Failure of madressah reform

Failure of madressah reform and its costs: In the national interest
By Kamal Siddiqi(The writer is editor reporting, The News)
The News, July 9, 2007

The Lal Masjid episode once again brings into focus the government’s attempts to reform madressah education in the country and its near complete failure in doing so. There is no argument over the fact that the curriculum taught in most madressahs is outdated and are largely irrelevant to present day Pakistan. The argument starts on what we should do about it. The government has one plan, the religious scholars have another.

As a result of the way they are run today and what is taught, those who graduate from these religious schools do not have any marketable skills except being readied to serve at mosques and religious schools. This is in contrast to the madressah education imparted some fifty years back or so which prepared students for entry into the mainstream education system and onto gainful employment.

The current education of exclusion makes those who graduate from religious schools frustrated and angry. This is not about terrorism. It is about thousands of young men and women who, due to the financial and social set up that they are born in, are being readied to serve only as religious teachers and assistants.

It is this point that should have been kept in mind when working towards madressah reform. Instead, what we see is a Western-led agenda, which paints all these madressahs as centres of terrorism and factories for producing suicide bombers.

And in this, what better role can the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa play than to confirm these fears? This episode, in which there have been no winners, has only made it more difficult for the government to focus on the issue of madressah reform in the Pakistani context and not what the west wants us to do.

The reality today is that despite high sounding promises and repeated claims, one can safely assume that the government has made little or no dent in the manner these schools are run, how they are funded and more importantly, what they teach.

No revision of curricula has taken place. There has been little or no effort to introduce what the government calls “modern subjects.” Attempts to merge madressahs with the mainstream education system have also been a failure. In other words, little has been done to make this system of education in sync with the mainstream system of education.

The failure has more to do with the government’s mixed signals and half-hearted approach in the matter. There is no focus as to what needs to be done. While the president says one thing, some of his ministers say another. Those ministers who have been inherited from the Zia cabinet have another take on the madressahs. Possibly because they have more of an association with them. But they talk about non-interference when the government should be working towards revising curricula at the schools.

In all this confusion, nothing much happens in terms of madressah reform. By all accounts, Islamabad has by far the highest number of madressahs per square kilometre in the country. It has 88 seminaries teaching 16,000 students. But what is it that we end up producing? Young men and women who cannot contribute to the labour force in any way. This is a tragedy for a country that needs as many educated people as it can get.

There is nothing wrong in having so many madressahs even in the capital city where the population is limited. These centres of learning are part of a larger informal social net that exists for the poor in Pakistan. But why is it that we insist that the poor remain the poor and the wretched as well?

Some say that it is this frustration that many have capitalised on. Some madressahs have gradually moved away from their core function of imparting education and have become, in some cases, centres for militant activity as is clearly seen in the case of the Lal Masjid.

This madressah confirms the worst fears of the west. It fits the image that the west has of these schools. At the same time, due to government inaction, it also takes away the focus from any meaningful madressah reform.

Now on to the madressahs in Islamabad and the Lal Masjid episode. While General Zia was a great patron of madressahs, seven seminaries were established in his time in the federal capital. In the time of General Musharraf, so far 14 have been set up. The militancy at some of these madressahs had come initially from state patronage. Now it comes from state indifference. Why do we have to suffer this?

Why are there different laws for different people? Hundreds have been arrested in Balochistan and other parts of the country on mere suspicion. However, some federal ministers argue on TV that the men of Lal Masjid should be allowed safe passage to a destination of their choice. This despite the fact that more than ten people died earlier this week when the men from the Lal Masjid men opened indiscriminate fire.

One needs to ask where have all the gas masks, guns and rocket launchers seen in the hands and on the heads of the Lal Masjid brigade come from. If a final analysis has to be done, it should ask questions like why no such arms and ammunition were discovered when the police raided the seminary two years back and gave it an “all-clean” chit.

Jamia Hafsa and the Lal Masjid saw its enrolment double in the past year alone. Why did so many students suddenly decide to come to this centre of learning? Did it have to do with the quality of education imparted here?

Our attempts at reform have been limited to knee-jerk reactions that are in response to events in the west. This month marks two years since police arrested over 100 clerics and students of seminaries during a countrywide crackdown launched for confiscating hate material and detaining elements sheltering militants.

The operation against “suspected militants” in different parts of the country was launched 12 days after the London blasts in which three of the four suicide bombers were said to be Britons of Pakistani origin who had visited the country.

And this is the story of madressah reform in Pakistan. It comes in fits and starts as a reaction to some development elsewhere for which the government is pressurised into doing something against the so-called religious extremists. Other than that, those in power are least bothered. But there is something to show anyone who asks.

There is a “model” madressah on the outskirts of Islamabad where foreigners are carted off and shown how much reform has been done. Girls dutifully tell visitors that they are taught science and “modern” subjects. However, reform means more than making foreigners happy.

The real sufferers of religious extremism as taught at some of these madressahs are the people of Pakistan. What is being done to allay their fears? Why can’t we reform the madressah education system to ensure that those who graduate from here are then taken into the mainstream system of education and onto gainful employment?

It may be recalled that in January 2002, President Musharraf announced a ban on five extremist groups and put another on the watch list “with a view to cleansing the society of terrorism, sectarian violence and intolerance.”

In the same breath, the president declared, all religious schools would have to be registered and they would not function without obtaining a no-objection certificate. This never happened. The government caved in to the demands of the religious group and backed off when it came to changing what is taught.

The bottom line is that what is taught at the madressahs today may not make the person a terrorist as the west would have one believe but it does not make him into a productive member of society either. When this realisation sets in, there is frustration and anger for the student. Others in turn use this for their gains. Such angry and frustrated young men and women become foot soldiers in a war they know little of.

In all this, there are many who want the status quo to remain. The government seems unsure on how to change this. In his speech in 2002, General Musharraf said that announcing decisions was an easy task but to implement them was a real issue. These were prophetic words. They echo even louder today.



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