By Muhammad Amir Rana
23 Feb, 2015
PAKISTAN’S Madrasa sector is increasingly being seen as a critical factor in the pervading insecurity in the country, particularly after the announcement of the National Action Plan. The fact is reflected in the decision taken by the Islamabad administration to close Madrasas situated near Parade Avenue for one week on the eve of the March 23 military parade. According to media reports, the decision was taken on the advice of intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, the government is making only half-hearted efforts to reform the Madrasa sector which also lack the required security perspective. It has yet to convene meetings of the two Madrasa reform committees set up by the federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, last month.
Those at the helm of Madrasa affairs are well aware that the state has no vision, policy or strategy to deal with them. The government does not even have an authentic database or account of religious schools in Pakistan. Fully exploiting this gap, the Madrasa administrators and clergy are providing an exaggerated account of Madrasas in the country. They have recently revised their previous claim of 22,000 to tell us that there are 40,000 Madrasas in Pakistan.
A study of education and militancy in Pakistan, conducted by the Washington-based Brookings Institution a few years ago, found that there is a small proportion of students who attend religious seminaries full time. It argued that as Madrasas account for only a tiny fraction of student enrolment, they can hardly pose a major obstacle to high-quality education and stability in Pakistan. According to the study, government schools still cater to 64-67pc of education requirements, though the quality of education is poor. Meanwhile 29-33pc children study in private schools and only 7pc are enrolled in Madrasas. Some religious scholars estimate the total number of Madrasas in Pakistan, including those with fewer students, as being not more than 10,000. The study, however, did not find any specific link between militancy and the Madrasa sector in Pakistan.
The state has no vision, policy or strategy to deal with the Madrasa sector.
It is interesting to note that the Madrasa sector attracts huge amounts of charity compared to its size. Where does this money go? One answer is that these funds are helping the Madrasa sector ‘encroach’ upon the mainstream or formal education sector. A few religious parties and big Madrasas have established what they call ‘modern Islamic schools’. It is not clear if the government conceives the mainstreaming of Madrasas in a similar manner.
While we know a lot about ghost schools in Sindh, there is no attempt to investigate the Madrasas that only exist on paper or whose signboards we see along the highways. Indeed, there are many ghost Madrasas in the country that are only used by ‘unknown’ people for the purpose of raising funds.
The expansion of the Madrasa sector in Pakistan has followed two distinct patterns. Large Madrasas are located in commercial and industrial zones of the country, while comparatively smaller ones are situated along the main highways. Easy availability of funds is the obvious attraction offered by these locations. Most Madrasas along major highways are located near bus stops or small highway suburbs, and these make announcements asking for donations all day long. As far as foreign funding to Madrasas is concerned, a major chunk of it goes to the big Madrasas chains. Therefore, it is not difficult for the state to track the foreign sources of funding to Madrasas.
Despite all the hype about the increase in their numbers, Madrasas face challenges in terms of enrolment. The number of local students is still low even in big Madrasas. Madrasa students mainly hail from poverty-stricken or conflict-hit areas of the country.
Another aspect of the Madrasa sector is its exploitation by the religious elite who tend to use Madrasas as their political constituency and source of strength and power. The religious elite resist any action against Madrasas, in the belief that it will create resentment and build internal pressure on them.
Interestingly, although they give an impression that there is complete unity and harmony amongst them at the institutional level this is not true. One example is the attempts at internal reform in Madrasas, which have not been a smooth and uniform process. Madrasas are like private enterprises with their principals or administrators exercising a great deal of freedom and authority. Even their respective educational boards, or wafaqs, cannot intervene. The educational boards are responsible only for holding examinations in the affiliated Madrasas.
Madrasas deem themselves to be the protectors of Islam, or at least their own brand of Islam. They disagree with the notion that they are encouraging extremism in any form. In a survey conducted by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, 79pc of Madrasa teachers denied any link between Madrasas and extremism and emphasised the distinction between militant seminaries and ‘normal’ Madrasas. Of the respondents, 8pc believed that some Madrasas played a role in promoting extremism but also pointed out that such seminaries were close to the government and even received support from the West. Even those that identified extremism as a real problem refused to acknowledge that Madrasas play a role in promoting it.
The Madrasa sector poses diverse challenges ranging from insecurity and sectarian violence to education and social transformation of society. But the government is unclear about what to do about this sector of education, which evidence links to many security-related problems. No one even knows who is responsible for oversight of the Madrasa sector: the interior and religious affairs ministries try to put the ‘burden’ on each other. After the 18th Amendment, education has become a provincial subject. But most provinces have not come up with relevant legislation, while those which have, have ignored Madrasas.
The provinces have to take up the responsibility, and evolve strategies for maintaining a database on Madrasas, managing the registration process, mainstreaming the Madrasa sector and introducing curriculum reforms. Security is also a provincial subject, and they must be more vigilant on this front and develop a better monitoring system for the small fraction of Madrasas linked to terrorism.
Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst.© Dawn