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The madrasah and the talk on terrorism


The ongoing closure of Islamic schools in Uganda in the name of fighting terrorism is premised on the idea that Islam, or at least a certain interpretation of it, is the cause of terrorism. This cultural explanation of terrorism, which Mahmood Mamdani calls “culture talk” in his Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, suggests that there is a distinction between “good Muslims” who reject violence and “bad Muslims” who are “clearly responsible for terrorism.”

This kind of talk “assumes that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it, and it then explains politics as a consequence of that essence.” Culture talk imagines that “people’s public behavior, particularly their political behavior, can be read from their habits and customs, whether religious or traditional.” In this case religious extremism or even mere fundamentalism, which some people associate with Salafism, necessarily leads to political terrorism. This is the script from which the Uganda Police is reading in its crackdown on madrasahs.

It is a script that makes no distinction between Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam and between political Islam and political terrorism. In its editorial, the New Vision of 25, March 2015 says, “The Police, however, say that these madrasas have been globally infiltrated by extremists whose aim is to turn children into terrorists by teaching them radical Islamic ideas that make them hate people of other faiths so that when these children grow up, they can be used for terrorism activities.”

This kind of thinking is also shared by sections of the Ugandan media and intellectuals. “The recent raids on Muslim nursery and primary schools or madrasas in Bugiri, Namayingo, Busia and Budaka districts,” says the editorial in the Daily Monitor of 6, March 2015, “are both worrying and reassuring…No Ugandan would want to hear of any terror breeding cells.” But the idea that people become terrorists because of their religious orientation is strongly contested by scholars like Mamdani.  

Mamdani and culture talk

Writing after the 9/11 attacks that were widely explained as a cultural clash, Mamdani dismisses the cultural explanation on grounds that it fails to put terrorism in its historical and political context. To support his argument that terrorism should be understood as a product of “political encounters – historically shaped – rather than as the outcome of stubborn cultural legacies,” Mamdani goes back to the Cold War and discusses how the United States created “terrorist groups” to undermine Soviet influence in several parts of the world.

One such group was the Afghan Mujahideen whose delegation President Reagan hosted and hailed as “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.” After trying and failing to find a Saudi prince to lead the Mujahideen, the United States “settled for the second best”, namely, Osama bin Laden. Mamdani thus explains 9/11 as the “unfinished business of the Cold War”. How can such historicisation help us to understand terrorism in Uganda?

Contextualizing terrorism in Uganda

Such a historical and political analysis is necessary to understand the motivation of groups like al-Shabab, which allegedly attacked Kampala in 2010. We cannot understand al-Shabab’s activities without considering the intervention of Ugandan forces in Somalia. Instead of engaging such an analytical discussion of violence, the Police and a section of half-baked intellectuals are encouraging simplistic culture talk, blaming madrasahs for producing terrorism.

Despite its religious rhetoric, al-Shabab is clearly driven by a political question that developed at a specific historical moment. To think that such an organization emerged out of madrasahs is to exhibit an inexcusable level of vulgarization and distortion. If terrorism is not devoid of history and politics, it follows that its eradication is to be sought in the improvement of political relations, not in cultural crackdown.

The crackdown on madrasahs will achieve nothing because of two reasons. The first is that the clampdown is based on a misleading assumption that violence is cultural and devoid of history and politics. Secondly, the Muslim community has identified this crackdown not as an anti-terror crackdown, but as a campaign to marginalize and persecute them. Such a campaign can only breed resentment and create more problems than it purports to solve. The madrasah that the Muslim has in mind is contrary to the caricature that culture talk is drawing.

The madrasah in Uganda

The madrasah, contrary to popular opinion, is not as old as Islam in Uganda. Madrasah is the Arabic word for school, with connotations of formal and institutional organization. The Arab traders who only incidentally introduced Islam in Buganda in 1844 did not establish schools. For decades Islam was taught simply in mosques or at the homes of individual Bawalimu (teachers). This informal way of disseminating knowledge came to be known as kabalaza, the Luganda word for veranda, because lessons were taken at the veranda.

This informal arrangement continued unrivalled until 1911 when Sheikh Swaibu Ssemakula established the first formal Islamic school, or madrasah.

From kabalaza to madrasah

As a former Lay Minister in the Church of Uganda, Ssemakula had been exposed to some organizational skills that the missionaries had in abundance. Drawing on his experience, Ssemakula established a number of schools in different parts of Buganda and introduced the title of Sheikh, which he conferred upon the graduates of his schools.

Even though such madrasahs multiplied with time, they were still inaccessible to many Muslims for various reasons. Many still went to the kabalaza. The madrasah has coexisted with but not replaced the kabalaza. It is common practice today for parents to hire a Muwalimu to teach their children the Qur’an and related knowledge or send them to the home of such a teacher. The children that the police purports to rescue from the homes of Bawalimu belong to this category.



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