January 28, 2021
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An Education In Failure

Seven years after its inception, the Madrassa Reform Project has been an unambiguous failure. The state lacks both the will and the capacity to dismantle this radical network.

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An Education In Failure

The madrassa (religious seminary) has long been a principal component of the supply chain of Islamist extremism in Pakistan. Most much-publicised but altogether half-hearted attempts at fixing this problem have inevitably failed, substantially for want of any real commitment to reform. The Pakistani madrassa, consequently, continues to provide foot-soldiers for the jihad in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere in India, as well as in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theatres of Islamist extremism and terrorism across the world.

Successive governments, both at the federal and provincial levels, have announced reforms of the madrassa system to bring them at par with the mainstream education system. These have, however, inevitably run into a dead-end, as they come up against opposition from the various organisations controlling the seminaries, as also because of the lack of any serious intent within the administration.

The Wafaq-ul-Madaris, Pakistan’s main confederacy of seminaries, which runs over 8,200 institutions, has been at the forefront of opposition to madrassa reform, along with the Tanzeemaat Madaris Deeniya and Tanzim-ul-Madaris Ahle Sunnat. The ulema (religious leaders) claim that the reform process is intended to curb the ‘independence and sovereignty’ of madrassas and is, consequently, not acceptable. A majority of the seminaries source funds from local businessmen, domestic and foreign religious foundations, charities and the Pakistani Diaspora. With financial independence and enormous social and political power, seminaries in Pakistan are entirely unwilling to accept any oversight by the government.

Most of the officially estimated 15,148 seminaries (unofficial estimates range between 20,000 and 25,000, with some approximations going up to as much as 40,000) in Pakistan, with an enrolment of about 1.5 million students, have squarely rejected tentative reform proposals – essentially requiring the registration of madrassas and the maintenance of accounts, including records of domestic and foreign donors, as well as the teaching of ‘secular’ subjects as part of the curriculum – initiated by the government in 2003. They maintain that the proposed reforms are a conspiracy to secularise or de-Islamize the education system at the behest of the United States.

Among the objectives of proposed reforms is to register, regularise and supervise the operation of madrassas within the ‘mainstream’ education system, and to introduce a more secular and modern curriculum. In the national capital Islamabad itself, however, at least 18 seminaries have, according to reports on September 10, 2009, outright refused to register themselves with the government, claiming that they will cooperate only if they are contacted through the madrassa body, the Tanzim-ul-Madaris. 

Official sources told the Dawn that 122 madaris or religious schools have, however, been registered with the capital's District Administration. The Deputy Commissioner of Islamabad, Amir Ali Khan, stated that he had directed the Auqaf Department to invite representatives of the 18 openly non-compliant religious schools for a meeting to persuade them to register, since there is no existing law through which the government can force religious schools to do so. In fact this has been the story with many an attempt at seminary reform over the years. Absent a system of penalties, there is not much that the state can do. For the record, the Jang reported on June 18, 2009, that the government had discovered that there were 260 seminaries in Islamabad, out of which at least a dozen were altogether illegal.

Saleem H. Ali of the University of Vermont, in an empirical study of madrassas in Pakistan (under a grant from the United States Institute of Peace), conducted a survey of every single madrassa in one district of rural Punjab, Ahmedpur, and found that only 39 out of 363 surveyed madrassas were registered with the government. This study also found evidence of a link between a large number of seminaries and sectarian violence, particularly in rural Punjab. Analysis of Police arrest data for sectarian attacks between Shias and Sunnis clearly shows that "sectarian activity in areas of greater madrassa density per population size was found to be higher, including incidents of violent unrest." Furthermore, the number of madrassas has increased over a ten year period by around 30 per cent, and in some areas they are competing with government and secular private schools for enrolment.

In the Punjab province, there is currently an impasse between the Auqaf and Education departments and administrators of five seminary bodies on the issue of constituting religious boards on the pattern of the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education. Office bearers of the five establishments, including Tanzim-ul-Madaris (Barelvi), Wafaq-ul-Madaris (Deobandi), Wafaq-ul-Madaris (Shia), Wafaq-ul-Madaris (Ahle Hadith) and Rabita-ul-Madaris (Jamaat-e-Islami), are insisting that they be given the status of a secondary board to conduct exams by themselves and issue certificates/degrees equivalent to Matriculation/SSC (Secondary School Certificate) without any government interference. The government had offered to allow the seminaries to continue issuing their own certificates of religious education like Dars-e-Nizami, Hafiz Quran and Nazra, The Nation reported. However, the government has demanded that students of these seminaries also study subjects like Mathematics, English and Pakistan Studies, and appear in the respective proposed boards for SSC at par with the students passing examinations in government and recognised private schools. The government has "also offered teachers’ employment in accordance with government standardised scale in the three subjects along with computer labs. It has also agreed that the appointment of teachers will be made in consultation with the proposed religious boards."

The consolidation of radical madaris, however, continues apace. A report in London’s The Telegraph stated that the proscribed Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) has acquired a 4.5-acre compound outside Bahawalpur city in Punjab province in addition to the madrassa named Usman-o-Ali inside the city. While the local authorities acknowledge that the group has "spread out of the city, they deny that the new acquisition is anything more than a cattle farm to supply milk to the Jaish seminarians." The city, with a population of 408,395 (1998 Census) and counting, already has an estimated 1,000 seminaries. Bahawalpur, where the JeM is headquartered, has for years been "a centre for ideological indoctrination and terrorist planning due to its isolation." The Daily Times reported on September 14, 2009, that the group "openly runs an imposing madrassa, Usman-o-Ali, in the centre of the town, where it teaches its extremist interpretation of Islam to hundreds of children every year." 

