The Madrassa Controversy...

Daily Times, November 19, 2005
COMMENT: The madrassa controversy and dilemma —William B Milam

For a government that hopes (it says) to guide Pakistan towards “enlightened moderation,” as well as to ensure that Pakistan and its people prosper in the globalised world economy, reforming the curriculum and teaching methods in the madrassas is not an option; it is an imperative

The daily press, both in the US and in Pakistan, brings an unending string of sad and tragic stories about the earthquake and its aftermath. From here in Washington, one can only sympathise with the victims — indeed with all of Pakistan — and try to help through various charities. To get a respite from the inexorable tide of those grim events, I turn to my favourite bi-weekly (as distinct from daily publications like Daily Times), The New York Review of Books, the most recent edition of which arrived by mail at my new abode a few days ago.

I moved residence a few months ago which meant that I missed a few editions of this publication. However, in the latest edition — December 1, 2005 — the first article I came across was called “Inside Madrassas” by William Dalrymple. It is an excellent article, though it did not cheer me up.

Although Dalrymple mentions, here and there in the article, madrassas in other Muslim countries, the focus is Pakistan’s madrassas. Pakistan, according to Dalrymple, is in the unenviable position of being the Islamic country in which madrassas are numerous and dominant in the educational structure. One might say that it is a role model — though this is not a role that should be coveted by leaders whose policy aim is “enlightened moderation.”

Though I have done a bit of research on Pakistan’s madrassas for the book I am writing, I do not consider myself an expert on them. In my non-expert view, Dalrymple’s article seems quite objective and balanced. He makes a number of points that Pakistanis and the friends of Pakistan in the West will find unexceptionable, though worrisome. For example the strength and dominance of the madrassas in the Pakistani educational system; and their counterpoint, the virtual collapse of public education in Pakistan which makes madrassas one of the two alternatives for schooling. He doesn’t mention the other alternative, private schools, which may not be an alternative for the poor. He recites the dismal literacy and school attendance figures.

None of this will surprise Western readers, or provoke much controversy among those who know Pakistan. What may prove more surprising to Westerners is Dalrymple’s discussion of the relationship between madrassas and the global terrorism network of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda look-alikes. He largely discounts the links between madrassas to that noxious movement. On the “intellectually shaky theory” that madrassas are “little more than Al Qaeda training schools”, he pours copious quantities of cold water. (The quotes are from the article.)

He points out that many Pakistani madrassas reflect hard-line Islamic thought that evolved in the South Asian Subcontinent in reaction to the British deposition of the last Mughal Emperor in 1858. Madrassas reflecting that stripped-down and narrowly scriptural strain of Islam have spread in the last 50 years, and particularly since 1980, with the help of Ziaul Haq and the Saudis. The curriculum of many of these madrassas emphasises rote learning. Geometry from Euclid and medicine from Galen is taught, as if there have been no advances in these disciplines in two millennia. Some of these madrassas even continue to stand by the Ptolemaic universe.

Madrassa graduates, for the most part, leave school with a focus on fostering proper Islamic behaviour at home but few technical skills for making them employable in the modern, globalised world or useable by modern terrorist organisations — that have carried out the highly sophisticated attacks on Western targets such as the Twin Towers, the Madrid train station, the London Underground, US embassies in Africa, and the USS Cole. Almost all the perpetrators of these horrific acts came from secular backgrounds and had received modern (and often Western) technical training.

Dalrymple does not exculpate madrassas from direct links to Islamic radicalism or from the different kinds of social pathologies it fosters. There are madrassas (about 15 percent, he says) which preach violent jihad, some which support civil violence (such as the sectarian conflicts that bedevil Pakistan), and some that churn out soldiers for the jihads in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

He misses — or perhaps does not emphasise — one important point, however. Pakistanis, and Pakistan’s friends, should not heave a large sigh of relief because Pakistan’s madrassas are not directly connected to Al Qaeda’s terrorism. Their dominance is still inimical to Pakistan’s best interests. As Dalrymple writes, “Few [madrassas] make any effort to prepare their students to function in a modern, plural society.”

Apart from the economic and social consequences of this crippling deficiency — uncompetitive economy, radicalised religious belief, growing intolerance — the political consequences are increasingly clear, and the Islamist parties are not shy in publicising the political benefits that they see accruing to them. “[T]he political transformation our madrassas are bringing about is having a massive effect on the future of Pakistan,” is the way one Islamist party spokesman put it to Dalrymple.

There are madrassas that are more modern in their curricula and their teaching methods. But they are a tiny minority. They should be role models for the rest, but there is little sign from afar that the government has the nerve or the footing to tackle madrassa reform seriously. Not only is it now on the defensive for its laggard and feeble response to the earthquake, but the contrast with the rapid and efficient response of jihadi organisations has put it at even more of a disadvantage vis-à-vis the madrassas.

That is the dilemma. The madrassas are the only alternative for education of the poor because Pakistani governments for 58 years have failed in their obligation to provide education to the Pakistani people. Until and unless the public education system is restored, the madrassas are the only alternative.

Yet restoring the education system — which is in a shambles — will take a generation, at least. Therefore, for a government that hopes (it says) to guide Pakistan towards “enlightened moderation,” as well as to ensure that Pakistan and its people prosper in the globalised world economy, reforming the curriculum and teaching methods in the madrassas is not an option; it is an imperative.

William Milam is a former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC

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