The old project of modernizing madrasas has acquired a new zeal in South Asia after September 2011, whereby madrasa reform programmes became an acknowledged soft tactic of the war on terror. With 9000 Aliya (reformed) madrasas, the Bangladesh madrasa modernization programme has been identified as a potentially useful model for the neighbouring states of Pakistan and India who have made slower progress in implementing similar programmes. In this paper I argue that, although the Aliya madrasa system in Bangladesh has succeeded in integrating secular subjects in the madrasa curriculum, in reality this modernization project has failed in its underlying ambition to generate a ‘modern discourse’ on Islam—a discourse that is compatible with the demands of western modernity. The right to speak for Islam is still primarily exercised by the ‘ulama and graduates of the Qoumi (unreformed) madrasas. Aliya madrasas today compete with the secular schools not with Qoumi madrasas. The growth of the Aliya madrasa system in Bangladesh, instead of bearing testimony to the popular appeal of the modernization agenda, demonstrates the preference of Muslim parents for increased Islamic content in the school curriculum
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