Jaish's new compound, approximately five kilometres outside Bahawalpur at Chowk Azam, on the main road to Karachi, is much larger, The Telegraph has reported. It said there is evidence "it could contain underground bunkers or tunnels, adding that it has a fully-tiled swimming pool, stabling for over a dozen horses, an ornamental fountain and even swings and a slide for children – contradicting claims by the group and Pakistani officials that the facility is simply a small farm to keep cattle. On the inside walls, extremist inscriptions are painted, including a warning to "Hindus and Jews", with a picture of Delhi's historic Red Fort." Unsurprisingly, the local administration (Bahawalpur also has a huge cantonment) has chosen to overlook the issue. Mushtaq Sukhera, the Regional Police Officer for Bahawalpur, while confirming that both facilities belong to the JeM, claimed that "there's nothing over there except a few cows and horses... No militancy, no military training is being imparted to students (at Usman-o-Ali)," he said, adding, "There is no problem with militancy (in south Punjab), there's no problem with Talibanisation. It's just media hype." Some security personnel, however, were quoted by Daily Times as stating that the new facility is a "second centre of terrorism" designed to complement the existing Jaish madrassa in the middle of Bahawalpur.

Having failed over the decades to strengthen the mainstream education system, governments are now declaring that the madrassa system is doing great ‘social service’ by providing free education to more than 1.5 million students in Pakistan, articulating the dangerous viewpoint that there is no alternative to the seminary system, both in terms of its large reach across the country and the state’s own failure to generate adequate financial and other resources for a secular and modern education system.

The failure at reforming the seminary system and the state’s inability to have a secular pedagogy also has to do with Pakistan’s power structure. It is the feudal-cleric bloc which wields enormous power and patronage across the country and this bloc has an entrenched vested interest in persevering with an education system which supports extremism and militant violence. In addition, the articulation of Pakistan’s identity in terms of an exclusivist and dogmatic religious state has, over the years, consolidated the system of madrassa education.

In July 2009, the Pakistan government informed the United States that it would not close the madrassa system of education in the country, and it has become a habit for regimes in Pakistan to whine about the lack of money for social sector reforms. However, there is now increasing evidence that Pakistan clearly lacks intent to reform a system of education that essentially teaches a brand of Islam which produces suicide bombers and militant youth. The Federal government has virtually shelved a US-aided, multi-million dollar plan to reform seminaries considered nurseries of terrorism, as it has failed to garner the support of clerics. The government had initiated the project in 2002 in an attempt to introduce a secular curriculum in the seminaries. The project sought to introduce computer skills, science, social studies and English into the predominantly religious curriculum at thousands of madrassas across Pakistan. "We had a huge budget of Rs. 5,759 million (USD 71 million) to provide madrassa students with formal education but we could not utilise it," Education Ministry spokesman Atiqur Rehman disclosed. The government has failed to meet the target of reforming around 8,000 seminaries within five years. "We reached 507 madrassas only, spending Rs. 333 million and the rest of the [money] – Rs. 5,426 million – has lapsed," Rehman said. "The Interior Ministry held talks with various madrassas... but many of them refused to accept the government’s intervention," said Mufti Gulzar Ahmed Naeemi, a senior official of the Sunni clerics’ alliance, the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat.

There is a school of thought in Pakistan which fervently believes that, since government schools have not had any comparable measure of success with nation-building, and since there is also a severe ‘resource crunch’, madrassas, which purportedly fill a social void by offering free education and sustenance for the vast majority of the poor in the countryside, need to be engaged and also encouraged. The state appears to have no immediate interest in diminishing recruitment into the seminaries and has, on the contrary, decided to engage with the madrassa system, without any process of internal reform, to take advantage of its vast physical and financial infrastructure. That these schools are also the base of an intense radicalisation of impressionable minds is knowingly ignored.

For long considered a nursery for the global jihad, the madrassa system in Pakistan is closely linked to the country’s foreign policy objectives in Kashmir and Afghanistan, which have dominated the country’s historiography since its creation. Attempts to control or neutralize the growing threat from this supply line of extremism would undermine an entire spectrum of Islamists in their present positions of power, their memberships of the national Parliament and State Assemblies, and their influence across the countryside.

The failure of madrassa reform has also a great deal to do with fear. The feudal-clerical elite (with considerable help from state agencies) have captured a great deal of grass-root support and, more ominously, linkages – indeed controlling interests – in many of the jihadi groups. There is a latent threat that too hard a push release even greater terrorist violence than is already manifested across Pakistan.

The central problem of curricular reform has been ignored for decades in Pakistan. Instead of pluralistic interpretations of Islam, an exclusionary doctrine is taught in most of the seminaries. These doctrines, Mustafa Qadri opines, have developed to the extent that "today the more fundamentalist, puritanical views of Salafist Islam, while not inherently synonymous with extremism, are the most organised, vocal and hence powerful religious voices in Pakistani politics and society. They have historically been the greatest apologists for Taliban violence, especially during their rule in Afghanistan before September 2001."

Seven years after its inception, the Madrassa Reform Project has been an unambiguous failure. While there is certainly resistance and even confrontation at the ground level, ambivalence and a reluctance to implement the reforms dominate the state’s agencies and initiatives. The collapse of the seminary reform project is a clear indication that the power of the extremist infrastructure across the country has not diminished in the post 9/11 era, and that the state lacks both the will and the capacity to dismantle this radical network. 

Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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