I have always been slightly envious of people with a madrasa education. In Malaysia in the 1980s, I understood attending madrasa as spending a few hours after school every day in the local mosque with the other kids and learning Qur’anic recitation. These neighbourhood madrasas were not the equivalent of full-time sekolah agama, or state-funded religious schools. My elder sister and brother attended madrasa for a while. When my father learnt that they spent only a sliver of time reciting the Qur’an in front of the teacher – the remainder playing hide and seek or tag – he hired a gentle, diligent ustaz (religious instructor) to teach us at home. As much as I respected my ustaz, I never shared the experiences of my madrasa-going friends – especially those taught under more structured syllabi. Of course we all had to take compulsory Islamic Studies throughout primary and secondary school, but that was not really the same thing. I felt I had missed out on a combination of after-school fun and proper Islamic tutelage.
In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, I was bemused by reports on CNN and other news outlets insinuating that madrasas bred terrorists. I was guilty of harbouring similar assumptions in the past, too, becoming suspicious and contemptuous of sekolah agama graduates. I imagined that conversations with them would involve interminable debates about what is haram (forbidden) and halal (permitted), conduct and impromptu inquisitions about prayers and other minutiae of worship. So I laughed when at university I found out that a religiously educated friend studied with a cigarette in hand and Metallica blasting in the background, while others memorised the lyrics to Paula Abdul’s greatest hits. They were pious, though, observing obligatory Islamic worship steadfastly but without fuss. Still I wondered, like so many CNN anchors after 9/11, if the madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan were different and really did churn out bloodthirsty fanatics.