The madressah factor

Published February 22, 2015
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

PAKISTAN’S madressah sector is increasingly being seen as a critical factor in the pervading insecurity in the country, particularly after the announcement of the National Action Plan. The fact is reflected in the decision taken by the Islamabad administration to close madressahs situated near Parade Avenue for one week on the eve of the March 23 military parade. According to media reports, the decision was taken on the advice of intelligence agencies.

Meanwhile, the government is making only half-hearted efforts to reform the madressah sector which also lack the required security perspective. It has yet to convene meetings of the two madressah reform committees set up by the federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, last month.

Those at the helm of madressah affairs are well aware that the state has no vision, policy or strategy to deal with them. The government does not even have an authentic database or account of religious schools in Pakistan. Fully exploiting this gap, the madressah administrators and clergy are providing an exaggerated account of madressahs in the country. They have recently revised their previous claim of 22,000 to tell us that there are 40,000 madressahs in Pakistan.

A study of education and militancy in Pakistan, conducted by the Washington-based Brookings Institution a few years ago, found that there is a small proportion of students who attend religious seminaries full time. It argued that as madressahs account for only a tiny fraction of student enrolment, they can hardly pose a major obstacle to high-quality education and stability in Pakistan. According to the study, government schools still cater to 64-67pc of education requirements, though the quality of education is poor. Meanwhile 29-33pc children study in private schools and only 7pc are enrolled in madressahs. Some religious scholars estimate the total number of madressahs in Pakistan, including those with fewer students, as being not more than 10,000. The study, however, did not find any specific link between militancy and the madressah sector in Pakistan.

The state has no vision, policy or strategy to deal with the madressah sector.

It is interesting to note that the madressah sector attracts huge amounts of charity compared to its size. Where does this money go? One answer is that these funds are helping the madressah sector ‘encroach’ upon the mainstream or formal education sector. A few religious parties and big madressahs have established what they call ‘modern Islamic schools’. It is not clear if the government conceives the mainstreaming of madressahs in a similar manner.

While we know a lot about ghost schools in Sindh, there is no attempt to investigate the madressahs that only exist on paper or whose signboards we see along the highways. Indeed, there are many ghost madressahs in the country that are only used by ‘unknown’ people for the purpose of raising funds.

The expansion of the madressah sector in Pakistan has followed two distinct patterns. Large madressahs are located in commercial and industrial zones of the country, while comparatively smaller ones are situated along the main highways. Easy availability of funds is the obvious attraction offered by these locations. Most madressahs along major highways are located near bus stops or small highway suburbs, and these make announcements asking for donations all day long. As far as foreign funding to madressahs is concerned, a major chunk of it goes to the big madressahs chains. Therefore, it is not difficult for the state to track the foreign sources of funding to madressahs.

Despite all the hype about the increase in their numbers, madressahs face challenges in terms of enrolment. The number of local students is still low even in big madressahs. Madressah students mainly hail from poverty-stricken or conflict-hit areas of the country.

Another aspect of the madressah sector is its exploitation by the religious elite who tend to use madressahs as their political constituency and source of strength and power. The religious elite resist any action against madressahs, in the belief that it will create resentment and build internal pressure on them.

Interestingly, although they give an impression that there is complete unity and harmony amongst them at the institutional level this is not true. One example is the attempts at internal reform in madressahs, which have not been a smooth and uniform process. Madressahs are like private enterprises with their principals or administrators exercising a great deal of freedom and authority. Even their respective educational boards, or wafaqs, cannot intervene. The educational boards are responsible only for holding examinations in the affiliated madressahs.

Madressahs deem themselves to be the protectors of Islam, or at least their own brand of Islam. They disagree with the notion that they are encouraging extremism in any form. In a survey conducted by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, 79pc of madressah teachers denied any link between madressahs and extremism and emphasised the distinction between militant seminaries and ‘normal’ madressahs. Of the respondents, 8pc believed that some madressahs played a role in promoting extremism but also pointed out that such seminaries were close to the government and even received support from the West. Even those that identified extremism as a real problem refused to acknowledge that madressahs play a role in promoting it.

The madressah sector poses diverse challenges ranging from insecurity and sectarian violence to education and social transformation of society. But the government is unclear about what to do about this sector of education, which evidence links to many security-related problems. No one even knows who is responsible for oversight of the madressah sector: the interior and religious affairs ministries try to put the ‘burden’ on each other. After the 18th Amendment, education has become a provincial subject. But most provinces have not come up with relevant legislation, while those which have, have ignored madressahs.

The provinces have to take up the responsibility, and evolve strategies for maintaining a database on madressahs, managing the registration process, mainstreaming the madressah sector and introducing curriculum reforms. Security is also a provincial subject, and they must be more vigilant on this front and develop a better monitoring system for the small fraction of madressahs linked to terrorism.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn February 22nd , 2015

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