Narathiwat: Even as debate rages in India on how to upgrade madrassa education system, Thailand has reformed its `pondoks` or seminaries by teaching modern subjects like English, Mathematics, Science and IT along with Arabic and Islamic studies.
"There is no government interference in Islamic teachings. It is just that we`ve included secular subjects like Science, Mathematics and English along with Islamic studies so that the Muslim students can earn a decent livelihood after they pass out of our school," Mayai Yaya, principal of Attarkiah Islamic School in Meong district of restive Narathiwat province in south Thailand, said.
The school was a pondok (traditional madrassa) which was upgraded to a Islamic School years back. "Islam and modern education goes side by side. We just teach how to behave like a Thai national. School is encouraging this trend so that the students should be proud to be Thai. The philosophy of the school is religion, discipline and knowledge," he added.
There are more than 100 such Islamic schools spread over three restive provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces of Thailand. These three provinces are dominated by Muslims who constitute about 75 percent of population here.
The three provinces have been facing insurgency for decades due to social, economic and cultural factors.
"There is no question of de-radicalisation of Muslims as they are not radicalised. It is just that the Thai government wants that the community also gets modern education. The policy of the government is to raise the standard of pondoks and reform them to modern Islamic school," said Colonel Sangwit Noonpackdee, a top military officer in the Meong district of the Narathiwat province.
Thai government wants that future Muslim generation to be open and integrate them to Thai societies, he added. "The school emphasises the importance of family institution, society, Islamic ethical conduct and the use of technology to support learning and teaching," Robert Forden, a teacher from Philippines who recently converted to Islam, said.
The school uses English language in teaching Science, Mathematics, English, Physical Education and Computers. Arabic is used in teaching all religious subjects. The curriculum is made by the government officials with consultation from Muslim leaders.
The Attarkiah school is fully air-conditioned and receives aid from Thailand government and Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank. There are 4,352 students in the school, in which females outnumber the males. There are 1,307 male students and 3,045 female students. All the female students wear `hijab`.
It is compulsory for the students to offer namaz at the mosque which is within the school premises. There are 268 teachers -- 103 males and 165 females. The school has considerable number of teachers from non-Muslim communities also. Many students of the school have visited US under student exchange programme in the past.
In India, most of the madrassas teach subjects like Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Islamic studies along with Yunani medicine. The Indian government is now trying to bring all madrassas under the roof of the Central Madrassa Board to increase the quality of education provided in such institutions. The number of madrassas in India is estimated to be between 30,000-40,000.
There are nevertheless two lingering misconceptions regarding pondok education in Thailand. First is the mistaken assumption that southern Thai pondok schools teach only Islam.
This is not necessarily the case as many pondok do integrate secular and vocational subjects into their syllabus as well. Second is the popular perception that Muslim parents prefer to send their children to pondok rather than state schools. This, too, is not entirely so.
Recent research conducted by the Prince of Songkhla University (Pattani) has found that up to 64 percent of the people desire general education for their children. Nevertheless, they also want secular education to be balanced with religious instruction from the pondok.
Today, more than 500 pondok operate in southern Thailand, but only about 300 of them are registered with state authorities. It is no secret that the Thai government suspects that some of these traditional schools foster religious extremism and harbor militants.
More than 4,000 people -- both Buddhists and Muslims -- have been killed in the southern provinces of Thailand in six years of insurgency.
The Muslim-majority region was an autonomous Malay Muslim sultanate until 1902 when it was annexed by mainly Buddhist Thailand and tensions have simmered there ever since, flaring up into the current insurgency since January 2004.