IF the ulema belonging to the various schools of thought have really agreed to accept a regulatory mechanism for their madressahs and also changes in their curriculum there is good reason to celebrate the development — although one hopes that the government is not misreading the situation.
Before the ulema sat down with the ministers of interior and religious affairs last Saturday to discuss matters relating to the madressahs they issued an edict against suicide bombings and denounced war against Pakistan as un-Islamic. Whether this decree represents an honest change of heart on the part of the ulema and whether they did not consider it expedient to stay aloof from the people’s resolve to fight the extremists, only time will tell.
A resolution of this kind was nevertheless necessary at the moment at least to counter Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s quaint plea for avoiding any reference to religion while thinking of dealing with terrorism. Any concession to the JUI-F chief on this point would have amounted to rejecting evidence about the identity and objectives of many a militant group. There is no need to emphasise the lesson the world has learnt, that while all Muslims do not indulge in terrorism, many of the terrorist formations openly claim to be carrying out their religious duty.
However, this fatwa has less meaning than the accord that is reported to have been reached between the government and the ulema.
According to media reports — and it would have been better to release the text of the agreement so that ordinary citizens could check whether any side was reading more into it than what the text warranted — the ulema have agreed to compulsory registration of all madressahs. This should mean that nobody will be allowed to open and run any seminary without registration.
Much will depend on what new conditions for registration/recognition are going to be because 35,337 madressahs, out of a total of 43,586, or more than 80pc, are reported to be already registered and yet they have been outside any regulatory system.
It is reasonable to expect that before registering an institution the competent authority will satisfy itself about the sponsors’ bona fides, as to whether they are an association recognisable under the law, whether they are answerable to a body and to the community at large, and whether their capacity to manage an educational institution can be objectively verified.
More important than registration is the madressah organisations’ readiness to accept the principle of regular audit of their accounts and to receive foreign funds only through official channels. While democratic elements and rights activists are unlikely to allow the government unlimited power to interfere with the receipt of foreign funding by educational institutions a system of documenting all transactions should be put in place. This will go a long way towards guaranteeing supervision of the use of foreign parties’ philanthropy.
Madressahs must be ready to accept the principle of regular audit of their accounts.
What the government has pledged the ulema in return needs a closer look because in the past religious parties gained more at the cost of the government than what they appeared to concede to it. The madressahs have been assured that no action will be taken against anyone without concrete evidence of its having violated the law. A strange promise since action on the basis of solid evidence of unlawful action is supposed to be the rule regardless of the identity and status of the party at the receiving end. Or is it a wrong assumption?
Two joint committees (ulema, federal and provincial governments’ representatives) will be set up, one to decide upon registration formalities and the other to propose curriculum reform. Reference has been made to an understanding on deleting from the madressah courses material that contributes to militancy or causes hatred among different communities.
The agreement on joint committees to develop a supervisory mechanism or approve curriculum reform suggests extension of state-public partnership to religious seminaries and one should like to see this principle extended to stakeholders in other fields.
Matters could improve considerably if lawyers, medical practitioners, academics, engineers, farmers, labour leaders and other civil society organisations too were considered entitled to meaningful consultation before laws and policies affecting them were finalised. It is also necessary to ensure that the facility offered to the seminaries does not obstruct efforts for a thorough revision of the place of madressahs in the country’s educational system.
It is perhaps time to define the role of madressahs. During the colonial period the madressah offered Muslim children the facility of instruction in religious matters that was not available at public schools. The madressah thus supplemented the scheme of educating the young ones. For that purpose the madressah is no longer needed, for study of religion is compulsory in all state and private institutions.
If the madressahs constitute a parallel system of education then the rationale for their existence and unchecked proliferation needs to be scrutinised. What after all is expected of the madressah graduates? What are the possibilities of their being employed on jobs that promote the public weal? Has anyone ever estimated the number of madressahs and their graduates this country needs or can afford?
The production of seminary graduates in a greater number than the country’s capacity to offer them proper assignments will create enormous problems. Nobody can say where a large horde of jobless seminary graduates will be landed by their ambition, inclination and frustration.
Finally, there is much to be said in favour of looking at madressah reform not merely in the context of the war against terrorism but in the broader context of the need for reorganising the entire education sector. Thanks to the flawed curriculum and the distortions in the textbooks the state sector is perhaps creating more militants than the madressahs.
The demand for reforming the management of public education and the curriculum, particularly for offering students in all institutions a narrative about rationalism, tolerance, pluralism and peace can no longer be resisted.
Published in Dawn January 22nd , 2015