Hindu.
Gerontocracy, the notion that teachers as elders can never be wrong, is another factor. This prevents teachers from examining their own failure, including the boring methods of teaching, and violently transfer it to the soft target: the poor children.
Abuse against children also occurs because most poor, illiterate, semi- or less-educated parents (likely true across south Asia) who send their children for free education to madrasas (mostly run based on the community charity) cannot hold the madrasa administration accountable. In my research on madrasas in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and as discussed in my book, in some madrasas students pay both tuition and boarding fees. Cases of beating are fewer there. Importantly, there is no report about this unacceptable practice in girls-only madrasas in UP.
To stop the barbaric practice of beating children, mere passage of law will not work in the same way as anti-dowry legislation has not stopped dowry, a coercive custom among most Hindus and Muslims. Reform must include measures that are both internal and external. It should also include awareness about children’s rights and educational, socioeconomic empowerment of parents whose wards attend madrasas. Without this empowerment, parents cannot effectively hold the madrasa authority accountable for the rotten practice of beating.
A political anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious & Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany, Irfan Ahmad is the author of Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace (2017) and editor of Anthropology and Ethnography are Not Equivalent: Reorienting Anthropology for the Future (2021). Earlier, he taught at Australian and Dutch universities. He tweets @IrfanHindustan