By Dania Ahmed
July 8, 2015
In Pakistan, certain madrasas have a knack for producing terrorists. The government is aware of this yet it does not have a consistent stance regarding such madrasas. After the Peshawar school attack in December, the government made it a priority to regulate madrasas, but when the information minister, Pervaiz Rashid, spoke out against them last month, not a single member of government publicly supported him.
This conflicting treatment did not happen overnight. Fundamentalism in Pakistan can be traced back to Former Prime Ministers Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia ul Haq who wanted to ‘Islamicise’ the state. Zia’s 1979 education policy highlighted the priority to reorganise the state curricula around Islamic thought, which still permeates the textbooks used today. This is inconsistent with founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s dream for Pakistan: all citizens, irrespective of their faith, should be treated as equals. On the contrary, Islamisation has empowered radical mullahs and enabled certain madrasas to fuel extremist ideology.
In 1947, when Pakistan was created, there were only 189 madrasas; there are now an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 madrasas in Pakistan educating an estimated 1.8 million to 3.5 million children (exact numbers don’t exist as not all madrasas are registered). An estimated 10 to 15 per cent of madrasas are affiliated with extremist religious or political groups but as per the government, only 3 to 4 per cent have links to terrorism.
The majority of madrasas follow the Deobandi doctrine of Islam — an orthodox Sunni school of thought heavily influenced by Wahhabism. Most organisations that adhere to Deobandi — Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Majlis-e-Ahrar, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Taliban — have been proven to be part of terrorist activities.
Pakistani author and physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote:
Madrasas are the most accessible source of education for many children, especially families in rural areas where public schools, if they exist at all, are under-resourced and under-staffed. Madrasas provide families with a solution; they often feed and house the students and tend to be free of cost. Even the 9/11 Commission found that many madrasas are “the only opportunity available for an education”. The state’s inability to provide accessible education to the general public is the crux of the problem.
Examination of madrasa curriculum incontrovertibly reveals intolerance and speaks volumes about the direction that Pakistan is headed. Instead of studying math, science, writing, and reading comprehension, students spend large portions of their days memorising religious materials, chanting war songs, and venerating the state. Religious doctrine even permeated the traditional material students did learn — science, geography, English, Urdu. A US diplomat commented saying:
“Children [at radical madrasas] are denied contact with the outside world and taught sectarian extremism, hatred for non-Muslims, and anti-Western/anti-Pakistan government philosophy.”
Such madrasas, teaching a distorted version of Islam, indoctrinate children to discriminate against non-Muslims, raising children to classify non-Muslims and Muslims outside their sects as Kafirs (infidels), Mushrikeen (pagans), Dhimmis (non-Muslims), Murtids (apostates), and enemies of the state. As a result, many of these madrasas produce graduates who lack critical and analytical thinking and are intolerant to others; graduates who go on to become Maulvis who issue irrational Fatwas and spew hate speech against minority groups.
Islam is a religion of many sects and exposing children to only a narrow mind-set strengthens the breeding ground for future intolerance and an endless cycle of sectarian violence. This problem runs deeper than sectarian violence; it impacts all minority religious and ethnic groups as well as the majority of Pakistan. Militant madrasas have educated Umar Mansour, the mastermind behind the Peshawar school massacre, as well as Taliban apologist and hate speech aficionado Abdul Aziz.
How can Pakistan tease out the religious biases so deeply rooted in its society when many madrasas perpetuate them? Attempted many times, madrasa reform remains a myth. The government has taken little action to regulate madrasas linked to terrorism. The 2006 Madrasa Reform Project aimed to reform 8,000 schools by integrating a balance between formal and religious education and expanding curricula to include the teaching of social and hard sciences, religious tolerance, and human rights. Only 6.3% of the targeted madrasas were reached. In 2008, the education ministry reported it had only spent $4 million of the allotted $100 million for madrasa reform over the past six years. There has also been talk of a “madrasa reform committee” but little has been said about implementation.
One of the clauses from the National Action Plan (NAP) that debuted in December states:
“The registration and regulation of seminaries (madrasas) is being planned.”
And just this month, the Sindh government stated it will crackdown on 48 madrasas involved in terrorism. It may sound like progress is being made but these madrasas that have been reached are only a few of the thousands of madrasas that exist.
Thus far, any substantive, permanent reform has yet to occur. Government authorities hesitate to take action out of fear of backlash from religious authorities, and as a result, have institutionalised the madrasa system. Rubina Saigol, an education expert, said:
“I have been arguing for the longest time that in fact our state system is the biggest madrasa.”
But in order to end extremist indoctrination, stop the spread of sectarian violence, and counter Pakistan’s narrative of violence, the state must provide proper alternatives to madrasa education and regulate the curriculum. By devoting more money and resources to the education system, Pakistan can break its path of extremism and violence. Without these critical reforms, Pakistan is nothing more than an fundamentalist state that does not protect its minorities — a far cry from Jinnah’s founding vision.
Dania Ahmed is a media analyst on counterterrorism and counternarcotics strategies for Pakistan. She is graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University.