By Muhammad Tahir Iqbal
January 24, 2015
Whenever there is talk of purging the country of terrorism, the debate on the role of religious seminaries picks up steam. Most members of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have been students of these seminaries, and so, building the premise on this reason, these seminaries are termed incubators of violent extremism.
After the Peshawar carnage, visible efforts are being made to bring reforms in seminaries which have been deemed nurseries for the breeding and nurturing of extremist elements.
The “Madrasa Scapegoat” by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey openly challenges this general perception about the alleged role of religious seminaries. The research states that out of 79 terrorists involved in attacks in New York, Africa, London and Bali, only a few had ever been to seminaries; many of them had university degrees. The writers further opine that a complex kind of awareness with technology coupled with modern warfare tactics are needed to execute the organised terror plots which the simple folk of these madrasas may lack in.
If you go for this argument, you find doctors, engineers and the elite besmeared with extremist ideologies. Recently, a practicing surgeon of the UK with Pakistani origin joined the ranks of Jamat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Pakistan. Adnan Rasheed, a hardcore terrorist, is from another class; and Faisal Shahzad hails from an elite one.
There are three stages in the evolution of these madrasas in Pakistan: pre-Soviet war, post-Soviet war and post 9/11. These three stages spreading over three different eras carry three different ideologies.
The Pre-Soviet era never posed a problem or concern for local and international players. At the time of independence, there were 137 madrasas in Pakistan. During Ayub Khan’s reign, an Auqaf department was set up to regulate shrines and seminaries. A series of reforms were introduced to bring these seminaries under state control so as to keep an eye on their funds, syllabus and enrolment procedures. The proposals were strongly resisted by the religious leaders and thus failed to be implemented.
It was under Zia’s rule that religious seminaries increased exponentially. It was for the first time that the madrasas received the soft pat and patronage of the state in complicity with America in a bid to prepare the whole brigade of religiously charged people. An ideology was indoctrinated in the students of these madrasas that the sacred duty called upon them to join the holy war in order to dash down the enemy. Special books were published by the Centre of Afghan Studies in the University of Nebraska-Omaha with American funding aimed at promoting militancy. Basic Math was taught by counting dead Russians and Kalashnikov rifles. Over 13 million copies were distributed in Afghan refugee-camps and madrasas on Pakistani soil.
The problem started when these books continued to be read by students of these seminaries even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. There was no visible enemy now, but the zeal and enthusiasm of jihad remained. Now, the US became the target, as it started to carry out its well-crafted design in the aftermath of the extinction of the bi-polar world. The Middle East was the first to get embroiled in this craft woven by the new world order. The US turned out to be the enemy of the Muslims in this emerging scenario. The ripples of the anti-US effect also reached the well-covered tents of these madrasas where the students were already hunting for an enemy. So the next holy war would be initiated against the US.
It was at this stage that the US, being the sole superpower, started having concerns about religious seminaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan where the hatred against the new enemy was boiling. Alarm bells began sounding till 9/11 befell.
In the post 9/11 landscape, the element of hatred against the enemy redoubled with the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. So the madrasas were seen as institutions involved in promoting dangerous ideas against the West.
This was the phase where Pervez Musharraf ruled Pakistan. Being pressurised by the US, he tried to regularise and register the madrasas through the Pakistan Madrasa Education Board, something which was robustly opposed by the right-wing religious parties; most of them were in power under the umbrella of MMA.
The third ideological transformation of these madrasas took place when the guns were straightened towards the state of Pakistan because it was a front line ally in the war on terror. With this ideology to wage a jihad against the Islamic state of Pakistan, a group of militants rose from the federally administered areas of Pakistan. The group was named Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in 2007.
Madrasas made national headlines because most terrorists fighting against Pakistan were graduates of these institutions.
The situation became worse for madrasas when their ideological affiliations with the terrorists hiding in the remote hills surfaced. All the while, terrorists insisted they had the moral support of prominent religious leaders who clandestinely justified their armed struggle against the state of Pakistan. Layers of ambiguity kept unfolding till there emerged the kinds of Maulana Abdul Azeez who never flinch from exposing their support to these groups.
Some of these seminaries turned out to be sleeper cells which provided logistical support to terrorists in urban areas. The role and character of the seminaries became clearer until the incident at Peshawar wreaked havoc, leaving policy makers with no option but to take up an extensive operation so as to counter this ideology which prepares people to wage holy wars.
I daresay, many madrasas are miles away from the ideology that makes or facilitates terrorists. But in order to come clean, they must present themselves for an audit. It would rid most of them of the impression which generally pervades about all seminaries. For a common cause to save this country from the mindset that justifies the killing of children, they must come forward and play their role in order to negate with cogency the wrong interpretation of Islam.
Muhammad Tahir Iqbal is a lecturer at Punjab Group of Colleges, Lahore.