Madrassa Reforms going Nowhere

The News, July 1, 2005
Madrassah reforms?
Arif Jamal

Despite repeated public pledges to reform the madrassah education notwithstanding, little has been done to end the culture of hate that many madrassahs tend to inculcate in their students. The government had promised to end its culture of extremism and hate towards the nation and the international community, but has failed to bring about even cosmetic changes. Thus, many madrassahs continue to spread negative thoughts in society without any challenge from the state. With even the occasional official outbursts against madrassahs having become less frequent, madrassahs are likely to continue proliferating and pushing the society towards more extremism in years to come.

Resistance from this sector resulted in the government quietly abandoning its much-publicised package of reforms, the Deeni Madaris (Voluntary Registration and Regulation) Ordinance, 2002. It even backtracked from the single most important clause of the ordinance that required madrassahs to register themselves under this ordinance; in June 2004, Islamabad asked the provinces to continue registering the madrassahs under the colonial law known as the Societies Act no XXI of 1860.

The government project of setting up non-sectarian model madrassahs could not get off the ground for lack of cooperation from all quarters. The government has now apparently decided not to open these new model madrassahs. Meanwhile, there is confusion about what it intends to do with the faulty, sectarian model that exists. The failure to set up model madrassahs should teach the government that madrassah education is inherently sectarian and that its efforts to create non-sectarian madrassahs are unlikely to succeed.

What the government has succeeded in doing is to considerably reduce the number of foreign students in these madrassahs, one of the foremost demands of the United States. Foreign students are required to fulfil a number of conditions before they get admission to a Pakistani madrassah, thus making it fairly difficult for them to attend these seminaries. Intelligence agencies are believed to keep a strict watch on students who do somehow get admission. This is perhaps why the West has reduced pressure on Pakistan for reforms in this education system.

The government has dragged its feet on its pledges to reform the madrassah education system apparently for two reasons. First, the religious right remains its political ally against the relatively democratic forces led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Second, it does not want to open up another front. The gulf that appeared in the alliance between the government and the religious right has been bridged to a great extent. Many vocal madrassahs leaders such as Qari Haneef Jallundary of the Wifaqul Madaris have been co-opted.

Ironically, the madrassahs spreading the culture of hate and extremism are partially financed by the Pakistani taxpayers' money, and what most of them are producing is hordes unemployed maulvis who believe in securing a place in heaven by killing other people, including fellow Muslims whom they consider to be outside the pale. The Pakistani state has invested billions of rupees in madrassahs since General Ziaul Haq turned them into nurseries of his supporters to train mujahideen for jihad in Afghanistan over a quarter of century ago. Since then, the state has continued to shower all kinds of favours on madrassahs, no matter who headed the government in Islamabad.

Madrassahs have now been promised millions of rupees if they include what are called "contemporary subjects" in their curriculum. This promise has been made on two assumptions. The first is that the madrassahs do not want to teach the "contemporary subjects," and the second is that the "contemporary subjects" will reform madrassah students and wean them away from extremism. Both assumptions are based on lack of knowledge on the part of the decision-makers in Islamabad and elsewhere.

Contrary to popular beliefs, most madrassahs prefer to admit those students to their eight-year Dars-i-Nizami programmes who have already studied at least eight grades, or done their matriculation from the supposedly secular schools. Many provide facilities to younger students to study the state-approved curriculum and pass their secondary school or matriculation examinations. If they do not, it is mostly because of the lack of funds.

The second assumption is equally fallacious. There is evidence that the so-called secular curriculum is also replete with hate sentiments and extremism.

A number of religious teachers and leaders have studied in universities and some have even done their Ph.Ds. I have often heard in the madrassahs that "contemporary subjects" make them better maulvis and jihadis. Madrassah education impresses most students who study both at the "secular schools" and madrassahs. In a nutshell, if the government were to give them money to include "contemporary subjects" in their curriculum, they would be getting money to do exactly what they want to do anyway.

Madrassah reforms have failed so far primarily because there is widespread sympathy among the Pakistani decision makers for the supposed role these institutes play in society. It is commonly thought that the madrassahs spread literacy. The assumption may be true, but nobody questions the cost of spreading such literacy to society. Madrassahs produce literate but parasitic citizens who are inherently handicapped, and cannot perform any duties other than rituals. They are not productive citizens and most of them live on handouts from society.

The Afghan jihad opened one more area of employment for madrassah students. In the process, the mujahideen introduced violence into Pakistani society as well, which consequently led to the creation and growth of violent sectarian organisations such as the now banned Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan.

Underplaying the role of madrassahs in the increasing sectarian violence, the then Federal Minister for Religious Affairs, Mehmood Ahmed Ghazi, said in June 2002 that only one percent of madrassahs were involved in any kind of violence or militancy. According to this admission, 110 out of approximately 11,000 registered madrassahs are involved in some kind of violence. But the government is not known to have taken action against any one of them either; thus encouraged their products continue to carry out violent attacks on others.

The madaris argue quite justifiably that they produce maulvis and not doctors or engineers. That is, madrassahs produce maulvis just as medical colleges produce doctors and engineering universities produce engineers. No matter how much money they receive from the state or other sources, they will continue to produce maulvis; it is unrealistic to expect anything else. Moreover, they will continue to do so, as long as they keep receiving financial and human resources.

The best policy to combat violence originating from madrassahs is to open new schools with the money that is usually doled out to the seminaries, so that there are alternatives for children who are sent to madrassahs for education because of the absence of other schools. This may not completely snuff out the ongoing sectarian violence, but it is the first necessary step towards fostering sectarian harmony in society.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.

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