Muslim Thais fear for Islamic schools

Since the much-hyped arrest of three Thai Muslims with alleged links to an Islamic militant group in the region, the Muslim minority in southern Thailand has been in fear that Islamic schools there may soon face a lesson in survival.

The Thai Muslims' worries arise from the fact that one of the arrested men - Maisuri Haji Abdulloh - is a religious leader and owner of an Islamic school in Nara Thiwat, one of the five southern provinces with a large Muslim population.

Maisuri's son, Muyahi, is also among the three taken in by the police on suspicion of having links with Jemaah Islamiyah, a group that aims to create a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia and has been classified as a terrorist organization by several governments.

A rumor that spread through some Muslim communities in the wake of the June 10 arrests - that the Thai government was planning a sweep through at least 10 other Islamic schools in the south - reflected this undercurrent of concern.

The government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra denied having such a plan. Still, "teachers and students in these schools are worried about what may happen next", said Nimu Makaje, vice president of the Islamic Council in the southern province of Yala. "We have already seen a drop in the numbers of teachers and students in some schools."

Muslims who fund these religious schools fear that they may be hounded, he disclosed during an interview. "Some religious schools that receive money from the Middle East are also afraid now."

Thai Muslims always took their religious schools to be safe, but the current events are threatening to change this, added an academic versed in Southeast Asian Islam, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The concerns are genuine, because it is making them feel vulnerable, being treated with suspicion by the government for getting an Islamic education."

In Satun, Nara Thiwat, Yala, Pattani and Songkhla - the predominantly Muslim provinces in the south near Malaysia - Islamic schools have played a vital role in sustaining the tradition of Muslims, who are the largest minority in this mainly Buddhist nation. There are close to 4 million Muslims out of a total population of some 61 million.

Religious education is offered through a number of private Islamic schools, which offer both Islamic teachings and other subjects, or a traditional school system called pondok, where only Islamic learning occurs.

The arrest of the three men, including Waemahadi Wae-dao, a medical doctor, took place after the authorities allegedly learned that the Thais were planning to detonate bombs near selected Western and Asian embassies in Bangkok and popular tourist spots in Thailand.

Bangkok had been tipped off by authorities in Singapore, after the arrest of a Singaporean Muslim identified as the head of Jemaah Islamiyah in the city-state. Governments in the region and the United States accuse the group of plotting to unleash terror in Southeast Asia.

Government officials, including Thaksin, were quoted in the local press as saying that Arifin bin Ali, the Singaporean, had confessed to having met the three Thais and discussed the plot to detonate bombs during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Thailand next October.

However, the government is having difficulty bringing charges against the accused Thai plotters, a fact that emerged during a briefing that local intelligence officials gave on June 18 to members of the diplomatic community.

"They admitted that there is no evidence that links the three Thais to Jemaah Islamiyah besides what Arifin revealed," said an Asian diplomat who was present at the morning briefing. "They also do not have information about how the bombings were to take place other than for when it would be and where."

This chain of events is adding to the anxiety among Muslims, said Pakorn Priyakorn, an executive committee member of the Bangkok-based Islamic Center of Thailand. "The people want to know what is happening, if it is true, if there is evidence about the three arrested men."

He pointed out that a delay in clarifying innocence or guilt will also keep alive another issue that has been catapulted into the media glare - the type of Islam being taught in the religious schools. Some media accounts have sounded the alarm over the influence of the Wahhabi strand of Islam in the religious schools, including the one run by Maisuri.

Wahhabism emerged in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century and has since become the dominant strand of interpreting and practicing the Islamic faith in the Saudi kingdom. It has been marked for its austere and extremely conservative views.

But since the multiple acts of terror in the United States on September 11, 2001, Wahhabism has been increasingly seen as promoting intolerance and breeding Islamic militants. That arose because of, among other reasons, most of the men involved in the September terror attacks and the man accused by the US government of planning it, Osama bin Laden, subscribed to Wahhabism.

However, both Pakorn and Nimu explain that the Wahhabi influence in Thailand's religious schools does not propagate violence. "In Thailand, Wahhabism is not considered radical. It is seen as another discipline to be taught in schools," said Pakorn.

For decades, Thai Muslims have been going to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt to be trained as religious teachers. These Arab governments also help local Muslims financially - either by offering scholarships in Islamic studies or financial aid for the religious schools.

"But these links and the Wahhabi presence in Thailand have been misunderstood, because of the wrong impression given by the media," said Nium. "There has been distortion."

However, little of that surprises him, given the negative portrayal of Muslims in the south due to the outbursts of violence that have occurred since the 1960s by Muslim separatist groups.

"To say that we want to promote violence is wrong," Nium said. "There is no truth about the Jemaah Islamiyah link to the schools."