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Pakistan Lukewarm Efforts to Take Up the Counter-Extremism Fight Are Compounding the Madrasa Challenge

By Muhammad Amir Rana

01 January 2017

THE state’s lukewarm efforts to take up the counter-extremism fight are compounding the madressah challenge. It neither realises the scale of the challenge, nor has any clue about the problematic contours of these institutions of religious education. It perceives madressahs as a security challenge and wants to respond through curriculum reforms.

When state institutions fail to understand the nature of a challenge, they tend to propose old, traditional solutions. The same is happening in the case of madressahs. Introduce English language, mathematics and computers in madressah curriculums and that will transform the institutions. This is what the interior and religious affairs ministries recently proposed.

A review of initiatives taken under the National Action Plan to reform madressahs indicates how the state is dealing with the issue. Those spearheading NAP attached priority to regulating madressahs and gave the task to the federal interior ministry. Initially, the interior minister formed two committees for madressah regulation under his supervision. He also assigned madressah leadership the task of preparing a counter-narrative that could alienate the militants.

After holding a few meetings with madressah leaders, he shifted the ‘burden’ of regulating and reforming madressahs on to the National Counterterrorism Authority and does not appear to have inquired since about the counter-narrative project, even though religious leaders submitted an initial draft on an urgent basis. However, Nacta and the Ittehad Tanzeemat Madaaris Pakistan (ITMP), an umbrella organisation of different madressah educational boards, have prepared a new form for madressah registration. Copies have been disseminated to the provincial governments and federal security agencies for their input. This was as much as Nacta could do; implementation does not fall under its jurisdiction.

It is not known whether it was a result of its understanding with the ITMP, but the government nevertheless closed 254 unregistered and suspicious madressahs in the country. Sindh took a more proactive role and introduced the Sindh Madressah Registration Bill, 2016. The bill encompasses all issues that require to be addressed by NAP concerning seminaries in Sindh.

Meanwhile, KP has allocated funds of Rs300 million for the Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak, a madressah known for its affiliation with the Taliban and other radical groups. The provincial government claimed the madressah administration had promised to introduce reforms. However, experts disagree with the approach of funding madressahs in the hope of reform. No seminary has been given any grant by the federal government since 2002. Meanwhile, Punjab remained reluctant to take any major initiative on the madressah front.

These measures are not enough for regulating or mainstreaming religious schools; instead, they are making the issue more complex. All these actions are based on security-related perceptions of madressahs. Madressah educational boards are also not happy with government policies and the slow pace of reforms.

The madressah challenge in the country is three-fold. First, as discussed earlier, is the security, which is the state’s primary concern. The registration process — a major solution espoused by the state — can only help in identifying the topography of the religious schools in the country but it cannot completely resolve the problem.

Certain madressahs provide ideological and logistical support to the militant groups, and it is the security institutions’ job to be watchful of all the gray areas and spaces from where the threat can emanate, without discriminating along religious lines. Then there are madressahs which belong to different banned militant outfits. The government should include them in a separate category and deal with them through the mechanism — if it has any — with which it deals with the banned organisations.

The second aspect of the madressah challenge entails regulation of madressahs, ie to oversee the growth of religious schools and bring them under administrative control. This is a critical area too. Madressah leadership has remained sceptical of the state, believing it wants to control madressahs on behalf of foreign powers. Vested interests of religious-political and madressah leaderships are also a hurdle in the way of such regulation.

The madressah is a political support base for religious and sectarian political parties in the country and they do not want to compromise on this issue. They counter state efforts by pointing out the poor quality of the formal education institutions, but they overlook not only the poor educational standards of religious schools but also ignore the fact that formal education institutions are under administrative controls and are not nurturing certain political and sectarian tendencies among their students. 

The third and most important aspect of the challenge is linked to education, which gets the least attention. The state’s approach to curriculum reform is confined to introducing a few subjects in madressahs. The major objective of madressah education is to produce prayer leaders, preachers and teachers. It has never claimed to generate the scholarship to deal with modern-day intellectual challenges.

This division can be seen in the Deoband and Aligarh traditions, where Sir Syed Ahmed Khan emphasised the development of an educational system according to the need of the time while Deoband insisted on preserving religious values and tradition in the Indian subcontinent. There were a few attempts to merge both traditions but they did not gain traction among the Muslims. However, a reflection of this tradition can be observed in the modern religious schools set up by the Jamaat-i-Islami, Minhajul Quran and other religious organisations in Pakistan.

A positive development is that a gradual change is happening in the religious schools and they are accommodating formal education in their system. Many madressahs in urban centres also offer formal education and many university-level madressahs have made formal education compulsory to obtain admission there.

The state must deal with the madressah issue with full vigilance and adopt a step-by-step approach. Initially, it should come up with a policy of registration, which binds madressahs to provide compulsory formal education for certain hours a day. The registered madressahs would not have permission to set up any new branch without registering afresh. The provincial governments should introduce a mechanism to check that madressahs are not offering any out-of-syllabus refresher courses against a particular religion, sect or community. In return, the government should offer financial and administrative freedom to religious schools.

Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst.