Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Madrassahs in Islamabad

Capital madressahs By Tasneem Noorani
The News, May 08, 2008

We have been at the receiving end of some suicidal angry people who are convinced that this land is infested with infidels and lackeys of the West who need to be taught a lesson. The newly acquired weapon of suicide bombing is proving more effective, than the wildest dreams of the perpetrators.

There is a lull, as if these extremist handlers are watching the change in government, giving the new team time to settle in. Perhaps their intensity of discontent is tempered due to the hope that Musharaf and his policy may finally be on their way out. The recent spate of agreements with activists in Swat and Waziristan do indicate to them a change in the air and they perhaps think that the government has come around finally to take their own decisions rather than blindly take dictation from the West. But is this respite a sustainable one, or a lull before the storm?

The mosque where I go to say my Juma prayers, is located in the most posh part of Islamabad, I usually have children from the ages of five to 15 around me during namaz. Some so young and cute that you want to tweak their cheek and cuddle them. These are healthy and good-looking little things wearing white caps. Hailing from the NWFP or the Northern Areas, they are in Islamabad of all the places (better known for deals and extrajudicial takeovers) to learn Islam.

The Imam often uses the captive audience of the Juma devotees to invite one of the boys to do tilawat, in order to impress the audience with the good work he is doing and then ask for assistance to sustain his venture.

Now, these are children who are growing up, learning the Quran by heart, in a neighbourhood with which they have nothing in common. They see the luxury cars, well-fed and -clothed children, decked up aunties living in big houses who not only never invite them to their homes but, as a matter of fact, make a face to indicate that they wish these children never existed. The imam in all probability could not be speaking with a warm glow about the inmates of these posh houses. There is a complete mismatch. The poorest have been planted in the midst of the richest at an impressionable age. These children, after spending 15 or so years in these environs, will naturally feel they have a stake in the town, and at the same time resent the people who never accepted them all these years.

On the other hand, what the children are being taught in the mosque is only rituals and hardly the essence of Islam. They rock while they recite the Quran as loudly as their small lungs allow them to, without an idea of what they are reciting. The mental, educational and intellectual level of the imam is so limited as to obviate the chances of any educated child coming out of the mosque school.

Fifteen thousand or so madressahs exist in the country. More than seventy are located in Islamabad, most without any legal permission from the local administration.

The manpower that is coming out of such institutions is unlikely to find a regular job in the government or the private sector, because the graduate of the madrassa knows nothing but to recite the Quran and perhaps some history of Islam duly slanted to the sect the madrassa belongs to. The degree/sanad is unlikely to allow him to enter the job market. With the result that he has to strive to either "capture" a mosque or a madrassa or make one himself. Thus, we have a self-propelled mosque-/madrassa-proliferation system in place.

The government since 2001 has been trying to rein in the madressahs. Long negotiations have been held with the representative of the Wifaqul Madarris to induce them to register, to teach other subject besides Islam. A madrassa Education Board, I understand, has also been set up. Earlier, there was a scheme to set up a few model madressahs to show the existing ones how to become what the government expects them to become.

But to the best of my knowledge the impact of all these efforts is zero. Madressahs guard their independence jealously. They do not want any government interference. The government is mainly in the dark about the funding sources of most such institutions. The madrassa managers are not willing to share this information with the government at any cost. The government claims to have registered a large number of madressahs, but to what use that registration is being put to by the government is not known.

In Islamabad the madressahs are like Trojan horses. Thousands of children, who do not understand their surroundings and look at the citizens of the city with dislike and contempt at following infidel values, are growing up in the midst of this city. The unresolved story of the Lal Masjid is just the trailer.

No regular school in Islamabad is allowed to have a boarding house in residential areas. Madressahs are exempted. The harshness of the CDA is confined to regular schools, most of which are under notice to leave residential areas and relocate to special plots sold to them in special zones. No such scheme for the madressahs.

I have heard the new education minister, Ahsan Iqbal, saying his priority is to have a uniform education system in the country, as against the current elite English-medium along with the Urdu-medium government school stream. I wish him luck in this Herculean task that he has taken upon himself. I only hope he has also taken the merging of the religious education stream into the mainstream into account. We should be under no illusion: without mainstreaming the madressahs we are sitting on a ticking time bomb.

The writer is a former federal secretary. Email:

Also see:
Pakistan girls' school burnt down - BBC

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