Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned Thursday that tens of thousands of Muslim children in Malaysia's privately run religious schools were being taught to despise other Muslims and oppose the government.
"Instead of emphasizing unity among Muslims, these schools teach hatred toward other Muslims and political ideology that goes against the Islamic religion," Mahathir said in a special meeting with 1,500 delegates of his ruling United Malays National Organization.
In a nearly two-hour speech, Mahathir defended the government's recent decision to cease financial aid to 600 private religious schools that have flourished for decades with relative independence from the government, operating with their own curriculum and teachers.
Officials in this predominantly Muslim Southeast Asian country estimated 126,000 students attended such schools last year. The government generally provided assistance of 60 ringgit (US$16) per student to each school annually.
But concerns have grown that the schools were being controlled by supporters of the opposition fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party who allegedly turn their pupils against Mahathir's moderate government.
Authorities say some schools are also a breeding ground for religious extremism. Since mid-2001, the Malaysian government has arrested scores of suspected members of the Jemaah Islamiyah regional militant group, including some who taught at religious schools.
Investigators blame Jemaah Islamiyah for the Oct. 12 bombings on Indonesia's Bali island that killed 192 people, mostly foreign tourists, as well as a thwarted plot to blow up the U.S. and Australian embassies in Singapore.
Mahathir, who has governed Malaysia since 1981, said he was encouraging students in religious schools to transfer to national schools backed by the government, where teachers were professionally trained and secular classes complement religious lessons.
Mahathir announced the government was planning a major revamp of national schools soon to create a better balance between secular and Islamic lessons, since many Muslim parents feared too little emphasis was placed on religious guidance.