Revisiting Madrassa Reform Strategy in Pakistan

Revisiting Madrassa Reform Strategy in PakistanPosted by Javed Iqbal
WHILE brazen attack on Hazara Shia community killing at least 89 people and more than 200 others seriously wounded on February 16 at Kirani Road near Hazara Town of Quetta Balochistan has once again descended the country into sectarian chaos, it has also called for immediate need to revisit Madrassa reform strategy that allows all the religious sects to live together peacefully. In Pakistani context, a Madrassa (religious seminary) plays a complex role in imparting instructions to young uninitiated students. These seminaries also serve as sanctuaries for the have-nots. Most of students of these institutions have either lost their parents or belong to very poor families. Though they have the option to go for a life of crime, they opt for religious education. Seen in this context, these Madaris are playing positive role in the society by preventing a vulnerable section of the population from joining the ranks of criminals.

A widespread view in the West that Pakistan’s madrassas are “feeder academies for terrorists” is quite a bit of exaggeration. On the contrary, most madaris are not churning out terrorist, there are a handful of religious seminaries that are playing important role in shaping the society on modern lines. Over the period of time, few of the same Madrassas started fanning religious sectarianism and extremism to the immature minds of the students due to which Pakistan’s internal security was threatened.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs figures reported in 2008 that there were 18,000 Deeni Madrasas being run on self-help, government assistance, and foreign donations. Out of these 8903 (22 May 08) are registered with provincial government Madrasa Boards including Punjab (5030) Sindh (2523), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (1050), Balochistan (197), and ICT (102). No data is given for Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK. There are 3342 foreign students in Pakistan madrasas including 911 Afghan muhajirs in Balochistan and 1164 in FATA (of which 95% are reported Afghanis). A total of 16,11,495 (1.6 mn) students attend these madaris. In Baiochistan, students breakdown is 1,06,867 (Deobandi), 13,144 (Barelvi), 929 (Ahle Hadith), 1,432 (Jamaat-e-lsiami). Number of Shia students in all of Pakistan is given as 18,000, but no regional breakdown is available. Some newer types of madrasa have also appeared. One example is the Minhaj Ul Quran madrasas of Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT). Another emerging genre is the rise of al-Huda and Hira chain of institutions where relatively affluent women and girls attend lectures by female evangelicals. The proliferation of websites and TV channels is also a new phenomenon yet another manifestation of the growing Islamist zeal.
The external linkages of madrassas appeared in former PM Zulifikar Ali Bhutto’s time. The Saudi patronage of Pakistani madrassas, specially the Ahle Haidth/Salafi Branch, mushroomed during the Afghan jihad and still continues. In ex-President Gen. Zia ul Haq’s time, regional developments i.e. the Iranian Revolution (1979) and Iran – Iraq War (1980-88) and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan combined to give a fresh impetus to mushroom growth of madrasas. Similarly, Shia madrasas (Imam bargaghs) also went up from 70 in 1979 to 116 in 1983. The Afghan jihad also militarized the sectarian madrassa and made it as a recruiting base for extremists and jihadis. Two types of madrassas took active part in the Afghan jihad. The first were those specifically created to produce jihadi literature, mobilize public opinion, and recruit and train jihadi forces through the Jamaat-e-lslami’s Rabita madrasas. The second was a chain of independent madrasas, including those of the JUI, working to the same ends. American and Saudi money was funneled to both these types. The Haqqaniya chain and JUI established madrasas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, and also established jihadi seminaries in Karachi and Punjab. These institutions later spawned sectarian killings and armed violence in some universities and colleges. Proxy battles between Saudi and Iran-backed groups also abound, as attested by several assassinations in the past. Saudi and Iranian literature, money and networking have spawned the emergence of sectarian militant Sunni and Shia parties from the jihadi madrasas e.g. SSP, JM, LJ, LeT, TNSM and SM. Madrasas and mosques in Pakistan collect about $ 1.1 billion annually while the government collection of Zakat (one-tenth can be spent on madrasas) amounts to only $ 75 million. Almost 94% of individual charitable donations also go to religious institutions and causes. One of the most glaring findings on the assessment of AfPak strategy-2009, was the linkage of “Madrassa reforms” with the stability in the region.
From a counterterrorism perspective, Pakistan has focused its attention on the handful of madrassas in Pakistan that had well-established links to terrorism and promoting extremism in the country. Therefore, the centerpiece of our counterterrorism policies was to completely close down these dangerous militant groups and to sever their links with the madrassas. In addition to this, Pakistan has taken some meaningful measures to contain fanatical elements by introducing reform in the madarassas. Some of the key pledges are: Firstly, all madaris are being registered, secondly, introduction of unambiguous governmental curriculum; thirdly, to stop the use of mosques as centers for spreading politically and religiously inflammatory statements and publications; and lastly, establishment of model Madrassas that would provide modern and useful education. In fact, the whole purpose of this campaign was to combine Islamic teachings with rational sciences to train the Madrassa pupils to become lawyers, judges and administrators. The implementation of ‘Madrassa reform’ is difficult and tricky as it may face a lot of resistance from the opposition forces – being an Islamic state. The reforms of such an enormous proportion cannot meet success unless adequately funded by the western democratic organizations. The Government’s 1-billion dollar Education Sector Reform Assistance (ESRA) plan to ensure the inclusion of secular subjects in the syllabi of religious seminaries, and a 100-million-dollar bilateral agreement to rehabilitate hundreds of public schools by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) were discontinued due to non-availability of requisite funds. The ambitious plan included; to teach formal subjects in 8000 Madaris, introduce the subjects of English, Mathematics, Social Studies, and General Science in 4000 Madaris at primary level and English, Economics, Pakistan Studies, and Computer Science in 3000 Madaris at Secondary level, to provide computers/printers at Intermediate level in 1000 Madaris, and finally to improve quality of education by bearing cost of salaries, textbooks, stationery and sports etc.
To conclude, the issue needs to be approached with understanding, sensitivity and tact. Some of the suggestions to improve upon the madrassa reform programme are: a) Currently ambiguous lines of authority between the federal and provincial authorities and between Ministries (Ministry of Education, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Social Affairs, Auqaf) are creating an untenable situation. The Government should address under which ministry ‘madrasa governance’ comes into. Ministries (Ministry of Education or Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Social Affairs, Auqaf), b) Madrassa reform should be extended throughout the country – not limited to urban centres alone, c) Stringent controls on money laundering and hundi system to stem informal financial flows (through the financial intelligence Unit of SBP), d) Strict controls on madrasas and like institutions to publish their annual income, expenditure, assets, funding sources, audit reports, e) Organization of madrasas on sectarian lines perpetuates sectarian tension because promoting any sect invariably implies rejection of the other sect. The ‘Radd’ literature – the logical refutation of the belief system of other sects aimed at proving them apostates or infidels – is the main source of indoctrination with intolerance of any sect but their own. This feature is a strategic long term security threat as it promotes not only Sunni-Shia conflict but also the clash within Sunni sects like the Barelvi, Deobandi, Ahle Hadith/Salafi.

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