By Zeeba T Hashmi
May 15, 2015
The attack on Ismaili commuters on a bus in Karachi, which has so far claimed 44 precious lives and injured dozens, is the tragic face of today’s Pakistan where minorities have no protection. It also brings into question why such an incident — though not the first of its kind — had to take place. Jundullah has claimed responsibility for the attack and pamphlets were found at the scene of the crime. In the pamphlet, the attackers have expressed their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). Whatever the forensic evidence leads us to, the motive for this heinous crime is clear: religious intolerance and bigotry. Karachi, in this case, is home to many religious seminaries, some of them run by the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a banned outfit among the many hardliners that have emerged in Karachi over the years. It is believed that the ASWJ has re-surfaced in Karachi to break the control of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other jihadist organisations but the tomfoolery of using seminaries to quash the dominance of others is going to cost us greatly because seminaries function on the principle of exclusiveness and assertiveness of their righteousness and moral authority, meaning those not conforming to their ideologies are inherently their enemies.
One recent but rare and much-needed exchange between politicians and religious parties has ignited a new discourse in power circles about the viability of siding with seminaries. The National Action Plan (NAP), instrumental in restricting the seminaries has been much opposed by religious parties. Before that, in 2002, during the days of Musharraf, there had been an attempt to regularise the seminaries but it never materialised despite the fact there was a pressing need for it. The issue is jargoned in the complexity of political and social implications, so much so that it is no longer easy to see things in black and white, widely so because the state has used seminaries for its own strategic purposes. Whatever policies the state undertook in the past have tragically been met with a backlash, leaving the authorities confused about dealing with this monstrous situation of militant madrassas.
It is important to know that the seminaries here are not a recent development as commonly perceived. The roots of madrassas date back to the colonial days when there was a general Muslim distrust in the British system of governance. They set up their seminaries in reaction to the discriminatory and even oppressive policies of the Raj. They were also the ones heralding against the British when the great rebellion arose in 1857, but it failed. They remained active ever since, hardened their roots with radical Islamic ideologies and created a legacy as such. Mainly following the Deobandi school of thought, religious madrassas exist in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh but the problem is more prevalent and serious in Pakistan unlike in India or Bangladesh and there are multiple reasons for this.
Around 60 percent of all madrassas follow the Deobandi school of thought. The rest of them belong to the Salafist and Wahhabi schools of thought, and an estimated four to 10 percent belong to the Shia sect. As I have mentioned earlier, the earlier formation of madrassas here was a militant reaction to British colonialism, hence it carries an essence of violence or jihad against imperialist elements. Who do they consider to be imperial forces? Anyone, in their view, that represents the west or its policies, which they feel are geared towards them. In that, they even hold the state in contempt for siding with the west in the war on terror.
Let us also not forget how they were further militarised in the 1970s and 80s. Ziaul Haq sold the nation to US interests by initiating the madrassa business; many of these seminaries were also used by the Saudis as proxies against Iran. In reference to today’s Pakistan, where we have witnessed a lot of political manoeuvring and international alliances, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, madrassa growth has mushroomed.
The tables turned with 9/11 when Pakistan was left with no other option but to fight the militants it had bred as proxies. The religious parties vehemently opposed this and considered the US to be a threat. The madrassas, under the direction of their leaders, started blaming the US and its western allies for culturally invading their ideals by force and accusing everybody with humanist ideologies to be western agents and enemies of Islam.
Though it would be wrong to assume that all madrassas are violent, the presence of the streak that abhors anything it considers against the ideals of its version of Islam carries a dangerous potential of violence and bigotry. In a situation where there is no weapons control in place and there exists a militant mindset, seminaries can be used as jihadist recruitment centres to counter the government’s measures to curb terrorism. Not only that, the number of students these seminaries hold is also of great concern as they find themselves incapable of co-habiting with an economically active society. They have no other way to earn a livelihood as they are not vocationally trained. Hence, for them, survival depends on the survival of the seminaries from where they can perpetuate and project themselves in society. This is a factor that the state must look into to detract further recruitments by these seminaries.
There is a need to study closely how these seminaries act to recruit their students and what income class these students belong to. The menace of seminaries has grown out of proportion. There is an urgent need for the state to take control of the situation; unless this is done, Pakistan stands at the brink of self-implosion.
Zeeba T Hashmi is a freelance columnist and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org