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Madrasa Reform Is a Thorny Issue in Pakistan, As Religious Elements Strongly Oppose Any Government 'Interference'

By Frank F Islam

MAY 24, 2019

Pakistan has recently announced to mainstream its 30,000 religious schools known as madrasas in a long overdue move to curb militancy. According to spokesman of Pakistan’s military Major General Asif Ghafoor, these autonomous religious schools would be brought under state control. Under the reform agenda, modern sciences will be included in the curriculum of these schools and hate speech will be excluded from their existing syllabus.

The announcement is an important step for independent observers like me who have been advocating madrasa reforms in India for years. I understand madrasa reform is a thorny issue in Pakistan, as religious elements operating these schools strongly oppose any government “interference” in their affairs. However, it is also a fact that internationally these religious schools are often blamed for radicalization of youngsters and Pakistan is facing immense global pressure to act against militancy on its soil. The country is trying hard to get out of the grey list of Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog against money laundering and terror financing. The grey listing by FATF is adversely affecting foreign investment in Pakistan, which is already facing economic crisis amidst rising inflation and unemployment.

I firmly believe, it was extremely important for Pakistan’s new government to act strongly against militant organization and reform its religious schools. However, in his press conference the military spokesman clarified that out of 30,000 religious schools less than a 100 were found involved in any kind of militancy. These madrasas, he said, were serving millions of poor students who otherwise have no means to get any education. He said now these madrasas will continue to impart Islamic education but “there will be no hate speech,” As per the plan, Pakistan’s Ministry of Education will take over these religious schools and the government would pay for the madrasas by diverting cash to education from the cost of anti-terrorism security operations. “The benefit will be that when children grow and leave these institutions they will have the same career opportunities that those coming from a private school have,” the spokesman said.

“We want to end violent extremism in Pakistan and that will only happen when our children have the same education and opportunities,” Gen. Ghafoor said.

Madrasas provide an Islamic-centric education and in many cases an Islamic-only education. Literacy and knowledge are learned and interpreted through a religious lens. This creates a myopia, which retards a student’s participation and socio-economic integration into society at large

I have recently written an article for Indian newspapers emphasizing the need for modernization of Indian madrasas. In India, about 40,000 madrasas are operating across the country and 2-4% of students attend those schools. These madrasas tend to exist in the poorest neighbourhoods and regions where they are the sole source or the primary providers of education. The majority of the madrasas are independent operations rather than part of structured and organized network. That said, the single general core challenge that I see is that the madrasas provide an Islamic-centric education and in many cases an Islamic-only education. Literacy and knowledge are learned and interpreted through a religious lens. This creates a myopia, which retards a student’s participation and socio-economic integration into society at large. It does not equip them fully for life in this 21st century. I believe the situation is same in Pakistan and so are the remedies that are required to be applied.

The Remedies

In my view the most important remedy is to make madrasa curriculum diversified and balanced. There needs to be an emphasis on science, technology, and mathematics in the early years and there needs to be vocational and technical training that prepares the student for employment and advancement later in the schooling process. Another area that absolutely needs to be addressed is ensuring a progression to higher education because currently it appears that most of the madrasa students do not secure education beyond the primary level. In Pakistan, this issue will be resolved after the takeover by the Ministry of Education as Higher Education Commission (HEC) will be also taken on board in reforms process.

I understand there is traditional resistance to change among the administrator of madrasas in Pakistan. I believe, however, that some are willing to accept the idea of change while some are totally resistant to it. Now it depends on political will on the part of government to enforce reforms across all madrasas in the country. It is hoped the eventually the administration of these religious schools would cooperate with the government in the best interest of the students and country.

Barriers to Change

In my opinion, there are two main barriers. The first is the mindset of those running the madrasas. Many of them would have what I label hardened values, distorted views, attitudes, and beliefs. The views, values, attitudes and beliefs that were formed in their childhood have been reinforced by what they have learned and done throughout their lives. They see what they are doing as their calling. Thus, to change or to do something in a different way is extremely difficult.

The second barrier is the governmental failure to provide the necessary support to ensure quality education for all regardless of caste or creed or religion or belief. I read an interesting study about the Indian district of Mewat in Haryana State. The district is very poor area and where the madrasas provide most of the education for Muslims. In a survey, the poor residents of the Mewat District indicated they wanted their children to get a modern education and would send them to English medium schools to acquire scientific and modern knowledge if given the opportunity. Interestingly, the study showed that 8 madrasas of the 77 in Mewat were teaching modern courses. This is evidence that if the proper leverage and resources can be brought to bear the citizenry and some in the madrasa community would advocate for and accept change.

Aligarh Muslim University (AMU)’S Initiative

I have spoken and written extensively about the need for education for those in the weaker sections – especially for females and those in rural areas. One of the groups I addressed on this topic was the Duty Society of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). They have a strong focus on this area and are committed to making a difference.

I recently learned that AMU also has a bridge course to enable madrasa graduates to join graduate courses at the university. The course curriculum includes English, information technology, and human development to prepare those students to transition from a purely secular and isolationist education to one that is more robust and integrative.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the Pakistani government’s fresh move is highly commendable. But this is not the first time Pakistan is trying to reform madrasa education. Successive governments in past had tried to modernize and mainstream madrasa education but all failed owing to strong resistance from religious parties and lack of political will on the part of these governments. One can only hope that this time around Pakistan would finally be able to successfully transform its madrasa education system. This would not only bring a positive change in Pakistan’s society but also improve the global and national perception of these religious schools.

Frank F Islam is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington DC