DHAKA, Bangladesh - Tucked away behind the chaotic, narrow streets of Dhaka's old quarter, hundreds of boys sit in classrooms around a mosque, their heads buried in Arabic scripture.
The gentle clatter of ceiling fans stirring the humid air and the drone of their teachers' voices are inaudible in the marble-floored courtyard outside, where students perch on giant water tanks washing themselves and brushing their teeth.
There are thousands of madrasas -- or religious schools -- in Bangladesh, but this is one of many which are not recognised by the government.
According to critics, such schools are hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism, pro-Pakistan training grounds for an ideology which threatens to bind the country in a strait-jacket of intolerance, backwardness, prejudice against women and violence.
"These Islamic organisations say they have got authority from God himself. Democracy is not in their literature," says a senior official in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government.
He recalled that such groups fought against Bangladesh's Indian-backed freedom fighters in the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, and said that today they are determined to make religion the unifying cultural element of the country rather than language.
Last month the government blamed Islamic fundamentalists opposed to Bangladesh's usually warm relations with India for bombs which killed nine people in Dhaka's Ramna park during New Year celebrations, sharpening political divisions ahead of elections later this year.
The chief of the Jamia Qurania Arabia Madrasa was not available to speak to Reuters: he and some 400 others were jailed in February after violent protests against a High Court judgment declaring Islamic fatwa (edict) to have no validity in law.
TUSSLE OVER SECULAR VALUES
"This madrasa is not recognised because we do not accept the government syllabus," said Moulana Jashim Uddin, who has taken charge of the school. "That syllabus makes a man neither religious nor worldly. The aim of our religion is to reach god."
The school instructs its older pupils -- many of whom come from far-flung areas of this predominantly Muslim country of 130 million -- wholly in Arabic.
They study the Koran, the sayings of the prophet Mohammad, Islamic history, Arabic literature and grammar, but not science, technology or other languages.
The network of madrasas, which receive large donations from abroad to raise Islam's political profile, are closely linked to Muslim political parties in Bangladesh.
Together they have taken on foreign-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs), particularly those pursuing emancipation of women through credit and other schemes, arguing that their Western secular values threaten the Islamic fabric of the nation.
"We are not against NGOs. Our country is poor, we need their help," said Motiur Rahman Nizami, chief of the largest Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. "But in the name of service and welfare nobody should be allowed to hurt our moral values."
The Madrasa's Uddin says he favours the social development of women, but not at the expense of men. He believes the NGOs threaten family cohesion because they give employment to women and tempt them to disobey their husbands.
"Except for a few like Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher women are below men," he said.
The Islamic leaders of Bangladesh say that, contrary to government allegations, they are not trying to establish a purist ideological regime along the lines of Afghanistan's Taliban.
And they shrug off as propaganda government allegations that students and non-recognised madrasas are given arms training by transnational jehadis (Islamic warriors) to "torpedo democracy."
On their own, the Islamic parties do not carry much political punch.
The Jamaat-e-Islami and the more radical Islami Oikye Jote, an alliance of five groups, together took less than 10 percent of the vote in 1996 elections and hold just a handful of the current parliament's 330 seats.
But they have become important pawns in pre-election manoeuvring between Hasina's Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia's opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The two parties have joined hands with the BNP, which hopes that a few thousands votes here and there for its Islamic allies will tip the balance in its favour in marginal constituencies.
It is a risky strategy for Khaleda in a country where women have won new rights and freedom, and one that could alienate centrist voters.
On the other hand, it could win her the considerable votebank of anti-India sentiment, which has been whipped up recently by a clash between the two countries' border troops.
But at the headquarters of the Islami Oikye Jote, there is a sense of religion in the air as calls to prayer echo around the streets outside, and the political rhetoric is fiercely pro-Islam.
"Since coming to power the government has...acted against Islamic norms and values of society," said Ahamad Abdul Quader, acting secretary general of the group.
"Nearly 90 percent of our population is Muslim and we have 1,000 years of history of Islam here but our present regime and its advisers want to make this country secular."
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