Since the devastating September 11, 2001, attacks, which claimed the lives of over 3,000 people and left many more injured, the United States of America has been committed to preventing such acts of terrorism within its borders and across the globe.
This commitment has taken various forms, including military interventions in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria. In Uganda, while the USA has supported President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s government, militarily and in other ways, the fight against terrorism has extended to Islamic schools, commonly known as madrasas.
The US government, through its Department of State, equivalent to the ministry of foreign affairs, has actively engaged in reforming the madrasa syllabi. Their aim is to remove materials that promote extremism and advocate for government control and oversight of these schools.
A book titled, America and the Production of Islamic Truth in Uganda, authored by Dr Yahya Sseremba, a fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, sheds light on this focus of producing Islamic students aligned with American interests.
Sseremba argues that despite the USA enjoying a favorable relationship with President Museveni for nearly four decades, during which he has dutifully carried out their bidding, including fighting the war on terror in the region, the USA believes that institutionalizing their efforts is more sustainable than relying on a single individual.
He states, “While rulers like Yoweri Museveni of Uganda have solidified their power through personalized and clientelist networks, and while the United States has relied on such semi-authoritarian rulers to advance its security interests in Africa by enlisting them in the war on terror, the education reforms pursued by the US Department of State seek to institutionalize USA security interests in the African state, instead of simply relying on the unpredictable goodwill of African rulers.”
According to Sseremba, the US aims to civilize, modernize, and standardize Islamic education, subjecting it to direct state control and scrutiny from civil society. This approach mirrors the European civilizing mission, which was abandoned in the mid-twentieth century. Under the US State Department’s proposed arrangement, Muslims may retain their Islamic religion and education, but these would shift from the domain of Muslim authorities to the civil sphere, under direct state control and civil society supervision.
Currently, Islamic education in Uganda falls outside the purview of the ministry of Education and Sports, unlike secular education, and is instead managed by individual schools or associations, which determine the curriculum, structure, and duration of study.
This decentralized approach has raised concerns among both the US and Ugandan government officials, who have repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that these schools serve as radicalization centers. Just recently, the police, with assistance from other security organizations, raided the home of Sheikh Muhammad Yunus Kamoga, the leader of Tabliq, and allegedly rescued children who were being radicalized. Police spokesperson Fred Enanga informed the media that parents had filed complaints regarding their children being taught Sharia with the aim of indoctrinating them into violent extremism.
In his 187-page book published by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, a renowned international publisher, Sseremba examines various State Department documents that outline the American interest in state control over what is taught in Islamic schools.
He writes, “The US Madrasa reform package broadly includes the creation of a state-controlled authority that will preside over all Islamic and Quran Schools, homogenize and standardize the diverse madrasa curricula, and eliminate extremist content from the syllabus.
This means that the United States seeks to bypass or at least reduce the role of Muslim institutions and individuals and subject the process of Islamic truth-making to the central management of the Ugandan state.”
Sseremba skillfully challenges the underlying premises on which the American and Ugandan officials base their intervention in Islamic education. Holding a PhD in Social Studies from Makerere University, Sseremba argues that America lacks a nuanced understanding of the Muslim community in Uganda.
He contends that the notion that people become radicalized simply through exposure to Islamic texts, such as the Qur’an and the Hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad, disregards the political, social, and economic conditions in which this violence occurs.
Furthermore, he asserts that this argument reduces Muslims to unthinking beings who uncritically accept whatever they are told. Sseremba also highlights that Uganda’s history is marred by politically motivated armed violence, some of which has been driven by tribal or religious factors, but such conflicts have never been labeled as terrorism, unlike those led by Muslims.
This assumption, as stated by Sseremba, lacks factual support and logical reasoning. However, it has served as the driving force behind the raiding of mosques, schools, and individual Muslim homes, resulting in arrests, imprisonment, torture, and extrajudicial killings under the pretext of combating violent extremism.
What is even more concerning is that most of the Christian Ugandan public, including the media, human rights defenders, and politicians, seem to believe that the state is justified in flagrantly violating the rights of Muslims.
There exists a widespread perception that Muslims are presumed guilty until proven innocent, contrary to the legal principle that ensures the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Sseremba observes, “The violence perpetrated by the state in Uganda and other East African countries appears to receive little public scrutiny when it targets Muslims, compared to when it is inflicted upon other segments of the population. The voices of civil society organizations, religious leaders, mass media commentators, and politicians, who often vehemently condemn state violations of citizens’ rights, remain largely silent when Islamic schools are raided and Muslim suspects are summarily executed. In fact, some voices have even emerged to justify extrajudicial killings of Muslim suspects and the unaccountable crackdown on madrasas.”
While the book is not yet available in Ugandan bookstores, it can be purchased on Amazon. Sseremba currently serves as a lecturer and research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research.
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