Ariffin (right), a professor and DAP-appointed senator, questioned if anyone has examined the syllabus in these schools, in which thousands of students are enrolled all over the country.
Religious schools have always been grounds of contestation between Umno and PAS, he said, claiming that these are currently dominated by Umno.
Ariffin, who has an interest in history, ethnicity and religion, said he has no problems with the teaching of the Quran or religious studies, or even Syariah law, but suggested that this be done in the proper context.
"There is a close-minded approach in these schools. Concepts such as halal and haram become a big thing," he told an audience of 50 at the Penang Institute organised forum on the ‘National Education Blueprint’ in Penang.
"There is also a problem with how they teach interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims. You can find many distancing themselves from other races ... polarisation is a dire problem in the schools.”
Campaign for the hudud
Ariffin, who based his remarks on a study by his university colleagues, also pointed out that the religious schools today have become caught up in the campaign to bring in hudud law and the Islamic state.
This is being carried out without addressing the issue of multiculturalism, he said, but the government is not prepared to do anything about it.
"The government closes one eye because if it addresses the problem, it might lose votes. What is worse is that out of 10 (students), eight come out jobless. Where do they go and what do they do? We don't know.”
Other speakers at the forum were Deputy Chief Minister II P Ramasamy, Penang Institue fellows Toh Kin Woon and Wong Chin Huat, and Centre for Policy Initiatives director Lim Teck Ghee.
Lim, a former senior social specialist with the World Bank, described religious schools as a potential "negative game changer".
He said there is a need to be transparent about the makeup and the development of such schools and put the matter under the microscope.
"We have to debate and discourse on what these schools are turning out to be and where are the students going to,and where they are being employed," he said.
"This is indeed a ticking time bomb and may be the tail that wags the dog."