Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The meaning of 'madrase'


19 June 2010
PALESTINE REFLECTION: The meaning of “Madrase”

by Sam Nichols

Returning to the U.S. from my stint in Palestine this time, I was pulled aside to a small room, where I was initially the only white person. There was a group of Arab men, a group of people from Southeast Asia, and later on some Eastern European women came in. After a while a Lt. Spiekerman told me I was going to be asked some questions.

I was asked where I had been and what I was doing. “Israel and the Palestinian territories doing volunteer work and Egypt for tourism, blah blah blah.” Pretty standard questions, which I have become accustomed to because of Israeli security officials, but he asked me six to eight times if I attended any madrassas during my travels. Follow up questions consisted of, "did you receive any additional training or education, did you learn how to use arms, receive any...uh know what I mean, did you attend any madrassas."

I asked a clarifying question. “By madrassas, do you mean madrase, which is the Arabic word for school? Are you asking if I attended a school or enrolled in an institute or higher education? If that's the question then the answer is no, I did not.”

Unfortunately, the guy didn't clarify his terms, but just kept asking about flipping madrassas.

A small linguistic lesson: There is really only one all-inclusive word for school or learning institute in Arabic, and it's madrase, or the plural, madaares. It's the word written on the exterior of elementary schools, secondary schools, etc. Madrassa is just a bad English transliteration of madrase. The word has been utterly co-opted by Western politicians, media, and neoconservatives to mean a radical Islamic, anti-western, pro-terrorism institute of Islamic indoctrination and Islamic brainwashing. That's clearly what this guy was asking me about. I don't think he was asking me if I took a course in cooking at the American University in Cairo, or if I took a Hebrew language course at Jerusalem University.

Wikipedia in its description of the word it transliterates, “Madrasah,” gives a more elaborate description, which contains the following section, “Possible misuse of the word,”

The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization examined bias in United States newspaper coverage of Pakistan since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and found the term has come to contain a loaded political meaning: “When articles mentioned 'madrassas,' readers were led to infer that all schools so-named are anti-American, anti-Western, pro-terrorist centers having less to do with teaching basic literacy and more to do with political indoctrination.”

Take that U.S Customs. Take that U.S. media. Take that U.S. public. Take that Lt. Spiekerman.

Please, STOP using an ordinary word and twisting it around to paint all educational institutions in the Middle East (i.e. the part of the world you don't like) as bastions of violent and hateful Islamic teaching. And Spiekerman, I have attended a madrase when I was learning Arabic, in order to do my human rights work at a more professional level. But lucky for you Lieutenant, I didn't attend a madrase on this trip.

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