Sitting at a tea stall near Jamia Farooqia, a seminary in Karachi’s Shah Faisal Colony, a group of five young students discuss the current issue of madressah reforms.
One of them is Mansoor Abbasi, a 26-year-old student of the seminary, who feels that the government wants “to shut down all the madressahs in the country at the behest of the US and foreign-funded NGOs”. The others nod their heads in agreement.
In response to the Dec 16 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, the government has announced a National Action Plan (NAP) to fight terrorism and militancy. The plan includes the registration and regulation of madressahs and a committee has been formed to meet the wifaqs of different madressahs to reach a consensus.
But the Ittehad-i-Tanzeemat-i-Madaris-i-Deenia (ITMD), a coalition of five wifaqs (Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl-i-Hadith, Shia and Jamaat-i-Islami), have come out strongly in defence of the seminaries. Supporting them are religious political parties, especially the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F).
Mufti Munibur Rehman, who heads the ITMD alliance, says that the madressahs will not “tolerate any negative propaganda and agenda against the madressahs”. He headed the Jan 3 meeting of the coalition at the Jamaat-i-Islami’s central office in Lahore and says that the government should consult the ITMD leaders regarding the action plan and take them into confidence about any issues related to madressahs.
It is not the first time that the madressahs federation has voiced opposition to government attempts to regularise them. In fact, the ITMD was formed in 2004 in opposition to retired Gen Pervez Musharraf’s introduction of the Pakistan Madressah Education Board in 2003.
Meanwhile, security analysts believe that this is not the right time to address seminary reforms. Muhammad Amir Rana, an Islamabad-based security expert, who also attended the meetings of the working group for the establishment of the NAP, says that religious parties and seminaries of different sects become united whenever the government tries to impose any kind of control over them. “The working group has recommended to the government to examine the connections of different madressahs with militancy,” says Rana. He adds that the government should “push the seminaries managements to provide assurances that their teachers and students would not be involved in any sort of terrorism”.
Rana points out that madressahs provide political, social and financial support, as well as manpower, to religious political parties, the key reason why they always unite to stop government intervention in madressahs matters. “They do not want to lose their strength,” Rana says.
This time, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman is leading the campaign to oppose attempts to regulate madressahs and is trying to build a larger alliance of religious parties and wifaqs to pressure the government. Mufti Muhammad Naeem, who heads the Jamia Binoria Al-Alamia in Karachi, says that Rehman represents all five major wifaqs and they “support his struggle”.
Commenting on federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Khan’s statement that 10 per cent of the madressahs are involved in terrorism, Naeem says that those madressahs should be exposed. “We will support the government action against them,” he says.
Liberal political parties and civil society organisations are in agreement that seminaries should be reformed. “They impart extremist and violent sectarian ideologies catering to militant movements and feed armed conflicts,” says Afrasiab Khattak, an Awami National Party leader and part of the NAP committee.
Some Shia and Barelvi groups are also demanding action against madressahs involved in militancy but point out that there should be no restrictions on madressahs that are not. Allama Amin Shaheedi of the Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen says that Chaudhry Nisar should identify the seminaries associated with militancy. “It is a fact that some madressahs have turned into militant training centres and prepare young students for suicide attacks,” says Shaheedi.
Interviews with seminary teachers and religious scholars suggest that following the announcement of NAP’s formation, law enforcement agencies started collecting information such as connections of teachers, management and students with religious and jihadi groups and their funding sources from seminaries. They insist that in the last five years, all major wifaqs have directed their seminaries to keep an eye on students and teachers for involvement in militancy.
“Forget about the past, now almost all seminaries have been asking students and teachers to sign affidavits that they would not become part of any religious, sectarian and jihadi groups,” says a teacher at Jamia Farooqia, requesting anonymity. He adds that they had expelled a number of students for violating the instruction and “are not responsible for acts by any students who have graduated”.
However, he agrees that some seminaries associated with banned jihadi and sectarian groups are not under the influence of the wifaqs.
Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2015