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Pakistan: The madressah riddle

Wednesday 1 December 2021, by siawi3


The madressah riddle

Muhammad Amir Rana

Published November 28, 2021 - Updated about 16 hours ago

THE state has yet to fully realise the sociocultural and political-economic inferences of religious education institutions or madressahs. Despite having long attempted to pursue the reform of this sector, successive governments have done little to change things on the ground mainly because of fear of a backlash and a reluctance to allocate resources. Those leading the madressahs have taken advantage of the persisting confusion and have continued to strengthen their roots and support among the people.

Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry delivered a bold speech during a consultative conference in Islamabad some days back and rightly identified the root causes of religious extremism in society. While he did not altogether exculpate madressahs, his statement that public schools and colleges were the major source of extremism, and not madressahs, did not tell the whole story. However, his claim that teachers were hired in schools and colleges during the 1980s and 1990s as part of a plot to teach extremism was correct. He appeared to be referring to the Jamaat-i-Islami and its subsidiaries, which were a major partner of military dictator Ziaul Haq in his goal of encroaching on educational campuses, sowing the seeds of religious extremism and recruiting for ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Read: Madressah reforms — breaking the cycle

The minister might have deliberately not mentioned the fact that Zia’s jihad project was a multifold initiative and nurturing madressahs was an integral part of it. Without focusing on madressahs, poor Afghan refugees could not be engaged in ‘jihad’. No doubt, the US and Saudi Arabia were major sponsors of this project, but Gen Zia allowed the mushroom growth of madressahs across the country as part of his Islamisation agenda and also in order to create his political constituency. The extremism promoted on educational campuses and in madressahs closed the minds of the youth, and madressahs ‘distinguished’ themselves through capturing the narrative-formation process.

Keeping the information minister’s speech in mind, it is useful to take note of a report by an international media outlet on Afghan madressah students demanding that the Taliban include science subjects in their curriculum; apart from advocating changes to the curriculum for girls’ education. Though the report is about a madressah in Paktia province, many experts have depicted it as a positive indication that sane voices such as these will gradually build pressure on the Taliban to accommodate their demands. One wonders if the Afghan Taliban, who were the product of Pakistani madressahs, can become a role model for the latter to bring about changes in their curriculum.

The state retains the Zia-era mindset and believes that madressahs aren’t the source of the problem.

Many madressahs in Pakistan are on the path of transformation and are offering science education to their students, but their numbers are not inspiring, and religious elites are also not ready to holistically revisit their education system. The reason is obvious: the madressah sector is catering to the financial and political needs of the religious elites as well. The institution of the madressah has become the primary political base for religious groups and religious-political parties, and continues to strictly adhere to its potentially explosive sectarian character. It is expanding and encroaching on the formal education sector and the state has failed to regulate the institution, despite its concerns and (half-hearted) measures.

The state has not come out of the Zia era mindset and still believes that the madressah is not the source of the problem, rather it is helping the state cater to the educational needs of the masses. Otherwise, the state would have to cut on other expenses to fulfil its educational obligations. The maximum concern the state could have about the madressahs is their possible links with terrorist groups and for that reason it might not want to antagonise the madressah establishment. In fact, state institutions have adopted the madressah elite’s narrative that the source of the problem lies with the public education institutions and not madressahs.

The supporters of the narrative allude to instances of terrorist violence committed by the radicalised youth of colleges and universities. Competition apart, one should not forget that madressah students and graduates have remained far more involved in terrorist activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Formal education institutions have not produced a fraction of the number of militants who enter the ranks of various national and international terrorist organisations which the madressahs belonging to different banned militant organisations have produced so far. It is true that until the mid-1990s, the madressahs’ human resource contribution to militant organisations was less compared to that of the formal educational institutions. The madressah institution was young at that time but then it took over the militant discourse in the country.

In recent decades, the state has made all-out efforts to make campuses apolitical, while the mad­ressah students remain politically and ideologically charged and vulnerable to be exploited for street protests and recruitment for military purposes.

The state has also failed to understand the equation between madressah, mosque, and school. Almost all mosques get their imams, or prayer leaders, from madressahs, who preach the same version of Islam they learned at their alma mater and influence the public in sectarian terms. An imam is a source of inspiration for the people, especially the lower-income groups that consult him for their spiritual and even physical health needs. A taweez (amulet) matters more to them than medicine as they may not have to pay for it. Secondly, more and more madressah graduates are now joining public education institutions as teachers and are influencing young minds in a variety of ways. The madressah mindset is at its full play in society and is responsible for promoting two major sociopolitical conflicts, which certainly have security implications: first, the sectarian divide, and second, ideological radicalism.

The madressah mindset is very conventional and takes any new idea of moderation as a conspiracy against its interests. So far, it has successfully resisted the state’s attempts at reform. However, the madressah leadership is aware of the evolving challenge of extremism. The conference that Mr Chaudhry addressed also had a dedicated session for religious scholars and they agreed that the sectarian divide is increasing in society and that the challenge of extremism will become more complex in the near future.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2021